Politics of Poverty

COVID19: Safeguarding essential workers in our supermarkets

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Staff from Oxfam America, Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), and Teamsters outside the Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, Texas. Photo: Oxfam

Grocery workers are on the front line of our fight with COVID-19. Supermarkets must safeguard their lives and livelihoods.

This blog was authored by Art Prapha, senior advisor, campaigns and advocacy, in Oxfam’s Private Sector Department.

With many of us home-bound to do our part to slow the spread of the fatal coronavirus, grocery stores have become a key lifeline to the outside world. They are where we buy the food we eat and the products we need. But the workers in our supermarkets are at the front lines of the pandemic, risking their lives in order to keep food on our tables.

Many supermarket workers live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford to miss work. Seventy percent of retail cashiers are women—and women also perform the bulk of unpaid care work at home. Supermarket workers stock the shelves, provide essential customer service, and deliver our groceries, yet too many do not have access to paid sick leave or proper equipment and training to protect themselves.

One Whole Foods worker told us:

“Whole Foods hasn’t bought Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for everyone; they encourage people to buy their own… It’s up to individual store managers to make decisions about that.”

He also observed that when a worker tests positive for COVID-19, the store does not close to get cleaned and there’s a lack of information for workers. As a result, he said, “It adds to the stress and misery for us.” *

Making things worse, millions of workers continue to go to work without paid sick leave. In fact, the United States is the only highly developed country (except for South Korea) that does not guarantee paid sick leave.

For over two years, Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes campaign has highlighted inequality in the food value chain with supply chain workers and farmers losing out to large supermarket chains. Today, we are calling on US grocery stores to take crucial steps to support the workers in their stores and ensure they remain safe and healthy. Specifically, they must:

  • Provide paid sick leave and hazard pay for all their workers. More than ever before, the COVID-19 pandemic reveals how essential it is that all workers can stay home when they’re sick or need to care for others. Essential workers should be compensated for the risk they undertake to keep our food supply available. Some grocery stores have stepped up to offer this to workers, but all supermarkets need to ensure their workers have access to these crucial benefits.
  • Ensure social distancing in stores, and that all workers have proper protective equipment and training in order to stay safe. Supermarkets should take urgent steps to ensure that all their workers are properly trained and protected while on the job, including enforcing limits on numbers of customers allowed in the store at a given time and six feet of spacing, especially at check out. They must also offer free gloves, the most protective masks available, and install plexiglass barriers at checkouts.
  • Talk to their workers to develop the best solutions. Supermarket workers know the realities of their workplaces better than company headquarters. They know what will work and what won’t. All grocery stores should immediately engage with workers, unions, and worker advocates in all jobs, from cashiers to the deli counter, to hear their concerns and jointly develop the best solutions to support them.

Oxfam stands in solidity with trade unions and allies, including United Food and Commercial Workers, United for Respect, and Global Retail Worker Sick-Out (which includes Whole Foods), who have been calling for enhanced policies to support and protect workers during the crisis, including pay increase and overtime, paid sick leave, hazard pay, personal protective equipment, regular cleaning of check stands, six-foot social distancing in the store, training, designation of first responders and more. They have also been fighting for grocery workers to be designated as essential personnel under state laws, allowing them priority access to child-care and testing. We also welcome and support a statement signed by 195 institutional investors representing over $4.7 trillion USD, who called on businesses to prioritize the welfare of workers and other stakeholders as they respond to the pandemic.

While Congress moved to provide sick leave for some of America’s workers, the new benefit only applies to companies that have fewer than 500 employees, leaving out most of those working in our country’s supermarket chains. That’s why we must take this urgent action today.

There is much more to be done and supermarkets can play a broader role in safeguarding the economic security of workers during this extreme time. This includes increasing wages, bonuses, and financial assistance; creating community relief funds; and making backup dependent care available for workers who must look after a sick family member.

These essential workers are the very people who ensure we can continue to hunker down and remain healthy during this unprecedented, trying time. It is our duty as consumers to help protect them. Supermarkets must act now to safeguard lives and livelihoods of essential workers in their operations. Take action now!

*Asked about the conditions of workers in their stores, and specifically the experience of the Whole Foods workers we spoke to, the supermarket chain responded by directing us to the company’s Covid-19 response page.

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