Albertsons is working with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) to ask authorities across the United States to designate people who work in stores as “extended first responders” or “emergency personnel.” The two organizations issued a joint statement and published a full-page advertisement in the April 7 edition of The New York Times to make their pitch.
The grocer and labor union say the designations would help supermarket workers gain priority access to coronavirus testing and personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves. The grocer and union also want workers to be given "other workplace protections necessary to keep themselves and the customers they serve safe and healthy."
The campaign highlights measures like the installation of barriers at checkouts and implementation of social distancing guidelines that banners under the Albertsons’ umbrella, as well as many other grocery companies, have taken since the pandemic took hold. “Not only must we work together to protect first responders and healthcare professionals, but we must also protect the associates who work at our supermarkets because their service to our communities is absolutely essential during this time,” the ad says.
While grocery stores quickly rolled out procedures to sanitize their stores, enforce social distancing and grapple with panic buying as the pandemic took hold, they took longer to come around to allowing workers to wear equipment to protect themselves. Now that the CDC has changed course and begun recommending that people wear masks in public, grocers are taking an active role in calling on officials to recognize the needs and risks people who work in supermarkets are taking.
Kroger, for example, announced in late March that it would permit workers to wear masks and gloves on the job, with a spokesperson calling on government officials to give grocery store employees “a priority place in line” for access to the equipment, after healthcare workers. Giant Food said on March 24 that it would allow store employees to don the equipment, but pointed out that the government was not at the time recommending that people who are not sick wear protective equipment.
With demand sky high right now, securing protective equipment is no easy task. According to a CNN report, Kroger's initial mask supplier ended up shipping the gear to healthcare workers in Italy. Some are getting crafty to fill in the gaps. The mother of Morton Williams' grocery chain in New York City is sewing masks for employees. In its latest COVID-19 update, Natural Grocers said some workers are making masks.
"Since there is a shortage of masks, multiple crew members from all parts of the company have made masks for in-store, distribution center and bulk manufacturing good4u crew," the specialty grocer said.
The call for increased testing and protective equipment comes as more and more grocery workers are contracting COVID-19. Workers at more than two dozen ShopRite stores in New Jersey have recently tested positive, while chains like Trader Joe's, Publix, H-E-B and Kroger have also had employees contract the virus. Several workers, including two Walmart employees who worked at the same Chicago-area Walmart store, have died from COVID-19 exposure.
A handful of states, including Minnesota and Michigan have already given grocery workers special status in response to the pandemic that allows them access to emergency childcare. On April 3, Connecticut put into effect a set of “Essential Safe Store Rules” that require store employees to wear gloves and masks when working with customers or handling products "whenever possible."