Tensions are now running high as several major grocery chains start to report their first coronavirus-related employee deaths while the pandemic continues to rage across the United States.
Among the establishments that have confirmed coronavirus-related casualties are a Trader Joe’s in Scarsdale, New York; a Giant store in Largo, Maryland; and a Chicago-area Walmart store. The companies, as well as a labor advocacy group, confirmed the employees’ deaths Monday.
The confirmation of the employees’ deaths came after a series of strikes by unions demanding additional protections, as well as hazard pay for grocery workers who, under new “stay-at-home” directives, are now considered “essential workers.”
According to the workers, protections must be granted to the said employees because, by continuing to go to work, grocery store clerks and delivery workers put themselves at risk for catching the deadly virus, which has claimed the lives of 12,841 people and infected 400,335 others in the U.S. alone.
Marc Perrone, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said that while grocery chains like Ahold Delhaize’s Stop & Shop have raised wages and retailers like Walmart have offered special bonuses, those measures don’t really go far enough.
“If you’re looking at a bonus like Walmart offered at $300, is that worth somebody’s life?” Perrone said.
Despite their demands, however, many employees still report having to work long shifts as well as take on extra workloads, just to keep up with spiking demand.
According to industry experts, the rising cases of coronavirus-related employee deaths, as well as the current spike in coronavirus infections among workers, will likely affect many stores’ ability to retain and add new workers, especially during a time when most stores are looking to rapidly fill spots with temporary employees in order to cope with demand.
One of these stores is Walmart, which is looking for people to fill around 150,000 temporary employment slots. However, according to supermarket analyst Phil Lempert, finding people who are willing to man grocery tills while a pandemic is raging may be an increasingly tough sell – especially if they’re going to get paid just the minimum wage.
“One of the biggest mistakes supermarkets made early on was not allowing employees to wear masks and gloves the way they wanted to,” Lempert said. “They’re starting to become proactive now, but it’s still going to be much tougher to hire hundreds of thousands of new workers. We’re going to start seeing people say, ‘I’ll just stay unemployed instead of risking my life for a temporary job.’”
Perhaps as a way to appease employees’ demands for added workplace protection against the deadly virus, several stores have taken to installing plexiglass sneeze guards at cash registers, as well as the strict imposition of social distancing rules, which require customers to stand six feet apart in line.
Whole Foods, in its website, enumerated several steps that are now being implemented in their stores in order to promote employee safety. Among these are daily, enhanced cleaning and sanitation at stores, enforced social distancing practices, as well as implemented daily temperature screenings for employees.
As some have pointed out, however, these precautions seem to be reactive, as most employers actively told employees to refrain from using rubber gloves while working during the early days of the pandemic.
According to a group of workers from grocery store chain Trader Joe’s, store managers repeatedly told employees that they could not wear rubber gloves while on site.
A Walmart manager, meanwhile, said she doesn’t feel “protected” even as the store claims to take steps to protect their employees’ well-being.
“We don’t have the equipment needed to wipe down every register. Customer carts are not being wiped down,” said the Walmart manager, who declined to be identified for fear of losing her job.
“We don’t have enough supplies to do that. We barely have enough paper towels to clean up if someone spills something on the floor.”
Similar to the grocery store workers, truck drivers are now calling on authorities for protection against the coronavirus, noting that the nation’s supply chain could be placed in jeopardy if the federal government doesn’t do anything to help protect them.
In a letter sent to President Donald Trump, truck drivers from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, explained that part of their job description entails hauling much-needed goods into COVID-19 hot spots despite not having any protective equipment, testing capabilities or even ways to self-quarantine or seek treatment in the event that they become sick.
“Right now professional drivers are busting their butts to care for the nation,” the letter, signed by Todd Spencer, president and CEO of the Grain Valley-based organization, said.
According to the group, the drivers’ hard work and personal sacrifice “…should not include their health or even their lives if at all possible or preventable.”
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