Think “first responder” and the people that come to mind include firefighters and police officers, emergency medical technicians and nurses, along with other kinds of healthcare workers.
But there’s another group of people who believe during the COVID-19 pandemic they should be included: grocery store employees.
It’s not a frivolous request, says Melanie Bartholf. She is political director and service director of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1473. The union represents about 5,000 grocery store employees and another 5,000 food processing workers in Wisconsin; grocery stores across the state employ more than 75,000 people, according to the Wisconsin Grocers Association.
“Grocery stores are one of the most important businesses in society, and this crisis has really shown that,” Bartholf tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “Our members are on the front lines. They are interacting with customers regularly. They cannot get away from there. They are at higher risk than the average person of getting this disease, because they are working daily with a high level of contact with the public.
“They’ve dealt with all the panic buyers, the hoarders, and with customers not following social distancing. The safety of our members absolutely has to be paramount, because they’re the ones providing this service.”
Grocery stores and their employees have already been classified as “essential” in the Safer-at-Home order that Gov. Tony Evers and Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary-designee Andrea Palm instituted March 25.
The union is asking Evers to kick them up to first responders so that they qualify for whatever benefits are offered other workers in that category, including access to free child care during work shifts.
Additionally, the union is asking the governor’s office to include in the categorization free health coverage for tests, treatments and medicines for COVID-19; free personal protective equipment on the job and expedited access to it; paid leave for testing, quarantine, isolation, treatment, and care for a family member with COVID-19 illness.
“We’re certainly not asking that our members cut in line ahead of healthcare workers,” says Bartolf. “We’re asking that our members be able to get in line.”
At a DHS media briefing on Monday, Evers said his administration is looking at the first-responder classification request. “We are considering that at this point in time and we have not made a decision on it yet,” the governor told the Wisconsin Examiner. “Clearly we understand the importance of making sure that our people in Wisconsin have access to nutritious food. And one of the ways to do that is to make sure that our folks that work in those grocery stores are doing the right thing and are protected in the right way.”
Other states, including Minnesota, Michigan and Vermont, have provided variations on the classification and associated benefits, which so far have been limited to free childcare. Minnesota, for example, has two tiers of employees: medical at the top, followed by “critical responders” in second place, both of them qualifying for special provisions, Bartholf says.
The Safer-at-Home order classifying grocery workers as essential doesn’t focus at all on the issues that grocery workers are raising, she says.
“This executive order naming grocery stores as essential allows stores to stay open and allows our members to leave their homes and travel freely to and from work,” Bartholf explains. “It does not do anything else for them or make any additional state benefits available to them. That’s why it’s not enough simply that our members are working in essential industries.”
Working through the governor’s office is just one avenue the union is pursuing to obtain some of the benefits that first-responder status would confer.
The union has already appealed to grocery employers to offer paid leave in some form. “Many of the employers whose workers we represent are refusing to grant that,” Bartholf says.
“Many employers are not offering any sort of emergency paid leave to our members in grocery stores,” she adds. And the first round of COVID-19 legislation that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed last month left a gap that many grocery store employees fell into.
“The Families First Coronavirus Response Act excludes employers with more than 500 employees from the paid leave requirement, and not all employers are stepping up and doing the right thing,” Bartholf says. “It is absolutely vital that employees working on the frontlines of this pandemic have access to paid time off if they become ill or need to care for a family member who is ill. We don’t want our members to have to choose between getting a paycheck and keeping their family and themselves safe.”
Many employers have erected clear barriers between cashiers and customers to reduce the chance of germ spread. The union has also asked employers, both in grocery retailing but also in food processing, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees along with training and revised traffic patterns — such as one-way aisles — to help prevent congestion and limit the number of customers coming into contact with workers as well as each other.
Temperature checks for customers — to detect fever, a sign of possible COVID-19 infection — as well as frequent handwashing breaks have also been on the union’s request list.
But those conversations involve one employer at a time.
“We have also asked the governor to issue an executive order requiring that grocery stores implement all of those things,” Bartholf says. “First-responder classification, we feel, will give [store employees] benefits above and beyond what employers are able and willing to provide.”