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American Farmers, Ranchers and Food Workers Call for Better Worker Protections at Meatpacking Plants to Stop COVID-19 Outbreaks and Protect Food Supply

Diverse Group Makes Urgent Call on Trump Administration to Take Immediate Safety Steps to Prevent Ongoing Spread of COVID-19

Union Announces New Numbers: At Least 44 Meatpacking Worker Deaths and Over 3,000 Meatpacking Workers Testing Positive for COVID-19

SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA – Today, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents over 250,000 workers in meatpacking and food processing, joined with a diverse group of American farmers and ranchers from Dakota Rural Action (DRA), Northern Plains Resource Council, Western Colorado Alliance, and the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) to call on meatpacking companies, the Trump Administration, as well as state and local governments, to take immediate and stronger steps to protect frontline meatpacking workers and our food supply from the deadly COVID-19 virus.

“The best way to protect our food supply is to protect the people who work within it,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone. “From frontline food processing workers to farmers and ranchers, we are all critical to keeping American families fed during this crisis. Enacting strong worker safety standards inside meatpacking plants will help people outside of them as well and ensure every link in our food supply chain is secure.”

The broad coalition which came together to protect workers and the food supply is calling on meatpacking companies to take immediate safety steps to stop the ongoing spread of COVID-19, which include, but are not limited to: (1) increased worker testing at meatpacking plants, (2) priority access to PPE for all meatpacking workers, (3) halting line speed waivers, (4) mandating social distancing inside meatpacking plants, and (5) isolating workers with symptoms or who test positive for COVID-19.

The need to take these immediate safety steps reflects the significant threat still facing America’s meatpacking workers. According to the UFCW internal estimates, there have already been at least 44 meatpacking worker deaths and over 3,000 meatpacking workers testing positive for COVID-19. Because of the continuing spread, at least 30 meatpacking plants have closed at some point since March 2020 – with closures impacting over 45,000 workers and contributing to a 40 percent reduction in pork slaughter capacity as well as a 25 percent reduction in beef slaughter capacity.

The following statements are from the leading members of the diverse coalition:

“Too many workers are being sent back into meatpacking plants without adequate protections in place, reigniting more outbreaks in the plants and our communities,” said Nick Nemec, a farmer, cattle producer and DRA member from Holabird, SD. “Leadership at all levels has shown a lack of support and concern for the workers and the farmers. A safe food system starts with the safety and respect of those doing the work to produce and process the food. Our current system fails because it treats farmers and workers with little respect and little regard for our safety.”

“We support the workers’ call for mandatory worker protections,” said Kathryn Bedell, rancher and Western Colorado Alliance member from Fruita, CO. “If they don’t get protective equipment and safe working conditions, the food system will remain vulnerable and we all lose – producer, workers and consumers. For too long, the government agencies have stepped back and allowed global meatpacking companies to voluntarily comply with antitrust laws. We know from firsthand experience that this is a failed approach, because it has allowed the meatpacking cartels to manipulate prices paid to livestock producers to the detriment to our livelihoods, and to the detriment of our rural communities who depend on the cattle business.”

“Safe food starts with safe workers,” said UFCW Local 304A member John Massalley who works at Smithfield in Sioux Falls, SD. “When meatpacking plants struggle to contain this virus, it’s not just the workers inside like me who are at risk, family farmers and ranchers are too. Regular testing is critical to stopping future outbreaks, keeping workers safe and protecting our food supply.”

“This pandemic didn’t create the crisis for workers and producers in the meat industry, but it has made a horrific situation even worse,” said Steve Charter, a Shepherd, MT rancher and Northern Plains Resource Council board member. “The consequences of this rigged system are now threatening the lives of meatpacking workers at the same time they’re killing the livelihoods of family ranchers. If leaders want to address this crisis, they need to start with enforcing antitrust laws, instead of abusing emergency authority to force workers to endanger their health. We must use this opportunity to create decentralized, local and regional food systems that are better for producers, consumers, and workers. Now, more than ever, we need policies that help folks who wear boots to work each day instead of shining the shoes of executives in board rooms.”

The UFCW is the largest private sector union in the United States, representing 1.3 million professionals and their families in grocery stores, meatpacking, food processing, retail shops and other industries. Our members help put food on our nation’s tables and serve customers in all 50 states, Canada and Puerto Rico. Learn more about the UFCW at www.ufcw.org.

The Pandemic’s Toll On Essential Workers In California

Many people who still have jobs are working from home during this pandemic. But not the cashiers who ring up groceries, nor the gig worker couriers who deliver them if customers order online instead. Not hospital and nursing home staff. Not janitors and security guards. Not farm and factory workers.

Essential workers are still out there doing their jobs every day – and the push to reopen businesses could put them in even more danger as more people get back out there.

Some front-line workers have already paid a heavy price. An Instacart grocery delivery worker is on a ventilator in San Francisco, the company confirmed to Race and Coronavirus. Grocery store workers are getting sick, and have died in San Jose, Pasadena and elsewhere. Health care workers are dying, too.

Vanessa Bain, a Bay Area resident who stopped working for grocery delivery app Instacart in March, couldn’t afford to risk her loved ones’ health. She helps care for her three grandparents who are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, she said on the Race and Coronavirus podcast.

“It’s not possible for me to work safely, especially when I potentially can transmit (COVID-19) to them,” she said.

Bain continues to organize other workers, and helped stage an Instacart shopper walkout in March to demand hazard pay and extension of sick pay, which the company is offering only to its independent contractors who are diagnosed with or quarantined because of the novel coronavirus. She mentioned the San Francisco Instacart shopper who contracted COVID-19 and is on a ventilator, saying he was initially denied benefits by the company.

Instacart said in a statement to Race and Coronavirus that it is now providing that shopper with benefits, but would not provide further information. “Our hearts go out to Alejandro’s family and loved ones during this challenging time – the entire Instacart team is wishing him a safe recovery. Our team has been in direct contact with his family to offer support through our extended pay financial assistance program.”

Among the many shortcomings in our economic system the coronavirus crisis has exposed is “that we don’t have an adequate social safety net, not just for independent contractors, but for employees as well,” said William Gould, professor emeritus at Stanford University and a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. Even some employees with benefits have inadequate sick leave, he said, pointing out that a few days of leave are not enough for someone with COVID-19, who often has to quarantine for 14 days.

And many essential workers are minorities or immigrants, according to different surveys and studies.

  • More than 41 percent of front-line workers nationwide are non-white and nearly 65 percent are women, according to Center for Economic and Policy Research’s analysis of the 2014-2018 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Immigrants comprise 17.3 percent of essential workers. Occupations where minorities are overrepresented include building cleaning (Hispanics, 40.2 percent) and child care and social services (black, 19.3 percent). More than 56 percent of bus drivers and other transit workers are people of color.
  • The Bay Area Equity Atlas analyzed data from CEPR, finding that in the Bay Area, 58 percent of all workers are people of color, but comprise 66 percent of essential workers. Latino workers represent 22 percent of workers in the region, but 31 percent of front-line workers. Black workers represent 5 percent of workers in the Bay Area, but 23 percent of public transit workers, 11 percent of trucking, warehouse and postal services, 10 percent of child care and social service workers, and 8 percent of health care workers.
  • A survey conducted by UC Santa Cruz and its partners from Feb. 7 to March 16 showed that 56 percent of gig workers in San Francisco were born elsewhere. Also, they were 86 percent male and 29 percent Asian, 23 percent Hispanic, 22 percent white, 12 percent black and 13 percent multiracial or other.
  • A survey conducted by UnidosUS in late December found that 40 percent of Latinos nationwide had engaged in some kind of gig work.

“Recognizing that communities of color are disproportionately impacted,” the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health recently released recommendations for worker safety in its report “A Safe and Just Return to Work,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the organization. The report calls for health and safety protections, inclusion of employees and unions in planning a return to work, screening, testing, contact tracing, isolation and epidemiological surveillance and more.

Martinez added that “many workers in most high-risk, low-wage jobs also have a tremendous fear of retaliation and are fearful of government agencies, especially (under) the current administration.” It’s important that government agencies are enforcing safe workspaces, especially now, she said.

One of the provisions U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat who represents parts of Silicon Valley, is pushing for in the Essential Workers Bill of Rights, which he co-wrote with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, is that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration be required to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to keep workers safe. The congressman said on the Race and Coronavirus podcast that he was most hopeful that safety requirements would be part of the next stimulus package.

“I think right now everyone can agree that, at least, workers have to have basic safety,” Khanna said. “Why would you want to have people go to work where they may get exposed to a disease?”

Are other worker-friendly policies possible, even during a time when tens of millions of people are out of work? Catherine Fisk, a professor at UC Berkeley who teaches labor and employment law, thinks so.

“In the 1930s, the last time we faced unemployment numbers as high as they are right now, state and federal governments enacted a wide array of employee protective measures because the public realized that the particular version of capitalism that resulted in the Great Depression wasn’t working and needed modification,” she said.

Another gig worker, Jon Wong, said on the podcast that he has cut back on doing food deliveries for DoorDash-owned Caviar in California because he’s concerned about the risk. He’s down to about 10 to 15 hours from his usual 20 to 30 hours a week.

“Thankfully, I have a full-time job and this is just a side gig,” Wong said. “I can’t imagine those who have this as their sole or main gig. How do they weigh the benefits? They don’t have the luxury of taking an extra hour or two off (a day) that I do.”

Companies that employ gig workers consider them independent contractors. They have no minimum wage and no benefits. Assembly Bill 5, a new California law that would likely force companies to classify gig workers as employees, could change that. The state recently sued Uber and Lyft for non-compliance with AB 5, in a case that has implications for other companies whose business models are based on minimizing labor costs by hiring contractors.

“I am hoping it is the beginning of the end for predatory practices of the gig companies,” said Edan Alva, a Bay Area Lyft driver who helps organize workers. He stopped driving in April as rides dried up and to avoid the health risk. “By the time I stopped I was earning $5 an hour,” he said.

Albertsons sells minority stake to private equity firm for $1.75B

  • Albertsons has sold 17.5% of its stock to private equity firm Apollo Global Management for $1.75 billion, bringing the grocer a cash infusion as it prepares to go public, according to a press release. The transaction is expected to close June 15.
  • Kimco Realty, owners of grocery-anchored shopping centers across the country, which currently holds approximately 9.29% of Albertsons, will drop its stake in the grocer to about 7.5% in connection with the Apollo investment.
  • An investment group led by Cerberus Capital Management, another private equity firm, will continue as owner of Albertsons. Cerberus has had a stake in Albertsons, which operates grocery stores under its own name as well as banners including Safeway, Vons and Jewel-Osco, since 2006.

The investment by Apollo comes as Albertsons, which like other grocers is riding a wave of strong sales driven by the pandemic, shores up its balance sheet ahead of an expected initial public offering.

Albertsons announced its plans to go public on March 6 — just before the pandemic took hold of the economy and ignited a surge in grocery sales. The company, which had $62.5 billion in revenue during its most recent fiscal year, reported a 34% year-over-year increase in sales between March 1 and April 25.

Albertsons has been focusing on reducing its debt pile and owed creditors $8.5 billion as of Feb. 29, down from more than $10.4 billion a year earlier. The company reported net income of $466.4 million during its last fiscal year, up from $131.1 million the previous year.

The improvement in its financial condition could help the company finally become a publicly traded company after two aborted efforts during the past several years.

The supermarket operator struck an arrangement in early 2018 to acquire Rite Aid in a transaction that would have allowed it to go public but called off the deal that August because Rite Aid shareholders felt the proposed $24 billion combination undervalued the pharmacy chain.

In 2015, Albertsons postponed its plans to go public after determining that the stock market was too unstable.

Apollo’s investment in Albertsons is one of a few in the grocery space for the private equity group. The company’s experience in the sector includes current ownership of Smart & Final, as well as a previous investment in Sprouts.

Source: Grocery Dive

Grocery Workers Union Estimates 3,257 Members Infected With Coronavirus

New data released by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union shows that among the grocery store workers it represents, 10,000 have been infected by or are known to have been exposed to coronavirus and 68 have died from it. At least 3,257 have been infected with the virus, the union estimated on Friday.

UFCW represents workers in large grocery store chains like Kroger, Albertson’s, and Supervalu. Union President Marc Perrone said in a news conference on Wednesday that the cases have increased by 200% in five weeks. This comes at a time when companies such as Kroger ended the extra ‘hero pay’ it had been giving its workers.

“The so-called ‘hero,’ and hazard pay should continue until this threat has actually passed,” Perrone said. “If companies truly believe that this threat has passed, they should be willing to say that publicly on the record.”

The UFCW had numerous employees from Kroger, which is the largest grocery store chain in America, attend the press conference.

Kroger recently announced a plan to give its employees “Thank You Pay” of $400 for qualified full-time workers and $200 for part-time employees. The special pay adds up $130 million company-wide.

Kris Holtham, who works as a meat manager for Kroger in Lansing, Mich., and has been employed by the company for 35 years, says that getting customers to wear masks has become difficult.

“Masks have become a political war,” Holtham said. “The employees are downright scared and afraid to ask someone to put on a mask. … I see hundreds of people a day without a mask. We are sitting ducks for the virus.”

Holtham recounted a story where she asked a customer to put on a mask for the sake of the workers and the customer responded with, “I don’t give a damn about your health.”

Raquel Salorio has worked for the Southern California grocery chain Ralph’s for 36 years and has a total of five people in her household working there. She decried the store’s marketing of its employees being “heroes” as disingenuous.

Salorio recounted a particular day where the company asked its workers to dress up as superheroes.

“We’re not heroes,” Salorio said. “People are suffering, people are dying, and they want us to dress up as superheroes. Our jobs matter, but our health matters more.”

NPR contacted representatives from Albertson’s, Supervalu, and Kroger to comment on the figures presented by the UFCW. A spokesperson from Albertson’s said that the company would not release employee coronavirus numbers but that the company “appreciate[s] the UFCW’s work on behalf of its membership to help everyone stay safe during this difficult time.”

Kroger and Supervalu have not responded.

Source: NPR

McLaughlin to members: Stay vigilant as states reopen

In a telephonic town hall on May 20, UFCW Local 99 President Jim McLaughlin called on union members to remain vigilant as Arizona, New Mexico and Utah begin to relax their guidelines in response to the COVOD-19 pandemic.

President McLaughlin also provided updates on a range of issues concerning members, including abusive behaviors by customers; resources to alleviate stress and anxiety; hazard bonuses and appreciation pay; and the dangers of misinformation spread on social media.

‘Be aware out there’

Noting that “we’re now 11 weeks into the national emergency guidelines and the atmosphere in the stores is still a whirlwind and changing sometimes daily,” McLaughlin cautioned members to “be aware out there!”

He said with Arizona taking steps to reopen its economy, workers in stores must continue to be vigilant to avoid a spike in new cases of COVID-19.

“Our need to be diligent is critical to mitigate frustrations and keep ourselves and our customers safe,” McLaughlin said.

He urged members to use the wash stations and sanitizers and to continue wearing masks and using other personal protective equipment.

“Local 99 staff have been distributing masks and hand sanitizer,” he said. “We will hand them out until we have exhausted our supply. Please look for your rep in the store to see if they have any left.”

“In some stores we wish the plexiglass could be bigger, but we are still looking for solutions and asking the companies to make the stores more secure,” President McLaughlin said. “In the meantime, when a customer does not stand behind the glass, politely remind them it’s there – or move so you’re behind it.

“This is a new way of thinking for all of us, and especially for people who are only in the stores for a fraction of time that you’re in the stores,” he continued.

He said Local 99 representatives are handing out “#ESSENTIAL” buttons. “These buttons give a positive identification on the membership,” he continued. “Wear them to show we are united to protect you and the community.”

McLaughlin also announced Arizona will be extending its statewide COVID-19 testing blitz for two more weekends.

“Anyone who thinks that they have been exposed to or infected with COVID-19 can get tested based on the criteria at each location,” he said. “Drive-through testing will be available at certain sites.”

He urged members to visit https://www.azdhs.gov to learn about testing sites, hours of operation, pricing and registration.

‘Verbal abuse should not be tolerated’

“We know of the irate customers who are frustrated and choose to take their frustrations out on you for no reason,” McLaughlin said. “Or maybe it’s because they can’t find toilet paper or the store has run out of meat. One thing for certain is verbal abuse should not be tolerated.”

Whenever members encounter abuse by shoppers or anyone else, they should “let your manager know about it,” he said. “And if they don’t respond, call your union rep.”

McLaughlin also advised members not to take such confrontations by customers personally.

“It has nothing to do with you,” he said. “Some customers have lost their jobs or are on furlough and some have had it up to the limit at home.”

Nevertheless, “We are having regular discussions with the company around safety for our members in the stores,” he said. “These incidents should be taken seriously.”

Countering stress and anxiety

Noting that stress and anxiety can take a physical and a mental toll on union members, President McLaughlin described resources available through Local 99’s Employee Membership Assistance Program and HMC.

“We have telephonic medicine with Teladoc, as well as many different resources to help with issues relating to anxiety, depression and the many other effects this pandemic has on ourselves and our families,” he said.

He encouraged union members to visit ufcw99.com and click on the links to resources.

Hazard bonuses and appreciation pay

President McLaughlin provided an update on how Fry’s and Safeway are rewarding their employees for their courageous service throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Safeway is continuing its $2 per hour premium through the end of May, he said. Fry’s is paying a bonus of $200-$400 split between two payments. The bonuses some members will receive almost equate to a $2 per hour raise.

“If you have any questions, see your rep,” he said.

“We don’t know how long the pay will last, but we will push your companies to pay this as long as we can,” McLaughlin said. “The hazard is still out there, and pay should go with it. It’s important that you are compensated accordingly.”

Handling social media with care

President McLaughlin called on Local 99 members to refrain from criticizing their employers on social media.

“People are saying how terrible their company or their manager is,” he said. “Unfortunately, the companies monitor such posts. Don’t get yourself into trouble because you need to vent on social media.

“Everybody is watching — your friends, your family and management. Be aware of what you share.”

Industry negotiations

Responding to a question about upcoming negotiations, McLaughlin said talks with Fry’s and Safeway will begin late in the summer. Local 99 will prepare by communicating with members through additional telephonic town halls, as well as voice and email blasts, text messages, social media posts, website updates, the 99Report magazine, postcards and other publications.

Union representatives will be in the stores for face-to-face conversations and questionnaires will be sent to the members to ascertain their goals in the negotiations.

“We are in unprecedented times,” he said. “Never in our history have we seen a situation like this. It’s hard to know how these new challenges will play a role in negotiations, but they will.

“One thing we do know is this pandemic has shown how critical our members are to each of the communities we serve.”

Questions and answers

The town hall continued with Secretary-Treasurer Stan Chavira fielding questions from the membership.

“The companies hired a bunch of new people and now that things are slowing down, they are starting to cut hours,” he said. “Some of the new hires are getting more hours than a senior employee. Senior members have protections with scheduling and seniority. Call your rep to fix any situation in the store dealing with seniority rights.

“There are new faces in the stores, which is great, but we just need to protect everybody, and we will defend seniority rights and select a schedule. It’s in your contract and your union rep can help with that.”

Conclusion: ‘You are not alone’

“Just because things may seem to be getting less restrictive, we need to stay the course,” President McLaughlin said in his concluding comments.

“Now is not the time to let our guards down. Our members must be even more vigilant as restrictions relax and customers come into the stores more frequently.

“We must continue to wash our hands, to wear masks or face coverings and continue social distancing.”

“I am more and more proud of the members of this union with every passing day,” he said.

“Always know you are not alone. You have thousands and thousands of union sisters and brothers and we are in this together — always.

“We continue to thank you for your courage, and we applaud your sacrifice.

“Remember: Not all heroes wear capes-some wear aprons.

“Thank you for your hard work and commitment!”

The best part of my supermarket job was the people. Now, they’re the worst part.

That’s the worst part of my job now.

These days, you can’t help but see strangers in terms of risk. The store allows 100 customers inside at a time, which doesn’t seem like a lot. But when I do the math, it makes me nervous: Over a shift, I can deal with as many as 1,000 people — and all it takes is one cough. I keep imagining the air picking it up and carrying a droplet right into my eye. Being a cashier is even more dangerous, because they’re dealing with many more people, face to face, touching the things they have touched. The stress takes a toll. A lot of people quit because they or their loved ones are fearful. When I get home, I spray myself down with Lysol so I don’t spread the virus to my family.

As a front-end manager, I manage employees and direct the public in the store, so I’m used to dealing with disgruntled customers. I’m black and 28 years old (which is relatively young for this position), so people often assume that I don’t know what I’m doing. To them, I don’t look the part: I should be bagging their groceries, not reviewing their receipts when they dispute a transaction.

In pandemic times, that disregard shows up in sad and scary ways — often in how customers ignore new store policies. For example, we now clean the cash register, pin pad and conveyor belt with industrial disinfectant after each customer. We do this for their safety, and ours. But some people just don’t care. They throw their items down on the belt before the checkout clerk finishes. Sometimes it’s because they’re impatient, but other times it seems more purposeful — like they’re trying to rebel, showing us how little they think of us and our rules. It’s not necessarily a racial issue; some people don’t want to be bossed around by someone who they think has a lower social status. Who gave us the right to tell them what to do?

Some people have lashed out at the requirement that customers wear masks indoors. One shopper refused to listen, even after multiple associates told her she had to put one on — and she got mad about it. She got up in people’s faces, shouting at them. That’s not a fun experience, even in normal times, but now, it’s dangerous — you can just imagine the little droplets flying everywhere. It took four of us employees to get her to calm down, and she wouldn’t leave until we threatened to call the police. My co-workers and I read stories about customers attacking employees at Target and McDonald’s, or see footage of people bringing guns to state capitols, and it scares us. You never know how or when someone will lash out.

On some level, I understand where they’re coming from. When the coronavirus first came to the United States, the government said masks mostly weren’t necessary. Then, all of that changed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended masks in early April, so I started wearing one. At first, one of my supervisors tried to get me to take it off, saying I looked like a criminal or a terrorist. Later on, our store gave out masks to employees. A lack of knowledge makes people afraid, and fear drives people crazy.

Little things that ordinarily wouldn’t bother people really bother them now. When one shopper gets too close to another one, they freak out. It’s hard to keep everyone calm, to tell them there’s no need to yell. Our county has one of the highest case counts in the state, so customers and employees alike have been hypersensitive. They act more aggressively when they feel threatened or when someone is in their space.

Every day, I talk down shoppers upset about not getting toilet paper or meat or something else they’ve been looking for. It’s not just us responsible for stocking the shelves, I say. It’s the workers who make the product, the people who bring it to the warehouse, the people who make deliveries to our stores — a whole supply chain that’s getting disrupted by illness, because people are getting sick. That’s the most common challenge of my day: getting customers to have some perspective. People are dying out there. They can deal with a little inconvenience.

But you also see the good in people. We have one regular customer who comes in with a big sign that says “Thank you!” She walks all the way to self-checkout, at the far end of the store, and claps for and thanks each person at each register. A lot of shoppers are really grateful for our work, and they try to leave us tips, though our store policy doesn’t allow us to accept them. (If the customer is persistent, I’ll give it to another employee or use it to buy them a little refreshment or a snack.)

I wish more people knew that grocery store employees take care of the community. I wish we had Plexiglas at our work stations, and more protective equipment. I wish we had professional security — that it wasn’t up to the clerks to account for the public’s behavior. I wish people had a more united approach to this crisis, and tried harder to understand the reasons behind public safety rules. These rules aren’t about bossing shoppers around. They’re about all of us looking out for each other’s health.

Our work feeds thousands, and none of us get paid much to do it. Most of us don’t have much choice: It’s either go to work or go hungry. We’re on the front lines, unprotected in almost every aspect. We’re vulnerable to the virus, and we’re vulnerable to other human beings.

Source: The Washington Post

Grocery workers are everyday heroes during coronavirus crisis

Each night at 7 p.m. here in New York, something wonderful happens on my block in Queens and on streets all over the city. After a busy day at my laptop working from home, I start to hear a random banging of pots outside my window that morphs into a full-on cacophony of joyful jangling, car horns, whistles and whoops from my neighbors that ends with a loudspeaker blaring Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and an enthusiastic singalong. Just part of life in the new COVID-19 reality.

The nightly celebration — and stress relief — began shortly after the city’s coronavirus lockdown began in mid-March, as a way for homebound residents to recognize and cheer our support for the first responders and essential workers  who continue to serve us all during this crisis. And along with healthcare workers, police and EMTs, that includes the grocery workers who have been on the front lines since day one.

It’s no cliché to call these workers heroes. From the beginning of this crisis, supermarkets have been our one constant source of some relief, providing Americans with the essentials we need to get through the long days — now, weeks — with some semblance of normalcy. And the millions of frontline grocery workers who stock the shelves, sanitize the stores, ring up the customers, deliver groceries and so much more have been putting in brutal hours in a challenging environment dealing with a frightened — and sometimes frightening — public.

And a majority of Americans agree with that assessment, saying that, during the pandemic, their admiration has increased for essential workers more than it has for their own family and friends. A survey of 1,000 U.S. adults conducted by Reputation Leaders and Over the Horizon Strategies finds that healthcare workers are currently admired the most (80%), but very closely followed by grocery store workers (77%), and delivery drivers (73%), reflecting a true appreciation for those working on the frontline during the pandemic.

“We cannot thank and appreciate our associates enough,” said Dacona Smith, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Walmart U.S., the nation’s largest retailer and employer of more than 1.4 million workers. “What they have accomplished in the last few weeks has been amazing to watch and fills everyone at our company with enormous pride. America is getting the chance to see what we’ve always known — that our people truly do make the difference. Let’s all take care of each other out there.”

This week, two Pennsylvania congressmen introduced new legislation to provide tax relief to grocery and other food workers during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill (H.R. 6841) would provide a federal tax holiday and a payroll tax exemption for all essential employees in the food and agriculture industry, as defined by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), part of the Department of Homeland Security.

H.R. 6841 marks an extension to the Giving Retailers and Our Convenience Employees Relief (GROCER) Act, which Thompson and Evans introduced on April 21. That bill (H.R. 6567) called for a federal tax relief period for grocery and convenience store employees amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“We need to help the workers who are keeping America fed during this crisis,” Evans said. “This bipartisan bill [H.R. 6841] would complement our proposed GROCER Act by helping even more of the people who are doing just that, and I believe it’s something that most of us should be able to agree on.”

We at Supermarket News applaud and appreciate the heroic work being done by America’s grocery workers. Stay safe and stay strong.

Source: Supermarket News

Stores Stress Over How to Handle a Customer Who Won’t Wear a Mask

Retail chains from CVS to 7-Eleven are being forced to decide whether and how to enforce rules on masks after a string of attacks on clerks and security guards by patrons who refused to cover their faces.

As more cities, states and businesses require customers to cover up in stores, face coverings have become a flashpoint in the debate over how to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Some opponents of forced shutdowns and social-distancing requirements are flouting mask mandates, leaving grocers, drugstore chains and big-box retailers to weigh public-health requirements against the risk of putting their workers in harm’s way.

This month’s fatal shooting of a security guard in Flint, Mich., following a face-mask dispute with a customer is the most extreme case of violence around the issue, but it isn’t an isolated incident. Assaults on store personnel have been reported at retailers across the country, from a Target in Southern California to a 7-Eleven convenience store in northern Indiana.

“It’s not my job to enforce masks—I’m not a manager.”

— Kroger employee Shaunte Wisch-Thompson

“It gets pretty confrontational. People are getting in our faces and are really angry with our managers and employees when it’s not our rule,” said Shaunte Wisch-Thompson, who works at a Kroger in Streator, Ill., a small town about 100 miles southwest of Chicago.

An executive order by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker mandates masks in public when people can’t maintain distance from one another. Ms. Wisch-Thompson said one man refused her request that he don a mask, saying he didn’t vote for the governor. She said she tries to reason with shoppers but doesn’t force the issue. “It’s not my job to enforce masks—I’m not a manager.”

Retailers are taking varied approaches. Some chains have advised workers to let mask-less customers in despite state and local laws, while others are drawing a harder line on site or directing workers to call local law enforcement if a shopper breaks the rule.

Costco Wholesale Corp. faced angry critics and a boycott after the warehouse retail chain said earlier this month that all customers must wear a mask, whether or not one is required by local governments. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone more than 2 years of age wear cloth face coverings in public places, such as stores, where social distancing is difficult.

“There are strong feelings on both sides. We do the best we can in making the right decision,” Costco finance chief Richard Galanti said. “If it’s the right decision, we help reduce the spread of this terrible virus. If it’s the wrong decision, it’s a relatively small inconvenience.”

Not enforcing face-mask rules also comes with risks, and not just to the health of workers and patrons. A CVS pharmacy in Fresno, Calif., was put on notice by local code enforcers who, in responding to a complaint earlier this month, found an unmasked shopper inside the drugstore.

“It’s up to the business to decide how best to get the customer out,” said Mark Standriff, communications director for the city of Fresno, which mandates that businesses require customers to wear masks inside stores. Especially in a drugstore, frequented by the sick and elderly, keeping faces covered is critical, Mr. Standriff said. “This is just like having to deal with any unruly customer.”

“There are strong feelings on both sides. We do the best we can in making the right decision.”

— Costco finance chief Richard Galanti

But CVS Health Corp. , in a policy mirrored by competitors Walgreens Boots Alliance Co. and Rite Aid Corp. , has told its workers not to refuse service to noncompliant patrons.

In cities and states where masks are required, CVS puts up signs reminding customers of the rule, a spokesman said. Store managers are told to refer to the signage if a shopper comes in without a mask.

If the customer refuses, “our priority is to help them complete their purchases as quickly as possible and provide them with information about other options we have available for their future needs,” the spokesman said.

The company, he said, takes that approach to avoid potentially contentious or violent interactions between employees and customers. “It strikes the proper balance between complying with local requirements while also protecting employees who are on the front lines,” he said, adding that the chain has experienced few incidents.

Rite Aid and Walgrees also said they direct employees to avoid confrontations with customers.

Target Corp. requires face masks in places where there are local or state mandates, a spokesman said. The company added funding to supplement staffing or to hire off-duty police officers to enforce rules at store entrances. Workers may call local law enforcement in cases where masks are required and a customer refuses to comply, the spokesman said.

Retailers say conflict is rare, and people generally comply without incident. Flare-ups, however, happen.

The shooting in Flint at a Family Dollar occurred May 1 after a security guard confronted a woman entering the store with her daughter. The woman was wearing a mask, but the daughter, in her 20s, wasn’t, according to the local prosecutor.

The woman yelled and spit at the guard, who ordered the woman to leave the store and told a cashier not to serve her, according to the prosecutor’s office. The woman drove home and returned with her husband and her son, who shot the guard in the back of the head following a confrontation, the prosecutor said.

Family Dollar parent Dollar Tree Inc. directs stores to ensure customers are wearing masks in places where local authorities require them, a Dollar Tree spokesman said. He declined to provide the company’s protocol for enforcing those rules. “We are going to comply where they are required,” he said, as was the case in Michigan.

Less than two weeks later, a security guard at a Target in Van Nuys, Calif., suffered a broken arm in a physical confrontation with two men who refused to wear masks in the store.

In St. Clair Shores, Mich., a woman was charged after allegedly assaulting a grocery store employee and spitting on police officers after being told to leave because she wasn’t wearing a mask.

Police in Mishawaka, Ind., are investigating an incident this week in which a male patron of a 7-Eleven threw a cup of coffee at a clerk who refused to serve him because he wasn’t wearing a mask. The man left and then returned. When the clerk again asked him to leave, he knocked her to the ground and punched and kicked her before leaving again, police said.

Even the strictest face-mask mandates generally make allowances, in line with CDC guidelines, for people with health issues that could make it difficult for them to breathe in a mask or to put on or remove a covering.

Determining that need presents another potential complication for retailers.

“We are not in a position to decide who does and does not fall into this category in our stores,” said a spokeswoman for Hy-Vee Inc., a Midwest chain of more than 240 supermarkets.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

US grocery costs jump the most in 46 years, led by rising prices for meat and eggs

Prices Americans paid for eggs, meat, cereal and milk shot higher in April as people flocked to grocery stores to stock up on food amid government lockdowns designed to slow the spread of Covid-19.

The Labor Department reported Tuesday that prices U.S. consumers paid for groceries jumped 2.6% in April, the largest one-month pop since February 1974. The spike in supermarket prices was broad based and impacted items from broccoli and ham to oatmeal and tuna.

The price of the meats, poultry, fish and eggs category rose 4.3%, fruits and vegetables climbed 1.5%, cereals and bakery products advanced 2.9%, and dairy goods gained 1.5%.

The grocery numbers stand in stark contrast to the broader trend in U.S. prices, which fell 0.8% in April and clinched their largest one-month decline since 2008 as a swoon in oil and gasoline dragged the headline CPI number lower.

“Food price gains were robust as we know there are empty shelves out there,” Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group, wrote in an email. “Demand we know in most areas of the economy has collapsed and prices are falling in response.”

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, so-called core CPI dropped 0.4%, its largest slump ever through records kept since 1957.

“In areas where demand has hung in, like ‘food at home’ we have inflation because the supply side has been damaged, whether directly via infected facilities or because of the higher costs of finding freight capacity,” Boockvar added.

Source: CNBC

Who’s Enforcing Mask Rules? Often Retail Workers, and They’re Getting Hurt

The exchange was tense between the customer and Jesse, a Trader Joe’s employee sporting a white face mask and a flowery Hawaiian shirt.

“Why aren’t you wearing the mask?” Jesse asked the customer on a recent day at a store in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. “I am not here to question what you believe in. These are the rules. I am just asking you kindly to wear the mask.”

The customer, Genevieve Powers, who was recording the entire exchange, refused. “We are in America here,” she said, “Land of the free.” Then she turned her camera on other shoppers, who were less than amused: “Look at all of these sheep that are here, all wearing this mask that is actually dangerous for them.”

Jesse, identified only by his first name in the video, telephoned the police, who did not arrive. Finally, when Ms. Powers left the store, others customers burst into applause.

As more parts of the country reopen businesses, many retail workers have reluctantly turned into de facto enforcers of public health guidelines, confronting customers who refuse to wear masks or to maintain a wide distance from others. The risk of a violent reaction now hangs over jobs already fraught with health perils.

A Target employee in Van Nuys, Calif., ended up with a broken left arm after helping to remove two customers who refused to wear masks.

A cashier told a man refusing to wear a mask that he could not buy a pack of cigars at a convenience store in Perkasie, Pa. He punched her three times in the face.

In San Antonio, a man who was told he could not board a public bus without a mask shot a passenger, the police said. The victim was hospitalized and the gunman was arrested.

And in a confrontation that turned deadly, the security guard at a Family Dollar store in Flint, Mich., was shot and killed after insisting that a customer put on a mask.

Meegan Holland, the spokeswoman for the Michigan Retailers Association, said stores were caught in the middle. “People can get belligerent when being asked to do something that they do not want to do,” she said.

Masks have been recommended by public health officials as a key way to diminish the spread of the coronavirus, with at least a dozen states requiring them and many others issuing a hodgepodge of county or municipal orders.

They have also turned into a flash point in the country’s culture wars, with some defending their right to not wear one.

“We have individual rights, we don’t have community rights,” said Ms. Powers, 56, the customer at the Trader Joe’s store, in an interview this week.

Public health experts said this argument was misguided.

“I never had a right to do something that could injure the health of my neighbors,” said Wendy E. Parmet, the director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University.

Mask opponents generally overlook the fact that such regulations are meant to protect other people, not the person wearing the mask, she added.

Americans are navigating a patchwork of conflicting national and local guidance on masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, initially downplayed the efficacy of masks but now recommends them.

And they have become a ready symbol for those dubious about giving government officials wide powers for an extended period.

Retailers find the confrontations over masks a minefield.

“It is a very hot button issue,” said Kenya Friend-Daniel, a spokeswoman for Trader Joe’s. The company declined to allow Jesse, the employee involved in the confrontation, to be interviewed.

“We do not want to put our crew members in the position to have to enforce something like that,” she said, noting that customers “overwhelmingly” wear masks.

In all its 505 stores, Trader Joe’s has put up signs recommending that customers wear masks, not least to protect its employees, Ms. Friend-Daniel said.

Refusing is not grounds alone for being ejected from a store, she said, even where wearing masks in public is the law, but creating a disturbance that bothers other customers is.

Target, in places where masks are the law, has stationed security employees outside its stores to remind customers to wear them, said Jake Anderson, a spokesman.

Stores are not the only businesses involved. Uber announced that starting Monday, drivers and riders must wear masks, and those who refuse can be kicked off the platform.

Smaller retailers feel especially vulnerable to balancing the need for safety and the need to revive their bottom line.

In Charleston, S.C., at M. Dumas & Sons, a 103-year-old men’s clothing store, employees wear masks in line with a city requirement while customers are offered them at the front door.

Gary Flynn, the owner, estimated that 50 percent of his customers would walk away if required to wear a mask.

“I want whatever I can get right now,” he said, with business inching up but still only 25 percent of what it was a year ago.

He acknowledged that his workers were putting themselves in harm’s way to generate sales. “So it’s a slippery slope and it’s a moral challenge every day to try to figure out what’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Farther up King Street, Las Olas Swimwear boutique was doing brisk business in bathing suits for beach-starved customers, as well as face masks. The store has sold more than 500 masks produced by a New York swimwear supplier.

Daniel James, the owner, stated unequivocally that he would fire any employee not wearing a face mask, but said masks were voluntary for customers.

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made masks mandatory in late April and allowed stores to bar customers who refused. But she did not criminalize such refusals, so police have only intervened when confrontations turned violent.

In Illinois, Rob Karr, the president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, compiled a list of episodes that took place in the first 48 hours after masks became mandatory on May 1.

One customer threatened to get a gun from his car to shoot the worker insisting that he wear a mask. Several employees were hit, while others were verbally abused. Sometimes customers fought each other. The list has only grown longer.

Some police departments refused to respond when stores asked for help, Mr. Karr said, while various retailers were fined $750 for not enforcing the ban.

In Warwick, R.I., a police union initially announced on its Facebook page that it would not enforce Gov. Gina Raimondo’s mandatory mask order, calling it “overreaching” and bound to destroy the bridge of trust built with the community. The police chief then issued a statement saying the department would act.

Lawrence O. Gostin, the Georgetown University professor who wrote the draft public health law adopted by many states, suggested that in the absence of national guidelines, retailers should develop one policy for all their stores and stick with it, whether it has the backing of state law or not — that way the rules would be clear for all customers.

Some experts also suggested it was overkill to involve police in the general enforcement of public health measures.

The issue should be treated like wearing seatbelts or not smoking in public, which eventually became habits, Ms. Parmet suggested, but such consensus must develop much more quickly given the danger from Covid-19.

In Hawaii, that consensus is emerging because neighbors are confronting anti-maskers themselves, said Tina Yamaki, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii.

“It is the other customers in the stores that are shaming them to put it back on or commenting,” she said.

Ms. Yamaki compared the mask dilemma to trying to ensure that a young child keeps wearing a hat — one minute it is on, and the next minute, after you look away, it disappears.

“We cannot be policing that all the time,” she said of the masks. “We are not that type of law enforcement.”

Source: The New York Times