Grocery and pharmacy employees are 'essential workers' and must be protected
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With the rapid spread of COVID-19 to every state, the country is facing an unprecedented health and economic emergency. The last few weeks have demonstrated that America’s pharmacy and grocery workers are on the front lines of the pandemic and play a critical role not just in the economy but in the healthy functioning and survival of our society. Indeed, in the past few days, Minnesota, Vermont and Michigan have designed grocery clerks as “essential workers,” meaning they are eligible for childcare, thus allowing them do to their jobs.

For several weeks, grocery and pharmacy employees have been working extended hours to restack shelves, opening early to allow seniors, disabled and at-risk individuals to shop at a dedicated hour, and dealing with panic-buying customers who often taken their frustrations out on employees. They are working long hours under extremely difficult, stressful and often hazardous conditions to make sure the public has access to food, prescriptions and medical supplies, despite the very real dangers of being exposed to COVID-19 infection.

However, for all their heroic efforts, many workers have been provided little in the way of what they need to keep themselves and their families safe and secure. Grocery and pharmacy workers often survive on low-wages, poor health and welfare benefits, involuntary part-time hours and erratic schedules. Prior to the past few weeks, most had no entitlement to paid sick leave and too many workers still lack this essential benefit. Working conditions are generally better for unionized grocery workers – whose number have reduced with the rise of non-union giants like Walmart -- but they also desperately need enhanced employment benefits and more effective workplace protections.

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If we expect them to work throughout this unprecedented crisis, it is imperative that they are provided with stronger protections and essential health, safety and employment benefits. We cannot leave it to grocery and pharmacy corporations to “do the right thing” – many of them have fought vigorously against paid sick and family leave and safety protections in the past – but the government must implement these crucial measures without delay.

What Grocery and Pharmacy Workers Urgently Need:

  1. A minimum of two weeks paid sick leave

Every grocery and pharmacy worker must be provided immediately with a minimum of two weeks paid sick leave. Before the crisis, most non-union grocery and pharmacy workers lacked paid sick leave. For example, the second largest supermarket chain in the country, Kroger, had an estimated 189,000 workers without paid sick leave in 2019. In the past few weeks, several companies have stepped up to provide, temporarily, two weeks leave -- but this movement is not nearly enough. The government must mandate two weeks paid sick leave for all grocery and pharmacy workers at an absolute minimum, and this must remain in place after the current crisis has passed.

  1. Presumptive and adequate healthcare coverage

If grocery and pharmacy workers have to file a claim, and incur costs, because of illness caused by exposure to COVID-19 at work, their medical costs should be waived. They are here for us, we must be there for them. Workers must not be penalized for missing work because of suspected exposure to COVID-19, whether this exposure has been confirmed by testing – still not widely available -- or not. In addition, grocery and pharmacy workers should be provided with health care coverage regardless of length of service.

  1. Access to masks, sanitizers and paper towels and training in their use

Retailers must provide employees with these essential products before selling them off to the public, and provide proper training to use them properly so as to minimize the risk to worker safety. For example, high-risk areas, such check out and self-checkout kiosks, should be sanitized at 1-hour intervals; hot bar and self-service cafeteria services should be suspended; and services should be suspended if stores run out of sanitizing wipes for shopping carts and store surfaces. Employees need supplies at every work station and an increase in paid breaks to allow for hand washing. At-risk workers should be assigned to less vulnerable duties.

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  1. Strict limits in shopper numbers

Stores must enforce strict limits of customers to enable workers and customers to maintain adequate social distancing and stop the spread of the virus. Stores across the country have experienced a huge influx of customers stocking up on emergency food supplies. Customer restrictions have been enacted in jurisdictions with shelter in place orders, but most jurisdictions have not acted. Moreover, current limits are often too high, thus increasing the risk of infection to the public and retail workers. Companies must provide adequate store security to ensure the enforcement of strict customer limits and protect workers against potential customer abuse. Other measures should include safety markings on floors, barriers for cashiers and signs to educate customers.

  1. Reductions in store hours and hiring more workers

All stores should be closed between 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. to allow for the adequate restocking and proper sanitizing of stores. Companies must hire sufficient workers to meet the additional demands on restocking and daily disinfecting of stores. We also need special hours when grocery and pharmacy employees can shop. Where possible, we should facilitate COVID-19 testing or provide time off for workers to get tested.

  1. A ban on the use of reusable bags in grocery stores and pharmacies

We want shoppers to use reusable canvas bags during normal times, but not now. These bags could contribute to the spread of the virus from one location to another.

  1. Immediate provisions for workers’ emergency childcare needs

Like the rest of us, grocery and pharmacy workers have children who are no longer attending school and are themselves at risk of getting sick. We need immediate solutions to their emergency childcare needs, including adequate paid family leave and the flexible use of extended sick leave for childcare emergencies, when necessary.

  1. Hazard and excessive hours supplements to workers’ regular pay

In recognition of their extraordinary service, companies should provide workers with additional pay to compensate for excessive hours, stressful working conditions and hazard pay for those working directly with the public.

Like health care workers, first responders and others, grocery and pharmacy employees are “essential workers” on the front lines of this battle. They deserve not only our gratitude but adequate protection and provision for their health, safety and financial security. The government must mandate that companies comply with these policies for worker protection, and others as the situation changes daily and additional needs emerge, without delay.

John Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. He has researched the supermarket sector in multiple countries.