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Grocery workers ask for special designation, protections during coronavirus pandemic

  

With a statewide social distancing order — and several counties requiring residents to stay at home as much as possible — one of the few places Missourians can go during the global COVID-19 pandemic are grocery stores. 

For that reason, a St. Louis-based union has asked Gov. Mike Parson to officially designate grocery, food processing, pharmacy, and other retail employees as “first responders.” 

“Grocery, retail, food processing, and pharmacy workers are quite literally on the frontlines of this public health crisis,” David Cook, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 655, said in the letter to the governor. “As we have witnessed the demand for food and supplies reach unprecedented levels, these hard-working men and women are working tirelessly to meet the needs of Missouri citizens.”

With the first responder designation, UFCW Local 655 has asked for access to priority testing and safety equipment, state-provided security for all locations, full wage reimbursement should employees not be able to work because of coronavirus, and state-provided or funded daycare as schools shutter. 

Cook also requested specific protections for food and pharmacy workers to “safely commute” to and from work should travel restrictions be put in place and a “more comprehensive plan that protects our workers and community within stores by providing crowd control measures.” 

Asked about the letter during a recent press conference, Parson said his administration is “considering everything.” But Cook said he’s heard “crickets” from the leadership in Jefferson City on this issue so far. 

“It’s demoralizing. Food workers are truly the first responders to the crisis we’re living in right now,” Cook told The Missouri Times.

Local 655 has taken steps within its organization for its members, including implementing a free telemedicine system and covering all costs related to coronavirus testing. 

Major grocery stores in Missouri have changed their daily practices to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. Hy-Vee and Schnucks have implemented a reserved time at the beginning of each day for shoppers who are considered “high-risk,” such as those who are elderly, pregnant, or have underlying health conditions. 

And others — such as Dierbergs, Hy-Vee, and Schnucks — are installing protective windows at checkouts to protect workers.

Many grocery stores are also hiring new employees to keep up with demand. 

Cook has a message for Missourians during this time: be appreciative of those who are working in grocery stores and understanding when a product isn’t available.

“They’re putting their own personal safety and health at risk while serving the public,” he said. “Thank the workers who aren’t highly paid but are serving them in this time of need.”

More than 100 Missourians have tested positive for coronavirus so far, and three people have died in the state. Parson has declared a state of emergency and ordered “social distancing.”

The virus has been named “SARS-CoV-2” while the disease is called “coronavirus disease 2019,” or “COVID-19.” It can cause severe respiratory illnesses with symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned.

There have been more than 15,000 confirmed cases in the U.S., and 201 deaths, according to the CDC. Several hundred people in Missouri have been tested. 

DHSS has opened a public hotline operated by medical professionals around the clock seven days a week. The hotline number is 877-435-8411.

This story has been updated.


EDITOR’S NOTE: For up-to-date information on coronavirus, check with the CDC and DHSS.