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 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 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!”