States Should Designate Grocery Workers as “Essential Personnel” Without Delay

Over the past week, Michigan, Minnesota and Vermont have reclassified grocery workers as “essential personnel.” The country’s main retail union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) is pushing California and several other states to follow their lead.

Essential personnel designation means, among other things, that grocery workers are entitled to free child care services to allow them to continue to work. All states should follow the example of these three states without delay; the past few weeks have demonstrated, beyond doubt, that grocery workers are essential personnel who are on the front lines of the battle against this deadly pandemic. They deserve not only our enormous thanks and gratitude — they must also be adequately protected and compensated.

The Union Advantage

Most non-union grocery workers suffer from low pay, involuntary part-time work, erratic scheduling practices and poor working conditions. Unionized grocery workers generally have significantly superior wages, benefits and working conditions to their non-union counterparts. This week, unionized Stop & Shop workers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey received a 10 percent pay increase and an additional two weeks paid sick leave for the duration of the current emergency.

Likewise, thousands of unionized grocery workers at Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores in California this week won a $2-per-hour pay increase, thus providing them with greater financial stability. And on Monday, UFCW Local 5 negotiated a groundbreaking agreement with Safeway, which incorporates temporary pay increases, enhanced sick leave and child care provisions and additional store safety measures. However, these stories are not typical for most of the nation’s grocery workers. With the ascendency of Walmart and other non-union giants, unionized workers now make up a small percentage of all grocery employees.

Child Care and Medical Benefits

At this extraordinary time, grocery workers need basic employment benefits and financial security. Grocery workers must have access to free child care, as provided by an essential-personnel designation. But they must also have access to basic health care coverage, including testing and the waiver of any medical expenses incurred because they contracted coronavirus on the job. They must not be penalized for taking time off because of suspected exposure to coronavirus, even if this has not been confirmed by testing, which is still difficult to get in most parts of the country.

Paid Sick Leave

Grocery workers need a minimum of two weeks paid sick leave. Several large grocery chains have provided this benefit in recent weeks, but not nearly enough. We cannot leave it to the good will of the companies — many of which have aggressively opposed paid medical leave in the past — to do the right thing. State governments must mandate it, and paid sick leave for grocery workers must stay in place after the immediate crisis has passed.

Hazard and Additional Pay

Grocery workers should receive additional pay for working such long hours and working in hazardous conditions. Hazard pay is “additional pay for performing hazardous duties.” One can hardly imagine many more hazardous jobs than frontline grocery clerks during the current health crisis. Many workers are now putting in long shifts with little time off, dealing with frenzied panic-buying customers, and are being exposed to potential infection. Their work allows us to get essential supplies and they must be rewarded adequately.

Additional Security Measures

States must strictly limit the number of customers coming into stores at any time to a maximum of 50 and hire additional personnel to make sure that social distancing is observed and that grocery workers are protected from panicked shoppers. Even during normal times, grocery workers are all-too-frequently the victims of verbal abuse and physical violence from hostile customers. In addition, grocery store management should paint spacing guidelines on their floors to indicate safe distancing.

Store Safety

Stores must arrange for all work stations and public store areas to be cleaned on an hourly schedule. High-use areas such as check out stations and self-check-out areas should be cleaned more often. Hot food and self-service cafeteria areas must be closed. Stores should open early to allow a designated shopping hour for seniors and other at-risk shoppers, and should close early to allow adequate cleaning and sanitizing and the restocking of goods overnight. Grocery workers themselves also need designated shopping time. Grocery chains must hire additional personnel to perform these crucial functions, and the new hires and additional store security must receive the same emergency benefits as other essential grocery workers.

Essential Safety Supplies

Stores must be required to have adequate supplies of cleaning products, wipes, masks for employees who need them, and if they run out of these supplies, operations should be closed to allow for new stocks to arrive. Employees must have access to regular paid breaks to allow them to wash their hands. Employees who are members of at-risk groups should be allowed to switch to less hazardous work within the stores. At present, most grocery workers do not have access to adequate safety and cleaning supplies.

Grocery workers are essential workers on the front lines in the battle against coronavirus. Other states should follow the lead of Minnesota, Michigan and Vermont by reclassifying food retail workers as essential personnel, thus ensuring they have access to free child care and other benefits. They should also take steps to make sure that grocery workers and their families are as healthy, safe and financially secure as possible during this unprecedented emergency. They are working for us at considerable personal risk; we need to act now to protect them.