By DAVID A. COOK
Two weeks ago, I wrote about COVID-19 and the way it was already fundamentally changing the world around us. Just two weeks ago, I wrote that 50,000 Americans had confirmed cases, and more than 600 were already dead.
In just the last two weeks, those numbers have exploded. As I write this, at least 550,000 Americans have confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 22,000 are dead.
In just the last two weeks, a great deal has changed:
- In those two weeks, Gov. Mike Parson has issued a statewide “stay-at-home” order (a little more on that later) and announced that Missouri’s public and charter schools won’t be re-opening before the summer break.
- In just the last two weeks, UFCW Local 655 has witnessed partners test positive for COVID-19.
- In just the last two weeks, our major employers have instituted mandatory mask policies, and they are supplying masks to all employees.
- In just the last two weeks, CVS has extended the start date for Schnucks pharmacy operations to transition. The CVS crew that handles the changes won’t be flying in for at least another month.
- In just the last two weeks, we’ve started regular Facebook Live broadcasts to provide yet another way for our partners to communicate with us.
- In just the last two weeks, we’ve created new policies and started communicating via text with virtually all of our partners.
- In just the last two weeks, we have left more than 80,000 recorded messages for our partners to communicate in every way possible.
- In just the last two weeks, the very idea of unions and grocery workers has changed in the minds of the public.
IN TWO WEEKS: POSITIVE CHANGE IS LOOMING
Suddenly, press and social media are awash with stories about heroic working-class families that keep our grocery stores and pharmacies open. Our friends and families on social media are posting photos depicting cashiers and pharmacy technicians — alongside nurses and doctors —as superheroes.
Suddenly, workplace policies are matters of life and death.
Suddenly, a phrase that didn’t exist in our vocabularies two months ago (social distancing) is a critical factor for all workers and customers.
UFCW Local 655 is moving quickly during this crisis, adapting as fast as possible and ruling out no solution, no policy, until this turbulent time is over.
Since this began, we have taken a number of steps to try to protect our partners, and there is still more to do as we continue to evolve.
Our major employers are now providing masks to their employees, and we’re fighting to secure masks for all our partners in the coming weeks. Many of our employers have installed plexiglass barriers and created signage to maximize social distancing. Some employers will begin taking temperatures of employees to keep anyone potentially sick from spreading the illness to their co-workers, and all our employers have adopted clear guidelines for responding to an employee testing positive.
STILL MUCH TO DO
Those guidelines are adopted straight from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and include strict standards on disinfecting a workplace and making sure any exposed coworkers are immediately sent to quarantine.
Despite new guidelines and protections, despite our work to expand health benefits for those who become ill, despite relaxing leave of absence rules so workers at higher risk can stay home without losing their jobs, despite the additional hero pay we secured for the overwhelming majority of our partners, and despite our focused attempts to communicate clearly and frequently with workers that are understandably anxious, we know there is still so much to do, and sometimes it feels like nothing has happened at all.
It would be a mistake if I was not clear about the political failures that have led us to this place. I know some will dismiss what I’m about to say as “politicizing” this crisis, but the simple fact of the matter is that politics of some kind is putting millions of workers at risk, and we should be clear about that.
GOV. PARSON MUST ACT
I have spent the last few weeks — alongside our friends in the faith community and our brothers and sisters in Labor — pleading with Gov. Mike Parson to act on behalf of grocery workers and pharmacy technicians.
First, we asked him to designate all Missouri grocery workers and pharmacy technicians as “temporary first responders” so that they would get priority access to PPE, COVID-19 tests and expanded worker’s compensation benefits for those that contract the virus.
Without explanation, he simply refused to even consider taking this action (which, by the way, Republican governors in Texas, Vermont, and Massachusetts have all taken) and effectively left workers like you high and dry.
We’ve asked Gov. Mike Parson for weeks to issue a statewide stay-at-home order to reduce the number of people out and about. Fortunately, he did finally issue such an order. Sadly, his order barely reduces the number of customers allowed in large retail stores, and he has refused to consider limiting customers any further.
We have repeatedly asked him to classify grocery workers and pharmacy technicians as part of the “essential workforce” of Missouri during this crisis. If he does this, workers will be able to access federal funds for free or reduced-cost childcare. The money has arrived in Missouri and the budget that allows us to spend those dollars on workers right now has been signed into law. Right now, we’re waiting on Parson to simply declare you “essential.”
He hasn’t done that. He won’t say why.
THE GOVERNOR IS FAILING US
Just last week we began to call on all our elected officials to use their authority to mandate the use of masks for customers in grocery stores. The CDC declared mask use in the general public as an important step to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and they specifically identified grocery stores as places where masks should be worn.
The same day we asked elected officials to support this action, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson gave it her full endorsement. St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page signed on as well, and urged his constituents to wear masks or face coverings while shopping.
Parson said he would not mandate mask use, and has refused to even “urge” Missourians to use them. He has offered no explanation why.
In short, the governor is failing us. He’s failing you.
He won’t declare that, as front line workers, you deserve the right to COVID-19 tests and income protection if you become ill. He won’t declare that, as essential workers, you have the right to affordable childcare services. He won’t tell Missourians that wearing a mask in a grocery store is a good idea. He won’t use his power to reduce customers in the store. He simply won’t do anything at all.
DEMAND ACTION TO PROTECT WORKERS
By all indications, this crisis won’t be ending for weeks, perhaps even months. We are still in the early stages. Our fears and anxieties won’t go away for a while. My frustration when someone else isn’t playing by the rules like they ought to be won’t go away for a while. My anger when I feel someone has put us or our families at risk won’t go away for a while.
None of this will be easy. Some of the things we do won’t be perfect.
Knowing all of this, UFCW Local 655 continues to act. Good employers continue to act.
We need our leaders to act. We need them to care about workers like you, and we need more than their thanks and praise. We must demand it. You have earned it already — a thousand times over — in just the last two weeks.
TELL THE GOVERNOR
Grocery Workers and Pharmacy Technicians are ESSENTIAL workers!
- Help them get childcare
- Help them get PPE
- Help them get priority testing
- Help keep them safe: urge Missourians to wear masks/facial coverings in public
Call Him: 573-751-3222