Grocery store workers and others around the country labeled as “essential” during the COVID-19 pandemic are asking for better pay and protection while the crisis continues.
“On any given day, these workers have to deal with thousands of customers per day,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Commercial Food Workers (UFCW) union, which represents 900,000 grocery workers and 250,000 meat packers around the country.
He added many of the companies these employees work for are not enforcing mask wearing or social distancing protocols in store. As of Wednesday, Perrone said 10,000 UFCW workers had become sick with COVID-19, with 65 of them dying from it.
“And that does not include those working for companies like Amazon, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, because they don’t report their numbers,” Perrone said.
During the height of the pandemic, when quarantine measures were put in place, many businesses offered their essential employees extra pay, sometimes called “hero” pay or “hazard” pay. Perrone said many of those are ending the pay now that regulations are being lessened, but he added employees are still at risk.
He added the pandemic has revealed two Americas emerging.
“There are those who can work from home, and those who can’t,” Perrone said.
“Getting ready for work is a whole new ordeal,” said Steven Braun, a 13-year worker at Kroger in Columbus. He added his work requires him to wear a mask and take other precautions.
“I’m willing and happy to comply just to make sure I’m protecting the community and myself,” Braun said. “When you get appreciation pay, you feel you are the essential employee they say you are.
“When Kroger announced they were going to take it away I felt less so,” he added.
Braun said he wasn’t looking for monetary gain, but to feel “appreciated.”
Other Kroger employees said they would like company officials to enforce safety regulations. Perrone added those officials don’t want to risk angering customers and so leave it to employees to enforce.
Kristine Holtham, who works at Kroger in Lansing, Mich., said early in the pandemic customers politely accepted free masks offered upon entering the store. She added she wears one 8-10 hours per day while working, and she knows they are uncomfortable.
“Wearing a mask has become a political issue,” she said. “Employees are scared to ask customers to wear one.”
She related a story where she asked a male customer to wear a mask, and he refused. She said she asked him to consider her health and reconsider.
“He turned and looked at me and said, ‘I don’t give a damn about your health,’” Holtham said.
She said she has since stopped asking customers for fear of what may happen.
Perrone said a worker in another grocery store had his arm broken during a confrontation with a customer about wearing a mask.
“We’ve been pushing these companies for security guards in the stores,” Perrone said. “The employees are not management, the customers don’t see them that way, and they shouldn’t be responsible for enforcing regulations.
“If these large companies feel the threat is passed, then they should say that publicly,” Perrone said.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is working on legislation that would extend the amount of time workers have to take legal action against companies that violate labor and employment laws and put employee lives at risk.
He added U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has said any future stimulus or relief package needs to include language that shields companies in the case of their employees getting sick.
“Workers and consumers need protection from corporations, not the other way around,” Brown said.
“The president issues an executive order telling meat packing workers to get back to work, but offers nothing about protection for them,” Brown said.
“I see these corporations running feel good ads thanking their workers, but they don’t need that, they need pay and protection,” Brown added.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is also working on language he would like included in any next relief or stimulus bill that would reward people going back to work.
As part of previous legislation, Congress passed a provision that gives workers that become unemployed as a result of COVID-19 an extra $600 per week in unemployment pay. For those making $50,000 or less at their job, this payment, combined with normal unemployment, often means they make more not working than they did at their job.
Portman is suggesting unemployed people receiving the extra pay be allowed to continue to receive at least some of that if they go back to work.
“I think we should look at it as a bonus,” Portman said. “If you go back to work, you can take some of your bonus with you. It’s good for small businesses, because they get their employees back, and it’s good for the workers.”