Local grocery chains have upgraded their security policies as federal guidelines for coronaviruses have changed, but some are wondering if companies are doing enough to protect employees.
Grocery store workers were deemed essential to the state’s economic infrastructure by Governor Brian Kemp. They continued to restock canned goods and products, disinfect high contact surfaces and interact with anxious customers – but because of this, they are vulnerable to exposure to the virus..
An increasing number of them have fallen ill in Georgia, raising concerns among workers about work safety.
Publix confirmed on Friday that employees at eight other stores in Georgia are positive for the coronavirus, including five on the Atlanta subway (see box).
Meanwhile, the International Union of United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 1.3 million grocers, meat wrappers and food processors – including thousands at Kroger and Piggly stores Wiggly, Georgia – lobbied the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for stronger protections for workers.
The UFCW wants the Atlanta-based public health agency to limit customers in a store to 20% to 30% of its capacity and requires that customers wear face masks or covers.
“It is not just about saving the lives of these workers, but also about protecting the customers they serve,” said union president Marc Perrone.
Company spokesperson Nicole Maristany Krauss said Publix was “highly focused on continuous and intensive protection measures in all of our stores.”
Companies have encouraged more extensive cleaning and safety procedures and have sought to minimize worker illnesses. Kroger, which operates 173 stores in Georgia, said only that it had seen “a small number” of confirmed cases of coronavirus in its Atlanta area stores.
Kroger began to limit the number of customers from 1 visitor per 60 square feet to 1 per 120 square feet. Publix, based in Florida, which has 188 branches in Georgia, let store managers decide to cap customers and opted for one-way shopping aisles and plexiglass shields in the registers, as did other big names retailers like Walmart.
Grocery chains have stepped up efforts to secure worker protective gear, especially after the CDC recommended two weeks ago that people wear masks in public. But most companies have made the masks optional for employees and customers, and several chains say securing protective gear in the face of a global shortage has been slow.
Mary, a Atlanta-based Publix worker, said the mask the company had given her was fragile. Many of his co-workers’ masks broke in one day and were told that they would not receive another.
“It became clear that there was no safe way to go (to work) everyday,” said Mary, who lives with an elderly relative and has been using paid vacation days for two weeks.
Mary believes that store managers could do more to enforce social distancing and inform workers who have been around colleagues potentially exposed to the virus.
She would be ready to go back to work if customers and workers are required to wear masks and stores limit the number of customers – or if she can take more than one night shift.
“Much of my work over the past month has been having longer conversations with my clients. You can see the anxiety on their faces, “she said. “I went crazy at home knowing there was nothing I could do to make it better now.” “
Not all store employees feel the same. Ari Williams, a partner at Lidl, a discounted grocery chain in Snellville, said she felt safe at work with the precautions of her employer, including “providing us with masks, face shields and plenty of gloves”.
Meanwhile, the UFCW local, which represents 20,000 workers in Georgia, has focused its recent efforts on pressure from the state for additional benefits for grocery store workers..
The group seeks to ensure that its members can exploit some of the $ 3.5 billion that Georgia recently received from Congress for block grants for child care, but the state says medical staff, first responders, law enforcement, pharmacists would get priority before grocers.
Valerie Barnhart, Director of Policy and Communications for Local 1996, said the group is investigating whether grocers will have priority access to protective gear and tests as part of the government’s recent executive actions for Brian Kemp to critical infrastructure workers.
“As front line workers, grocery store workers should get free testing, first things like vaccines and treatments,” said Barnhart.
“We really need the state to back off and just be clear about the rights they have and the benefits they will have to come forward and do the work that is so important right now,” he said. she adds.
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