One of the nation’s largest labor groups, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, is urging customers to wear masks and gloves every time they go to the grocery store and change how they shop to protect the health of employees and one another during the coronavirus pandemic.
The need for change is urgent, the union’s president Marc Perrone said. At least 30 people who belong to the union have died and about 3,000 are sick from Covid-19, he said. That doesn’t include workers at grocery stores, distribution centers or other food-related jobs that are not unionized, such as Walmart, Amazon-owned Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
The union is also calling for federal and state officials, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to require grocery workers to wear personal protective equipment and call on customers to wear masks.
“This is not union versus non-union, nor is it about politics or party,” he said in a phone call on Monday. “This is about life or death. Workers are being exposed and they are dying.”
The union represents 1.3 million workers who work at food-related and retail employers, including meatpacking plants and large grocery chains, such as Kroger, Safeway and Randalls. Perrone said the coronavirus pandemic is “the greatest health and safety crisis that America’s grocery and food workers have ever faced.”
Grocery and food workers — who often have low hourly wages and little to no health benefits — have continued to go to work, as many other Americans stay at home and limit their exposure to the virus. Many of the stores where they work have become more crowded and chaotic as customers stock up on items and grow frustrated by out-of-stock items, empty shelves or purchasing limits.
Safety concerns have inspired some workers, including Instacart contract workers and Amazon employees, to organize walkouts and circulate petitions to call for hazard pay and protective gear.
For grocery workers, Perrone said “careless customers are probably the biggest threat that we have right now.” He said there must be a cultural shift where Americans embrace wearing masks or at least covering their faces with a scarf.
“I know that we don’t normally think that we should have to go out in public with a mask on, but these aren’t normal times for any of us,” he said.
On a phone call Monday, five grocery workers who belong to the union and work in different stores across the U.S. spoke about their experiences. All of them said they’re worried about the high number of shoppers who don’t wear masks and don’t observe social distancing.
At a Vons grocery store in California, Janifer Suber said she and her colleagues have to pick up used gloves and masks that customers leave behind in shopping baskets, carts and parking lots. She said they see customers come multiple times the same day to get items they forgot or ask repeatedly when items will be back in stock.
“For as long as this pandemic lasts, we really need customers to change how they shop,” she said.
She encouraged customers to wear masks, bring a shopping list to limit trips and time in the store and throw away their own protective gear.
Aaron Squeo, who has worked in the meat department of a Kroger store in Michigan for 27 years, said he knows coworkers who have gotten sick — and one that has died from the coronavirus.
“We’re all scared,” he said. “We’re worried for ourselves and our family and our community. We don’t want to spread the virus, and it’s important for every customer — every customer — to do their part to make shopping safe for everybody.”
Another meat market employee, Dusty Gearhard, works at Homeland Stores in Oklahoma. He said he’s been concerned to see customers flip through or touch numerous food items, such as packages of bacon, as they choose which ones to buy.
“Customers need to shop more with their eyes instead of their hands,” he said.
He said some customers blame employees when they can’t find the item that they want.
“We’d appreciate if they just would have a little patience with us on that,” he said. “We’re all trying our best, and we want all the American people to appreciate how hard the work is — especially now.”