On Workers Memorial Day we need action to protect essential workers on the frontlines
As millions of America’s essential workers continue to bravely put their own health at risk on the frontlines of the pandemic, observing Workers Memorial Day this week is an opportunity to honor the sacrifices and remember the men and women in these critical jobs who lost their lives to COVID-19 this past year.
Since last year, COVID-19 has resulted in at least 170 grocery worker deaths and over 34,700 grocery workers infected or exposed, with more infected every day. Meatpacking plants have been devastated by outbreaks, with 132 meatpacking worker deaths now confirmed and over 57,500 meatpacking workers infected or exposed across the country.
These are not just numbers. These are real people mourned by family and loved ones.
In Maryland, Leilani Jordan was a Giant Foods grocery worker with cerebral palsy who helped senior citizens at her store get the food they needed before she died from the virus. And in Colorado, Randy Narvaez was a Kroger grocery worker who is now survived by a daughter and remembered as the “sweetest guy” who always “helped people out when they needed it.”
In South Dakota, Craig Franken was a Smithfield worker who was proud to help families put food on the table for 40 years with the company, and said his two granddaughters were the apple of his eye. Across the country in Georgia, Annie Grant was a Tyson Foods worker who worked at her poultry plant for nearly 15 years before succumbing to the virus and leaving behind two daughters.
Now, more than one year into this deadly pandemic, with countless new worker infections continuing each week, we have a responsibility to do more to stop this tragic loss of life.
As the union for 1.3 million of these brave men and women on the frontlines, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has worked tirelessly in the past year to strengthen workplace protections — actions that have helped save lives. But the brutal truth is that our nation’s largest food companies and our elected leaders must do much more to support, protect, and vaccinate America’s essential workers.
Today, we have COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved for months, but far too many essential workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants still face barriers to vaccine access. Even in states where essential workers are eligible for the vaccine, they have faced significant obstacles to secure vaccine appointments without missing work or losing a paycheck because they do not have access to vaccine paid leave.
Many essential workers also lack internet access at home and have been forced to wait on the phone for hours just to speak to someone at a vaccine hotline, with no guarantee they can schedule an appointment. For essential workers with shifts during business hours or who have language barriers, using these hotlines is not an option.
Simply put, honoring Workers Memorial Day this week cannot be limited to remembering those who lost their lives. It’s time our leaders do more by not only improving workplace safeguards and safety, but breaking down the ongoing and illogical barriers to vaccine access in so many states.
Keeping our country’s food supply secure during the pandemic would not have been possible without the courage of essential workers on the frontlines in grocery stores and meatpacking plants. The least we can do for them and their families now is make sure they are vaccinated and vaccinated quickly — because their lives literally depend on it.
Marc Perrone is the President of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents 1.3 million essential workers in grocery, retail, meatpacking, healthcare, and many other frontline businesses across North America.