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Grocery Store Workers Need Frontline Protections

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Grocery store workers, like healthcare workers, first responders, and transportation workers, are currently among those deemed “essential” workers during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And, indeed, they have always been essential: they help provide the food and supplies necessary to sustain us all.

But of all the frontline workers whose work puts them in contact with potentially infected members of the public, grocery workers are among those who receive the least protections and the lowest pay.

Now grocery workers, too, are becoming infected—and some are dying of COVID-19.

It is deeply disturbing that several large corporate grocery retailers are simply not doing enough to protect workers’ safety or health during this critical time. Some of these retailers have been accused of harmful practices against workers in normal times. But lax health and safety protections during this crisis are dangerous and intolerable. Some food stores have reportedly put concerns about optics before the health and safety of workers by not allowing gloves to be worn by workers. Despite a recent Politico analysis that revealed cashiers are the largest number of at-risk workers, these workers continue to fight employer inaction.

Of all essential frontline workers, grocery workers are among the least protected and lowest paid.

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores, while white workers are more likely to be represented in management and supervisory roles. This means that the panic shopping that is resulting in lines out of the door and physical fights over supplies is being experienced disproportionately and most directly by workers of color. Shoppers are stocking up on supplies and food to stay home and to minimize exposure or risk, protecting themselves and their families. But what about the workers who are making the food and supplies available? Why isn’t their health and safety being better protected by their employers?

A cashier at a major grocery store in northwest Washington, D.C. says that her employer has done nothing to ensure that workers are protected from the influx of customers that she interacts with daily. The store has not even provided every employee with requested protective gear, leaving many of them to supply their own. When she questioned management about the store supplying workers with protective gear, she was told that masks are not allowed because they only prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that the company is only obligated to provide gloves to staff that come into contact with unwrapped food goods. This week, her store changed its policy and is allowing all workers to wear masks. But the workers are still responsible for supplying the masks and gloves themselves. “Even the porter, the person who cleans the bathroom, they don’t provide gloves to him. He brought his own gloves,” she said.

The federal agency in charge of workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has failed to issue a standard requiring employers to implement specific protections to safeguard at-risk workers in this crisis. Congressional efforts to require OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect the most at-risk healthcare workers were blocked by the Trump administration and hospital industry lobbyists.

It has become painfully clear that state and local lawmakers need to swiftly implement health and safety protections for all frontline workers. In Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Vermont, grocery workers have been officially classified as emergency workers—a designation that will make free childcare services available to them during the crisis. But no state has implemented any other required protections for grocery or any other workers. Further, OSHA is not conducting any enforcement when workers complain about unsafe conditions.

In unionized supermarkets, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union has pushed large chains to install protective shields between cashiers and customers, and to provide hand sanitizer, additional cleaning and sanitizing of store surfaces, time to wash hands with soap, face shields, masks, gloves, and extend paid sick leave. But workers in non-union grocery stores are left with no required protection and few safety rights.

Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores.

Black and brown retail workers already faced large disparities in pay, scheduling, and advancement in their workplaces before the current crisis. These workers also make up a disproportionate number of workers in jobs with the highest injury risksRecent reports have also shown that only 19.7% of Black workers and 16.2% of Latinx workers work in occupations that allow them to telework. The concentration of these communities in the retail and hospitality sectors is a major contributor to these inequities.

With many workers of color on the job in workplaces that may expose them to a potentially deadly transmissible virus, these workers are facing both panic and a status they know all too well: exclusion. In fact, even if Black workers have been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, they must then navigate a medical system that has discriminated against their communities long before COVID-19 swept across the globe.

A 61-year old Black woman I spoke with who works as a grocery cashier and has survived two strokes is not only concerned about her health but also has had to take additional steps to purchase groceries for her family. Her shift starts at 6 a.m., but she shows up even earlier to try to buy what she needs before her shift begins and the store gets busy. She began this routine after she was unable to buy toothpaste and soap for herself one day after her six-hour shift ended.

“We don’t have none in stock. We used to have hand sanitizer on each register but since this virus there’s been a backorder for hand sanitizer, so we don’t have any,” she said.

Union protections have proven to be crucial for workers of color and will be even more vital for frontline workers right now. The COVID-19 crisis has propelled workers to unify and use their collective power to secure the protections they need to endure the daunting workdays ahead. Across the country, workers who have joined together to form unions have won some of the strongest standards for essential workers in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 crisis has propelled many workers to use their collective power to secure the protections they need.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a myriad of socioeconomic problems that workers have faced for years. In every recession, disaster, or other crisis in our history, Black and brown people have endured the hardest of hardships. It appears that the COVID-19 pandemic will be no different. The impact on our families, communities, and the economy will extend for years to come, even after we can leave our homes and return to the everyday routines that we sorely miss right now.

Essential frontline workers are keeping the U.S. running during this crisis. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their own well-being to keep the rest of us safe. We must fight for immediate solutions that prioritize strong health and safety standards, wage protections, paid leave, and unemployment insurance to protect frontline workers and all workers affected by this public health crisis.

This blog was originally published at NELP on April 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shayla Thompson is the government affairs manager on NELP’s Government Affairs team. She is a member of NELP’s committee tasked with change management and facilitating NELP’s commitment to dismantling structural racism. Her tenure at NELP has included conducting research in projects committed to racial equity, creating curriculum to guide NELP’s race caucuses, and facilitating equity training.

Shayla is committed to infusing race and inclusion into federal advocacy and creating policy messaging that reaches all working people.

Before joining NELP, she managed professional development training and social media campaigns for early childcare providers, infant mental health specialists, and parents.


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One Thing We Can Do to Protect Frontline Workers

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Almost exactly 10 years ago, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and seriously injuring 17 more. To clean it up, BP hired more than 40,000 local residents to remove oil from the beaches and shoreline. They would be working under the blistering summer sun, greatly increasing their risk of heat-related disease or death.

I ran the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009 through January 2017. Long before the oil reached the Gulf Coast shores, I flew to Louisiana and met with leaders of the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to plan the multiagency effort to ensure that BP protected those workers’ safety and health. OSHA adapted heat disease prevention policies used by the U.S. military to protect soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and pushed BP to comply with them. The rules included extensive rest breaks in the shade, and liquids for rehydration. We had no legal authority to do so, but BP complied—and over the four-month effort, not a single worker was seriously sickened or killed by heat.

This year, a new crisis has put a much bigger swath of the workforce—far more Americans, in many industries—unexpectedly in harm’s way. Millions of American workers are literally risking their lives every day on the job, saving desperately ill patients, ensuring food and medicine get to our stores and homes, and keeping the public safe. Every day there are reports of physiciansnursespolice and emergency responders, even bus drivers, who have died from Covid-19 after their employers failed to implement appropriate infection control measures or provide the adequate respiratory protection or sanitary facilities needed to prevent exposure in the course of their work.

Yet OSHA, the federal agency under the Department of Labor charged with protecting these workers, is almost completely missing from the federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead of pressing employers on worker safety, Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia and President Donald Trump’s political appointees at the Labor Department have decided to tell workers there is little OSHA can do because it has no standard covering airborne infectious diseases. The law prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for raising safety and health concerns, yet when workers are fired for lodging complaints about safety conditions in their hospitals or warehouses, this administration has been mute.

Existing OSHA regulations require a minimal effort of employers, such as providing soap and water, but I have yet to hear anyone from the Labor Department or the White House announce this fact to the public. Instead, workers in a wide range of industries who face the risk of fatal infection have taken matters into their own hands, launching job actions and strikes to force their employers into providing even basic protections.

We need more than guidance.

OSHA can, and should, be front and center in our efforts to protect these truly essential workers. The agency’s dedicated career staff has great expertise in worker protection, and the agency has issued useful guidance about Covid-19. But guidance is nonenforceable. This is simply shameful.

That’s because besides using its bully pulpit, OSHA has clear options for how to help. It could start by announcing that, using the general duty clause of the OSHA law, the agency will now issue citations against employers who egregiously fail to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. News coverage of these citations would have a huge effect—a recent study reported one OSHA news release is as effective as 210 inspections in reducing workplace hazards.

For health care workers, the most important single action OSHA could and should take right now is to issue an emergency temporary infectious disease standard, requiring health care institutions to develop and implement infection-control plans that follow CDC guidance. (When Congress returns from its recess, it will consider legislation requiring OSHA to issue such a standard.)

In crises, OSHA generally does not issue fines except in cases in which the employer puts its workers at extreme risk. Hospitals that try but fail to obtain needed protective equipment would not be penalized. But the existence of a standard, backed up by the threat of inspections, would motivate many employers to better protect their workers.

I know OSHA could issue this emergency standard with little difficulty because we began drafting such a rule during my tenure. Three years ago, the new administration launched a massive deregulatory effort, halting all work on the infectious disease rule and many other protections.

The larger concern is that OSHA is suffering from malign neglect, reflecting the low regard the president has for the health and safety of the nation’s workers. The agency has not had an assistant secretary—the person who actually runs the agency day to day—since I left 39 months ago. There hasn’t even been a nominee for the position in almost a year. Half of the senior executive positions are empty, and, while the nation’s workforce has gotten much larger, the size of the inspectorate is the smallest it has been in more than 40 years. It would take 165 years for OSHA to inspect every workplace under its jurisdiction just one time.

The Trump administration should not wait for Congress to force it to take badly needed action. This crisis has demonstrated the vital importance of a safe and healthy workforce. OSHA is the only federal agency with the authority and expertise to ensure that worker protection is not sacrificed in the efforts to tame this epidemic and can accomplish this using modest and mostly nonpunitive tools. The administration needs to do its part so every worker who risks their life taking care of patients or stocking our stores or harvesting our crops is able to survive this terrible pandemic, safe and healthy.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Michaels served as assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health from 2009 to 2017. He is professor of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University, and is the author of The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception.


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