Retailers, Union call on policymakers, CDC to strengthen safety standards for grocery employees

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty
Source: Getty

Related tags coronavirus COVID-19 Kroger Albertsons Grocery stores

Kroger is adding its voice to the growing chorus of industry stakeholders asking elected officials to designate all grocery employees as ‘extended first responders’ and ‘emergency personnel’ to ensure they are protected and have access to healthcare during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

In an April 14 joint statement with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Kroger explains that it has “taken significant steps to keep Kroger associates safe and reward them for their incredible sacrifices throughout this ongoing crisis,”​ but it adds, “the truth is more must be done and it must be done now.”

Giving grocery employees, who already have been designated as essential, temporary status as first responder or emergency personnel would ensure that they have priority access to personal protection equipment, like masks and gloves, and are prioritized for testing during the pandemic, according to Kroger.

The call comes as the number of grocery employees who have died from COVID-19 surpasses at least 30, according to UFCW, which estimates nearly 3,000 UFCW food and grocery workers have been directly impacted by COVID-19 as of April 13.

While temporary first responder and emergency personal status would help protect at-risk grocery workers, Kroger points out that this “urgent call … is also about protecting the customers they serve and our nation’s food supply in general.”

Indeed, when employees test positive for COVID-19 many grocery stores must close – sometimes for several days – for deep cleaning, which hinders the larger community’s access to food and contributes to waste of perishable items at a time when stores are struggling to keep shelves stocked.

Albertsons launches safety campaign with UFCW

Kroger’s call to action joins that of Albertsons, which partnered with UFCW April 7 to make the same request in a full-page ad in the New York Times.

In the ad, Albertsons and UFCW ask that supermarket employees nationwide temporarily be designated as emergency personal to ensure they “get the protection they need”​ at a time when many are required to shelter in place.

Albertsons adds in the open letter that it has instituted several additional safety measures for employees, including installing plexiglass protection at cash registers, establishing in-store social distancing guidelines, enhancing sanitization, increasing sick leave benefits and adding $2 per hour extra in “appreciation pay to recognize the hard work of front-line associates.”

UFCW calls on CDC to institute stronger safety measures

While Albertsons, Kroger and many other retailers have already instituted additional safety measures for employees and customers, they are voluntary and not standardized or supported by all banners and retailers.

UFCW, however, wants to make protecting “America’s frontline workers and our country’s food supply”​ mandatory, which is why it asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an April 8 letter to mandate guidance for grocery stores, pharmacies and food processing facilities during the COVID-19 outbreak.

In the letter, UFCW asks CDC to endorse guidelines that it outlined for grocery stores, pharmacies and food processing facilities.

These included additional specific measures to improve in-store social distancing, such as limiting the number of consumers in a store at any given time to 20-30% of the stores capacity, and improving disinfecting, sanitizing and hygiene practices, such as setting time for stores to be sanitized and restocked. In addition, it calls for requiring all workers to wear masks, gloves and PPE at the workplace, including limited N95 masks when they become available.

UFCW also calls on CDC to “urge Americans to help save lives by shopping smart,”​ which includes always covering their faces in stores, limiting shoppers to one per family, practice social distancing, respecting special shopping times for seniors and discarding their own PPE in trash cans.

Similar recommendations by the group for food processing and packing plants has been underscored by Smithfield’s decision April 13 to close until further notice its pork processing facilities in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after approximately 240 employees contracted the coronavirus.  

Taken all together, the additional safety measures and call to action by grocery retailers could improve the working conditions and safety of more than 1.3 million food and retail workers who are represented by UFCW, as well as the countless lives they touch every day.

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