As the “war” against COVID-19 wages on, many have been called to the front lines.
Health care workers and police officers are the most obvious members of the first responder and frontline corps. However, another group that has gone unnoticed during the pandemic are manning the front lines in the retail grocery, meatpacking and food processing industries.
Louisville-based United Food & Commercial Workers Local 227 is working to ensure that these workers, whose risks are heightened due to working in “essential industry,” receive the recognition and benefits that they deserve, said Caitlin Blair, Local 227 communications director.
“We have been working on the state and federal levels to get legislators to extend the first responder designation to our members,” he said. “Our members are going to work every day to make sure that people are getting what they need. These workers are at a higher risk of exposure as more and more people flock to our stores to get what they need for their families. Our members are working harder than ever to ensure that these needs are met.”
Local 227 negotiates 39 union contracts with industries such as meatpacking, food processing, retail grocery, garment, painting, health care and more, representing 25,000 members in Kentucky and Southern Indiana, with more than 1 million members through the United States and Canada.
In the Owensboro-Daviess County region, Local 227 represents more than 2,700 workers involved with businesses such as Kroger, Meijer, Tyson and Glenmore Distillery.
Gaining first responder status would provide these frontline workers with greater access to personal protection equipment like masks and gloves, a place in line and better access to testing and quicker results, as well as other services like child care. That would put Kentucky and Indiana in the company of states like Minnesota, Michigan and Vermont that have already extended the designation, Blair said.
“Unfortunately, federal legislators left our members out of the recently passed package for these important protections,” she said. “So, we are turning our focus on our states. Other states have done this already. We see every night when our governor (Andy Beshear) addresses the state that there is a supply issue. We need our officials to lead and designate grocery workers and workers in the food supply chain as first responders.”
Gov. Andy Beshear, during his Friday press conference, showed his support of these frontline workers.
“We need them and we need to make sure that we have enough of them working,” he said. “I will do what I can to ensure that those brave souls have the protections that they need.”
Local 227 is also working alongside the companies employing their members to not only provide “Hero Pay” but additional protections to ensure the safety of these workers, she said.
“Companies like Meijer have already agreed to an additional $2 increase until May 2,” she said. “We are in discussions with every employer that is deemed an essential industry and working to ensure that every step is being taken to protect our members through enhanced sanitation protocols like plexiglass in check lanes, tape to help customers maintain social distancing, staggered breaks, hand washing breaks and opening up Telehealth services in the hopes of encouraging employers to do the right thing so the health care industry isn’t burdened.
“We will continue to have these discussions and lock down these resources for our workers because no one knows how long this will last.”
While workers involved in the retail grocery, meatpacking and food processing industries were taken for granted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Blair hopes that post-COVID, that perception will change and that these workers will be looked at as heroes.
“We have seen that the workers that we need to keep our communities safe and healthy are our grocery workers and those producing the food that we eat,” she said. “If they aren’t working or able to work, then our families don’t have what they need. Like everyone else, we fight to take care of our families — you can’t do that if you can’t buy groceries and products aren’t being made.
“Those people that are producing the food and stocking the shelves are absolutely front-line workers and essential in this crisis. They are 100% heroes. Going to work and putting yourself at risk to serve your community is the definition of a hero.”
Jacob Mulliken, 270-228-2837, firstname.lastname@example.org