Grocery union demands vaccines and hazard pay for workers

Grocery workers have fought for hazard pay and expressed concerns for their safety for since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly a year ago. Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, spoke with Anne-Marie Green and Vladimir Duthiers about what would help grocery workers and Kroger's plans to close stores in California and Washington state after local governments required them to give workers hazard pay.

Video Transcript

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Grocery store workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are fighting for a pay raise and access to the vaccine. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that essential workers like those in grocery stores are 55% more likely to become infected with the virus than nonessential workers. Makes sense.

So for more on this, let's bring in Marc Perrone. He's the President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents grocery workers around the country. Thank you so much for joining us.

You know, I remember at the beginning of this pandemic grocery store workers were sort of our heroes. There was almost-- Vlad, you remember, there was no place to go really other than the grocery store.

And we were all nervous about what we could do. Did we have to wash the fruits and vegetables, who we could touch? And there were always people there, either delivering our groceries to our front door or there to help us.

But a year on in, it doesn't seem like there is the level of appreciation there was last year in March. Can you tell us-- do you have an idea of the numbers, just how many grocery store workers have been infected with COVID-19 or even died here in the US so far?

MARC PERRONE: Well, we don't know exactly the number. We do know the number that we've been keeping track of, but there has not been the transparency that we think it should be.

So what I can tell you is this, is that we've had over 400 of our members pass away because of COVID that we're able to track, and another 77,000 that have been infected or impacted by that. Now, Anne-Marie, you said it yourself. Initially, they were heroes. And they were talking about the fact that they were essential. But now they believe that they're expendable.

Part of the reason why they were looking for the hazard pay was because in many cases, the grocery companies did not provide the kind of PPE, like the N95 masks. And if those workers wanted to have those masks to give them full protection, they were having to purchase them themselves. Or if they were-- let's say they had a symptom, and they had to go home and be off work but did not receive the test, they needed that extra money to sort of offset that.

Look, their major concern is their customers and their families, about either getting their customers sick or getting their families sick, if they could go home with the virus. But they've certainly been impacted by it, there's no question. But we do believe there needs to be more transparency. We think the numbers are much higher than what I just gave you.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: So-- so how has the pandemic changed the job for grocery store workers, when for example here in New York City there are certain grocery stores, for example Whole Foods, which has-- you can check out on your own without having a checkout person. For those grocery stores that still have people working the register, there are glass walls, plexiglass shields in front of their workstations. And I'm very curious. I've always been curious about how the stores were able to reconfigure so quickly.

MARC PERRONE: Well, first of all--

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: But you know what, Vlad, also-- Marc, just to sort of jump in a little bit on that as well. You know, these grocery store workers are also dealing with customers that are not too happy about following the guidelines. And you know, they're not getting paid a lot to get into fights with customers who don't want to wear masks. So if you could address both of those things, that'd be great.

MARC PERRONE: Right, Anne-Marie. It really shouldn't be up to the grocery worker to try to mandate or enforce the mask issue in the store. That's really the employer's responsibility. And they should take care of it, because they're the owners of the property. Look, no shoes, no shirt, no service. And it could be the same way with masks.

But let's get back to the question that Vlad asked. And I think it's a great question. Number one, just so that you understand something, Vlad, the Plexiglas shields really don't do much. Those were, I think, in the very beginning stages something to make the customers feel comfortable inside the stores. But they really don't provide much benefit. We know from studies that were done by MIT, as well as other universities, the aerosol goes right up to the top if somebody was to sneeze anyway.

And as it relates to the UScan technology, initially most of the employers were imposing cleaning of those UScan registers after each person. And we've all seen how they've all kind of fallen off since that has taken place.

Look, these workers are exposed every single day. They have been since the beginning of this pandemic. They went to work. They put food on our tables. And they made sure that we didn't have a food panic in this country.

During the course of the initial stages of the pandemic, over 10,000 people a day were going into these stores, and they were being exposed dramatically. Now, that has dropped off some, just because of the way that people have changed their shopping patterns. They've expanded them. And they also, at least at this point in time, are not hoarding as much food as they were in the very beginning.

But they've been out there every single day, and they've been under pressure. 90% of our members, okay, are more afraid today than they were 60 days ago and more afraid today than we were 30 days ago, because of the new variants. And they understand that it is more contagious. And they're concerned about whether or not they're going to bring it home.

So if we're going to have true public safety and the customers are going to be safe and the workers are going to be safe, you know, we need to make-- or take very close attention to the kind of masks that are being provided to these workers. Whether or not they're going to receive excess compensation-- because many of our employers have done really well as far as their profits are concerned. But at this point in time, they haven't shared them. We just don't think that's fair, and we think our members don't think it's fair.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: OK, I want to address both of those things. But I'm going to start with, you know, what you said about how concerned workers are, that they're more fearful for their life now than they were at the beginning of this thing. There's a lot of debate about who should be next in line to get the vaccine. Do you think that grocery store workers should be included in the next phase?

MARC PERRONE: Well, I think that we ought to look at things logically and scientifically. We ought to look at the people that are going to be the most exposed. And of course, that would be our health care workers, our first responders first, and all those people that are in those nursing homes that are restricted, and they have people coming in and out of them that sort of creates the possibility for our elderly to become sick and die. That's the first thing that we need to do.

And I don't think that our grocery store workers think that they should be first in line. But they should be in line at a level to where that it makes sense. Those that are the most exposed, okay, that have the greatest risks, should in fact receive the vaccine first.

If you, for instance, have the ability to stay at home and work from home, you don't necessarily need the vaccine as quickly. If I'm 65 years old, and let's say I have a comorbidity and I can stay at home and not have to necessarily go to work, then why do I need the vaccine more than a grocery worker that has to be out there every single day? I think that's the issue that we need to address and we need to think about.

Look, I don't believe for any stretch of the imagination that we have to have a situation where we put somebody before somebody else. We need to look at it logically. We need to look at it scientifically. And if you look at it in those ways, I do believe that grocery workers would be higher up the list.

There's only 13 states in this country that prioritize grocery workers. That's criminal. And it needs to be changed.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: So let me ask you about this. Kroger has closed stores in California and in Washington state in response to local governments passing laws that require the workers-- that require the stores, rather, to give workers hazard pay. So in a statement, Quality Food Centers-- which is owned by Kroger-- said that Seattle City Council requiring them to pay their workers more has forced them to close two underperforming stores.

But Kroger has seen record profits during the pandemic. The question, of course, is what kind of message does that send to workers and to other grocery stores, if you have these individuals who are on the front lines-- and as Anne-Marie said, I am still eternally grateful for what our grocery store workers are doing, you know, in the midst of this pandemic.

But I often worry when you talk to some of them that they tell, just anecdotally, that they just aren't being treated by management with the same understanding that the people that they're serving have. In other words, those of us who are thankful because we can continue to shop, because we do get our groceries delivered are grateful. But their managers and the owners of their establishments don't seem to feel the same way about what they're doing.

MARC PERRONE: Look, I think that clearly, Kroger could have kept those stores open, both the two that they closed in Long Beach and the two that they closed in that Seattle market. I don't think there's any question about that. Look, they did about $3 billion in profits last year over what they did the year before.

And that was basically-- it was just primarily because of the pandemic. It didn't have anything to do with how much better Kroger's management was or how much better they were delivering food. It had to do with the fact that all the restaurants were closed and we were eating three meals a day at home, and a lot of people were at home. They could have shared those profits with those workers.

I think it's unfortunate that Kroger decided to close those stores. The fact of the matter is that they did have the capabilities of keeping them open. I think that what we had to look at, though-- there may be a larger hidden message there.

And that message is that there is a change that has happened in our country as it relates to politics. There is this change and this thought process that they may change the minimum wage. And quite honestly, I think it was a bigger message that if you guys try to legislate wages in this country, we're going to retaliate in some sort of way.

You know, I think it's unfortunate. Wages have been stagnant for working-class people for a long time. Profits are up. People are taking more risk.

In every facet of our society, if you take more risk, you should be paid more. In every facet of our society, if profits are up, productivity is up, you know, sales are up, you should receive some of the benefit from that. And I do think that we've seen our workers go from essential, you know, workers in the initial stages of this pandemic to expendable. And I think it's unfortunate.

Now, in reference to the management of the company, let me say this. Look, I think that the headquarters building is looking at numbers based on dollars and cents and dollars and cents only. I don't think that they actually looked at how these workers are responding like they should. But you know, it's easy to do if you're not necessarily seeing them every single day, like you or I am.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Marc Perrone, it's very good to hear from you. And as you're talking, I am also thinking about those grocery store workers that are not represented by your union. I see a very big difference between the way people are treated when I go, say, to a Whole Foods-- and I don't know if that's part of your union or not-- where we have to line up outside, and there are a limited amount of people allowed inside, versus my neighborhood grocery store that doesn't have any of those restrictions in place. And I often worry about those people who may not have anyone speaking on their behalf as well, you know?

MARC PERRONE: Anne-Marie, we do as well. And quite frankly, that's the reason why we've tried to make it more about what's happening in the retail food industry and food manufacturing and food processing. I mean, that's the bulk of our membership. We recognize that we don't represent every worker in this country.

But all the things that we're saying have, in fact, applied in some cases to some of the non-union facilities. Because they were concerned about us raising them, they took care of the issue. So look, I think the work, quite honestly, that the news media has done in reference to all this, that you all have made it so public-- you all have been a wonderful partner through this process to help these workers who have been deemed essential and have created a better life for them. But they still have a long way to go.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Indeed. Well, they've helped to make this whole year much easier for Vlad and I and everyone else. So we certainly appreciate it. Marc Perrone, thank you for giving us a little bit of your time.

MARC PERRONE: Thank you so much, folks. Vlad, you take care. Anne-Marie, you take care. And y'all stay safe, please.