MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is calling for grocery workers to be officially considered first responders.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, UFCW 400 is calling for an intiative to have states where their constituents are represented to officially classify grocery workers and food handlers as first reponders. This would allow for them to recieve personal protective equipment and other health safety needs during the outbreak.
“First responder designation helps our members get access to free testing treatment and protective equipment that other more traditional first responders have access to,” explained UFCW 400 Communications Director Jonathan Williams.
The call for first responder consideration isn’t coming from out of nowhere. According to Williams, UFCW has recieved hundreds of messages from members of their union both from West Virginia and in neighboring represented states calling for these measures. The reasoning is that due to COVID-19’s extremely easy ability to spread and the constant human interaction involved for grocery workers and food handlers, providing health safety measures is essential.
“Particularly in grocery stores, where our members interact with hundreds of customers in a day, thousands in a week, we are very concerned about the exposure of this disease,” he said.
Even though the initiative has officially been up and running for less than a week, it has already gained traction. Kroger, who is one of the largest grocery chains in West Virginia, has been openly supportive of UFCW 400’s initiative which includes offering of two week sick leave for anyone found tested positive for COVID-19. While Williams acknowledges that Kroger and other participating businesses have made steps to make employees safer, including the limiting of store hours and customers, more can and needs to be done.
“We’re concerned that some of the companies that we represent, have imposed limits that are not practical,” Williams explained. “Because they are so high, that they still allow hundreds of customers in a store at a given time, and in some cases, the limits are above any store traffic they have seen before so we need practical limits,” he said.
As of now, West Virginia currently has not made such a declaration despite calls from UFCW 400 officials and their members requesting them give it consideration. While the Mountain State has not been affected as greatly as other UFCW 400 states by the COVID-19 outbreak the threat is still there. In Virginia, over fourteen confirmed COVID-19 cases were discovered at twelve grocery stores while social distancing measures are being implemented. As businesses continue to operate on a limited basis and grocery stores continue to remain an essential business, Williams says it’s workers, which also include traditional first responders, need to be treated as such.
“Now our union also represents other first responders, police officers, nurses, healthcare workers, folks that are more traditionally seen as first responders in a crisis, but this isn’t a normal type of crisis,” he said. “And so we need to recognized a different type of first responder and we need to expand on that definition,” he said.