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Grocery store workers call for more safety protections

Posted at 5:55 PM, Apr 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-13 18:24:04-04

WMAR — They're working hard to keep stores open so you can buy food and other essentials but today, grocery store workers are calling for more protections and an end to careless customers.

"This is real for us. It may sound strange to say but we are on the front lines every day," said Jane St. Louis.

She has worked at the Damascus Safeway for 27 years and said this pandemic has changed everything.

"We are seeing more customers than ever before. Traffic has never been higher and that scares us when some customers don’t do what’s necessary to keep everyone safe," said St. Louis.

She said one of the biggest problems is customers not wearing face masks or practicing safe social distancing, causing anxiety and fear among her co-workers.

"We worry about your health and we also worry about the health of other families too," said St. Louis.

"There’s definitely careless customers and I’d say that the careless customers are probably the biggest threat that we have right now," said Marc Perrone, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).

The UFCW estimates that 30 union members have died from COVID-19, and nearly 3,000 UFCW food and grocery workers have been directly impacted by COVID-19.

The estimated number of deaths and exposed workers is based on reports from UFCW local unions and includes those who have tested positive for COVID-19, missed work due to self-quarantine, are awaiting test results, have been hospitalized, or are symptomatic.

Perrone announced several measures the union is taking, calling for more protections for customers and workers.

"I honestly believe that someone needs to step up to the plate and say if you’re going to go to a food store, then put a mask on and put on gloves," said Perrone. “The coronavirus pandemic represents the greatest health and safety crisis that America’s grocery and food workers have ever faced. Since the beginning of the outbreak, these workers have been on the front lines of this terrible pandemic. While tens of millions of Americans were told to work from home for their safety, grocery store and food workers have never had that option. More must be done to protect them and our food supply now," said Perrone.

In addition to mandatory guidelines, UFCW wants to see grocery workers designated as first responders to ensure they have access to testing and personal protective equipment (PPE).

"Grocery and food workers lack PPE either because the employers can’t find it or because the employers have refused to purchase enough of it," said Perrone.

Several chains, including Safeway and Kroger, are taking aggressive steps, including shortening store hours to provide more time for cleaning and restocking, installing Plexiglas partitions at check out lanes and adding floor decals to promote social distancing.

The UFCW wants to see these steps taken industry-wide as the spread of COVID-19 continues.

"We can’t afford to see grocery stores shutting down or works becoming too sick to work," said St. Louis.

The other issues they want to see addressed have to do with pay; paying workers who are home sick and hazard pay for those still working.

"Our protocol is if anybody feels like they are starting to get sick, even if it’s a common cold, they stay home for 3 days. If they have a fever they have to stay home for 2 weeks. Everybody is going by that even though they’re not really getting paid," said St. Louis.

UFCW also launched a new national campaign, entitled #ShopSmart, to target American grocery shoppers and is in response to the growing number of food and grocery workers exposed to the coronavirus.

“Grocery workers are deeply concerned. The fact is that this pandemic represents a clear and present danger to our nation’s food supply and all grocery store workers. The “Shop Smart” campaign will help save lives by making clear that all members of the public can take key safety steps to help protect these workers and each other from the coronavirus,” said Perrone.

To highlight the growing concern of food and grocery workers, the UFCW also released results from a survey of more than 5,000 grocery and food workers (sample of 5,000 UFCW members/1 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence level).

The key survey results, which are included below, highlight the real fear and concern of food and grocery workers, and the need to take a more dramatic series of action to protect workers.

Customer Support for Workers
29 percent said customers treated them somewhat poorly or very poorly.

Top Customer Safety Issues:
85 percent said customers are not practicing social distancing.
81 percent said customers are hoarding supplies or groceries.
62 percent said customers are blaming employees for shortages
43 percent reported instances of customers shouting at employees

Safety Priorities for Grocery Stores:
When asked what grocery stores should do to improve customer safety and treatment of workers:
72 percent supported a limit on the number of customers in stores
49 percent supported stores banning unruly customers
41 percent supported stores hiring more security
26 percent supported stores hiring more workers to meet demand
23 percent supported advertisements with customer safety tips

UFCW is the nation's largest food and retail union representing over 900,000 grocery workers.