Working through the pandemic

As grocery store employees continue to work through the stay-at-home order, their union continues to fight for safer working conditions.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the order to stay at home by Governor Gavin Newsom has affected many industries and workers.

While some find themselves unemployed or working from home, “essential workers” are now trying to continue what has been deemed essential services, such as food or package delivery, while trying to protect their health.

One of the first industries to be impacted by coronavirus was the grocery markets, which saw a rush for toilet paper, sanitizers and other non-perishable food items before the order to stay at home became official.

Now, as residents stay in their homes, grocery stores are staying open, despite the calls for social-distancing.

In response to the need for California grocery stores to continue operating, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UCFW) has stepped in to demand greater protections for union members who work in direct contact with the public every day.

“A couple of weeks ago, when it became clear that the pandemic was going to greatly affect California, we started meeting with all of the employers where our members work,” Andrea Zinder, UFCW Local 324 president, said. “We demanded meetings with each of them to find out what they were doing and to give them our list of demands.”

According to Zinder, the union’s demands included a chance for employees to wash their hands every 30 minutes, disinfectant in the check stands, gloves, masks and that restrooms are thoroughly clean for employees.

The union also asked for Plexiglas cough protectors at check stands, and procedures to limit the number of customers in the store at one time and to enforce social distancing.

According to Zinder, the union also pushing for procedures on how grocery companies will inform employees if one of their co-workers test positive, or are exposed.

“We made a long list of demands in addition to paid time off,” Zinder said. “If you are infected, exposed, [are waiting for test results] or exhibiting symptoms, you should have paid time off because nobody should go to work only because they have to feed their family.”

So far, Zinder says that some of the companies have been slow to implement the union’s demands.

She stated that in the beginning, some employees complained that they received pushback from store management when they would wear face masks and gloves– even if employees bought their own.

The Plexiglas cough protectors have not yet been installed in many stores, and Zinder states that the 30-minute hand-washing period is not necessarily happening.

“I would say [the stores] were all receptive to speaking to us, but the ideas we had probably went far beyond what they initially thought they should do. So, they had to get back to us on many of them to bargain on many of them,” Zinder said.

While the union continues to fight for safer working conditions, Zinder believes the most significant change for workers is the change in attitude from the public.

“I think the community now realizes what heroes grocery workers are,” Zinder said. “I hope that that the respect that they have earned […] during this crisis will carry forward. Grocery workers are essential in the community, and they keep the community going. They are entitled to every bit of respect and gratitude that we can give them.”