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No masks? No hazard pay? Amid COVID-19 surge, grocery store workers demand protections

No masks? No hazard pay? Amid COVID-19 surge, grocery store workers demand protections

Charisse Jones
 
| USA TODAY
As they brace for the holiday rush, grocery store and other frontline workers are demanding hazard pay, better cleaning of their workplaces and the mandatory wearing of masks to improve safety amid the spike in coronavirus cases across the country.Leaders and members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents more than 1 million food, retail and meatpacking plant workers, said Monday that many major employers have grown lax, cutting wages and protections put in place when the coronavirus first began to spread in the spring.“We’re entering what could prove to be the riskiest and deadliest phase of this pandemic for million of essential frontline workers,’’ says Marc Perrone, UCFW International’s president, adding that as the holidays begin, grocery stores are in the midst of their busiest five-week period of the year. “The fear that they feel is as great if not greater than it was in the early days of this ….pandemic.”Perrone says that at least 350 of his union’s members have died from COVID-19 including 109 grocery store employees, and more than 48,000 members have become ill or been exposed to the virus. “Unless we take immediate actions beginning this holiday week, many more essential workers will become sick and more tragically may die,’’ Perrone says.Perrone says most major retailers stopped offering hazard pay in June, and he called out Amazon, Kroger, and Walmart in particular for not paying that additional compensation while they see their profits soar.In addition to restoring hazard pay and providing paid sick leave, the union is calling on food retail executives to provide free coronavirus testing and protective equipment to all workers, and to enforce the wearing of masks among customers as well as employees,  among other demands.”Critical safety standards… have been consistently deprioritized or eliminated,” Perrone says. “Once again we’re seeing mask wearing that’s neither mandatory nor enforced in these stores. PPE for essential workers is becoming scarce … Sufficient sanitizing is not happening, and workers are once again being asked to choose between not being able to pay their bills or working when they’re exposed or they’re sick.”Kroger says it has implemented workplace protections and offers employees paid emergency leave as well as financial assistance through its “Helping Hands” fund when they are struggling due to COVID 19.Walmart says it provides paid sick leave to its employees, along with a COVID-19 related  emergency paid leave. It also says it’s given more than $1.1 billion in cash bonuses.Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Janet Wainwright, who works at a Kroger in Yorktown, Virginia, says that while previously co-workers who tested positive for COVID-19 could take paid leave, they now have to take 14 days off without pay.Watch out for this scam: Don’t fall for the ‘Secret Sister’ gift exchange scam. Here are 7 reasons to avoid it.How to get a stimulus check: Missing your stimulus check? There’s one last chance to claim an Economic Impact Payment from the IRS”Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has not been a day that I and my co-workers do not worry about our health and our safety,” she said during a media call. “Managers tell us not to even approach customers who refuse to wear their masks … Does it make any sense to tell your employees to wear a mask but not your customers?”Additionally, Wainwright says, cleaning is not happening as often as before and social distancing is not being enforced as stores fill with crowds doing their holiday shopping.Kroger said in a statement that it continues “to execute dozens of safety measures like enhanced cleaning practices.”  It also began requiring all shoppers to wear masks in its stores on July 22, and asks those who cannot due to health reasons to wear a face shield or to choose online shopping options instead.The pandemic has laid bare numerous economic and racial disparities. Frontline workers in sectors ranging from meatpacking plants to warehouses to delivery services have staged walkouts and protests throughout the health crisis to demand better workplace protections and greater clarity about how many of their colleagues are becoming ill.Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones

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