With more than a dozen cases in Virginia grocery stores and food processing facilities, union demands immediate action to provide free testing to every food worker on the frontlines
RICHMOND, VA (April 14, 2020) – Following more than a dozen confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Virginia grocery stores and food processing facilities, UFCW Local 400 has called on Governor Ralph Northam to immediately designate all grocery, retail, pharmacy, and food processing workers as “first responders” so they can access free testing, treatment and personal protective equipment needed to protect workers essential to the food supply chain.
The union represents workers at Kroger, Giant Food, Safeway and Shoppers grocery stores, as well as employees at food processing facilities throughout the state, among others. At least 14 confirmed cases have been reported at 12 grocery stores in the state, and three other cases have been confirmed at two food processing facilities.
“The Commonwealth’s grocery, retail, pharmacy, and food processing workers are working tirelessly during this outbreak to ensure families get the food and supplies they need,” said UFCW Local 400 President Mark Federici. “We need these workers to stay healthy more than ever before and protecting them is essential to our communities and the food supply.”
UFCW Local 400 is calling on Governor Northam to provide access to free, dedicated testing sites and protective equipment for grocery store, pharmacy, and food processing workers. Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, and Vermont have already designated grocery and food workers as “first responders,” similar to health care workers and other essential personnel. Maryland has designated grocery workers as “essential,” which provides them access to free childcare but falls short of providing much-needed access to the testing, treatment, and protective equipment to keep the public safe.
“Our members in grocery stores on the frontlines of this crisis are exposed to hundreds of customers per day and thousands per week, not to mention their coworkers, families and neighbors,” Federici added. “We must do everything in our power to ensure these essential personnel are not putting themselves at unnecessary risk or serving as unintentional vectors for the virus. Without adequate testing, there is simply no way to know how widespread this disease is in our grocery stores and food processing facilities. The time to take immediate action is now, now, now!”
One worker from a Kroger store in Yorktown died in March following Coronavirus-like symptoms but was never tested for the disease. Another worker from the same store is recovering in the ICU after testing positive for the disease, and another is convalescing at home.
“Right now, testing is largely unavailable to these workers until it’s too late,” Federici said. “This is a different type of crisis and we must recognize a different type of first responder. Our members on the frontlines are keeping Americans fed and we must do everything we can to protect them.”
At a Lipton plant in Suffolk, where all Lipton tea for North America is produced, at least one worker has tested positive for the disease. The plant employs more than 200 workers in a single facility. Two employees at a Boar’s Head meat processing facility in Jarratt have tested positive for the disease. Boar’s Head closed the plant for two days for deep cleaning and sanitization and reopened the facility on Monday, April 13.
“But grocery workers are not the only ones keeping Americans fed through this crisis,” Federici continued. “Our union represents thousands of workers in facilities that supply essential foods to countless consumers. These workers need immediate access to testing, treatment and protective equipment if we expect to keep our food supply chain operating.”
UFCW launched an online action targeting Governor Northam, as well as surrounding governors and the mayor of Washington, DC, to designate grocery store, pharmacy, and food processing workers as “first responders.” The action has already generated hundreds of messages to Governor Northam as well as the governors of Maryland and West Virginia and the Mayor of DC.
UFCW Local 400 has called on every employer as well as policymakers at the local, state and federal level to institute a suite of new policies to protect workers and customers, including:
- Declaring grocery store workers “first responders” or emergency personnel so they have access to the benefits and protections others in those categories receive, especially access to testing, treatment, and personal protective equipment (Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, and Vermont have already done this)
- Limiting the number of customers in a store to 10 people per 10,000 square feet and a maximum of 50 people in a store at a given time to be enforced by additional security staff (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, and Rhode Island have recently placed limits on customers in stores, as has Kanawha County, WV)
- Mandating an additional 14 paid sick days to be used without the need to a positive COVID-19 test or quarantine order
- Mandating paid leave of 12 weeks for those in high risk categories such as those over 60, immune-compromised individuals, and those who need to care for sick loved ones
- Access to free childcare (Maryland has already done this)
- Increased security at all stores, both through store security and increased police patrols
- Banning any discipline relating to time and attendance
- Mandatory wiping down of grocery carts, self-scan screens, and credit card touch screens after each use
- Public address announcements at regular intervals reminding people to maintain a 6-foot distance from employees and other customers
- Requiring a six-foot distance be kept from cashiers and other customers in line at check stands
- Requiring that only every other check stand and self scan be open
- Requiring shorter store hours or 7am-9pm to allow for additional cleaning, stocking, and rest time
- Mandating that employees be allowed to wear masks and gloves even if they are not sick
- Requiring employers to provide adequate amounts of masks, gloves, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizer
- Mandating hazard pay with a minimum of at least $2 an hour and double time for any overtime hours worked
- Requiring stores to supply masks to all employees and customers to wear while in the store
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 represents 35,000 members working in the retail food, health care, retail department store, food processing, service and other industries in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.