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What Grocery Store Workers Need

RWDSU President lets you know what you can do to help out stressed workers

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by Guest Post on
Mar 30, 2020

The editorial below was written by Stuart Appelbaum, President of RWDSU, and first appeared in the NY Daily News.

Chilling stories have appeared putting a grim spotlight on the increasing danger faced by grocery store workers in Italy, which, up until now, has been the hardest hit by the coronavirus health crisis. The stories have detailed the tragic death of 49-year old Mariagrazia Casanova in the city of Brescia, but also the sometimes lax and haphazard implementation of social distancing and worker protection for supermarket workers throughout the country, and the increasing number of sick workers.

For these workers, there is a spreading and palpable sense of fear, vulnerability and helplessness as they perform their crucial jobs every day.

So much about the situation in Italy has foreshadowed what we are experiencing in the U.S., and now, we are seeing signs of a similar crisis at our own supermarkets.

As of this writing, supermarket workers in Denver, Oregon and Washington State have tested positive for COVID-19. Here in New York City, two Trader Joe’s supermarkets have suddenly faced temporary closures after workers at the Soho and Union Square stores became confirmed cases of the disease. The closures at these stores, which have seen huge increases in customer traffic since the onset of the crisis, highlight the dangers grocery store workers — performing their jobs in close quarters with other workers and customers — are facing, typically for low pay and benefits.

The situation is set to become even more precarious as more New Yorkers become ill, with the peak of the pandemic apparently still awaiting us weeks or even months in the future.

The importance of the jobs being done by supermarket workers cannot be understated, and neither can the bravery of the men and women performing them, nor the unprecedented stress they are under. They are on the very front lines of this crisis, keeping our families fed, our homes clean, and our fragile peace of mind intact while we hope for better days on the horizon.

While their work is essential, so is society’s duty to keep them safe.

Too many workers do not have proper access to hand sanitizer or protective gloves and masks. Too many stores aren’t enforcing proper crowd control in their stores, or ensuring that customers keep the proper distance from each other and workers. And while some stores are erecting protective glass to help keep workers safe, so far, it’s an exception rather than a rule. Like almost everything else about the coronavirus crisis, we are playing catchup to this new reality in our grocery stores.

It’s almost unthinkable to imagine what would happen to our society during this crisis without these workers, and it’s just as difficult to accept just how little we have done so far to protect them as well as recognize the importance of their service. It’s a given that we need to fight for better protections for them on the job, as well as limiting the number of customers in stores at any given time, while promoting proper distancing in the stores.

But there’s much more we can do.

Thanks to the unions fighting for workers, grocery store workers are being classified as first responders under federal law, which means they will have access to the $3.5 billion Child Care Block Grant in the coronavirus stimulus package assembled by Congress.

Much more must be done. Supermarket workers throughout the U.S., some of whom are still working for the obscenely low federal minimum wage of $7.25, deserve a minimum of $15 an hour, immediately.

All consumers, elected officials and policymakers must recognize the precarious situation these workers face. As the situation here at home comes to more closely resemble the crisis in Italy, we need to take heed, and protect the supermarket workers who are serving us through it all. We have no choice; we cannot hope to emerge from this crisis intact without them.

Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

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