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‘Covid-19 Still Is Very Real’: Major Grocery Union Calls For Mask Requirements As Cases Spike

Jun 28, 2020

A major union that represents thousands of workers at grocery stores, meatpacking plants and nursing homes said government officials and companies must require masks in public places to control the spread of the coronavirus as Texas, Florida and other states become the new hotspots.

Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said the pandemic hasn’t ended — and neither have health risks for workers. In fact, he said, in many states, their odds of getting sick are rising along with coronavirus cases.

“Contrary to some of what employers — and I think even some of our government leaders — want us to believe, Covid-19 still is very real,” he said on a call with reporters. 

This week, the U.S. set a record for the number of new coronavirus cases in a single day, with 45,557 diagnoses reported Wednesday, according to a tally by NBC News.

Throughout the pandemic, the union has pushed employers to expand workers’ access to testing and protective gear, saying that without them the public is at risk, too. It has also urged hazard pay for its members and for essential workers at non-unionized companies like Walmart and Amazon.

Kroger, Walmart, Amazon and others have temporarily increased pay and offered bonuses during the pandemic, but that extra pay has ended or is winding down. Kroger ended its $2 an hourly temporary pay increase in mid-May, and facing backlash, paid a bonus of $400 to full-time employees and $200 to part-time employees. Walmart has given two rounds of special bonuses, including $300 for full-time hourly employees and $150 for part-time that was paid out Thursday. The retailer will end its $2 an hour pay increase for e-commerce fulfillment centers July 3. Amazon’s $2 an hour increase ended May 31.

On Thursday, the union called on employers to pay essential workers at least $15 an hour and reinstate “hazard pay” in all states where cases are rising.

Target announced last week that it will raise its minimum hourly wage from $13 to $15, starting July 5. It had planned to raise its wages to $15 by the end of this year, but accelerated its timetable because of the pandemic. A temporarily increase of $2 an hour put in place during the outbreak was set to expire July 4. 

The union also urged the creation of a national public registry where employers with more than 1,000 workers must disclose the number of people that have gotten sick or died from Covid-19 every month.

“The human cost of this terrible pandemic can’t be ignored, nor should it be hidden,” Perrone said.

The union said 238 of its members have died from Covid-19, including over 196 of its members in food retail, meatpacking and health care. Over 29,000 members in those sectors have been impacted or exposed to the coronavirus. 

Yet he said that total does not include people at non-union employers, including Walmart and Amazon.

Perrone said government officials must require companies to enforce the use of masks in public places.

“If our national airlines can do this, there is no excuse why retailers like Kroger and Walmart can’t do the same,” Perrone said, adding that grocery workers are exposed to more people than airline employees.

On the call, a nursing home worker, grocer employee and a meatpacking plant worker spoke about their worries as they go to work each day — and pleaded with Americans to wear a mask.

Linda Robinson, a nursing assistant at Brandywyne Health Care Center in Winter Haven, Florida, said 13 of the nursing home’s staff members have gotten sick. She and her coworkers wear masks, face shields, gloves and gowns each day to protect the nursing home’s vulnerable population. She said they provide emotional support for residents who are afraid and can’t see their families.

She asked people to think of their own grandparents and their children.

“If wearing a mask can save one life, why shouldn’t one do it?” she said. “Think of the elderly Americans who sacrificed so much for us. Is it really so much to ask that we wear a mask to protect the greatest generation that gave us so much?”