OPINION: During a crisis, food workers should be considered First Responders

United Food & Commercial Workers Local 655

We’ve all seen the pictures on social media, or the nightly news. Missourians are flooding into their local grocery stores to stockpile cleaning supplies food and, of course, toilet paper. They pile into these stores because they are worried. They pile in because they want to protect their families, and because they want to feel safe.

Throughout it all — working longer hours than ever before — there are grocery store workers. They scan every item, load supplies into bags or cars. They fetch carts and baskets, they stock shelves faster than ever before. Then they wake up, and they do it all over again.

We’ve learned a lot in the last few weeks about COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus that has infected at least 50,000 Americans as of this writing and killed more than 600. One of the things we’ve learned is that it’s highly contagious.

Now, imagine your job is to touch every single item in every single customer cart in a grocery store. Imagine if your job was to scan and bag their orders, standing mere feet from them, for six or eight or ten hours per day.

While many of us are being advised to cancel plans, stay home, and avoid others, thousands of men and women across Missouri are putting on their work shoes every day and going to crowded places filled with people. They are at risk. They are exposed.

But they do the work anyway. They do it to serve their communities. They do it because they care about their customers and their families.

But they need more than our gratitude. They need more than our praise and thanks. They need more than our posts on social media about their bravery.

At his March 25 press conference  — from a secure location with no public interaction — Gov. Mike Parson said these workers providing the public with essential services DO NOT deserve the classification of “first responder.”

States like Minnesota, Vermont, and Michigan have already done it, giving their grocery workers temporary access to state benefits. During this pandemic, it means they could get access to free childcare while they serve the public, free coverage for all coronavirus treatments, priority tests, and medicines if they get sick, and personal protective equipment to help them avoid getting sick.

Parson has failed to act on their behalf, and that failure could actually cost lives. It should not be acceptable in this time to simultaneously heap praise on workers and then fail to do anything to act on their behalf.

Those words of praise don’t mean much if you won’t act, and Parson won’t act, but there’s still time. Take action, Governor. Words are cheap. Actions matter.

As we say around here: “I’m from Missouri. You’ve got to show me.”

(This originally appeared in the Post-Dispatch).

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