Grocery workers deserve hazard pay during COVID-19 surge

COVID-19 has made us more cognizant of routines that we no longer take for granted. It has also made us more appreciative of the workers who keep our vital routines intact, despite the risks to their health and their families.

Thanks to these essential workers, neighborhood grocery and drug stores continue to remain open and stocked during the pandemic. While they enjoy recognition for their sacrifice, it should also be reflected in additional compensation.

This is why United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 5, representing tens of thousands of Northern California grocery and drug store workers, is calling on major retail food and drug store CEOs to pay their workers more to reflect the health and safety risks they endure while providing uninterrupted food and medications to the households they serve

When California was under lockdown last spring, most food and drug stores provided “hazard” pay to their workers. The additional pay dried up at Safeway, CVS, Walgreens and Kroger once the lockdown was relaxed and the public relations boost faded. Only Save Mart/Lucky has continued to provide additional pay, and we congratulate them for stepping up.

With COVID-19 exploding into a deadly spike, California has implemented another lockdown. Infections are skyrocketing, hospital capacity is rapidly declining, and the virus is killing more of us than ever. So, it is time to guarantee hazard pay for every grocery and drug store worker.

The risks we face on the job each day are very real. A Harvard University study found one in five grocery workers tested positive for COVID-19 and three out of four had no symptoms. Among members of our union, over 900 have contracted COVID-19. Our affiliate in Southern California has sustained over 1,800 infections.

These risks come with a cost, aside from hospitalization and other medical expenses. Some of our members have died. Others have quarantined numerous times and exhausted their sick leave. Since many employers have not provided workers with additional paid sick days, workers lose pay when they must quarantine again to avoid infecting others on the job — the right thing to do during a pandemic.

Grocery and drug stores must do their part. They have raked in record profits. Some are even pursuing stock buybacks to inflate their share prices to reward executives and investors. We know there are ample profits to compensate essential grocery and drug store workers for placing their health and that of their families at risk. If executives refuse to act, then local government must step in and legislate hazard pay mandates for all grocery workers during today’s COVID-19 emergency.

We are not waiting for the companies to act. With our support, the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors introduced a resolution to adopt an ordinance requiring grocery and drug store employers to pay workers $5/hour in hazard pay until the community returns to the lowest infection risk level under state health guidelines. Similar actions are coming soon to the cities of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Californians will only overcome this crisis together. With COVID-19 impacts putting the squeeze on our state, it is clear the pressures we face will worsen before they improve. It’s equally clear our state can’t beat back the virus and reopen unless grocery and drug store workers stay on the job.

Californians depend on grocery and drug store workers to keep the economy running until the state reopens and our economic recovery begins. We take pride in this and challenge our employers to share the sentiment by providing real hazard pay immediately and voluntarily to all of us.

John Nunes is president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 5, which represents over 30,000 workers in grocery stores and other essential businesses throughout Northern California.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle