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'Sitting ducks': Grocery workers demand more hazard pay for ongoing virus risks

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Every morning, Kristine Holtham takes a last drink of coffee before masking up for the day.

"I never thought that last cup of coffee would be such a luxury," said Holtham, a meatpacker at a Kroger grocery store in Lansing. "Some days, I wear a mask eight to 10 hours a day, going through three to four masks a day. It's not pleasant, but it's the right thing to do."

The COVID-19 outbreak has been impacting Michigan's grocery store workers who feel they are sitting ducks for the virus but are scared to ask customers to wear masks.

The UFCW, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, America’s largest food and retail union with 1.3 million workers in grocery and meatpacking, say 68 of their members have died from the virus and more than 10,000 members have become sick. Fatalities were heavily concentrated in the New York and New Jersey area, officials said.

Shoppers and employees navigate the isle ways near the fresh-meat counter. People shop at the Village Market in Grosse Pointe Farms, Friday afternoon, March 13, 2020.

UFCW International President Marc Perrone said they're hearing stories of physical confrontations at the stores over lack of supplies, and that social distancing and masks are being required for workers but, in many cases, not the customers.

"The company should enforce these policies and not expect these grocery workers to become the public health officer of the county or a security guard that the company should be supplying on their behalf," Perrone said Wednesday during a national Zoom press conference. "But most importantly, that the so-called appreciation 'hero hazard pay' should continue until this terrible threat is actually passed."

The growing risk is faced by more than 18,000 Michigan grocery workers, Perrone said.

UFCW International President Marc Perrone gives a national press conference Wednesday over Zoom.

Weeks after many of the major chains used social media to promote "hero pay," appreciation or hazard pay for their workers, the national union said some, including Kroger, plan to end the bonuses sometime over the next few weeks.

Perrone sent letters to CEOs of large supermarket chains last week to urge higher pay for food workers and to explain they have not stopped being heroes.

He added that it is "absolutely unconscionable" that unionized supermarkets and non-union employers including Amazon, Walmart, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and Aldi chose to stop paying higher wages for people on the front lines, especially as companies experience record sales.

In the last eight weeks, stores have implemented glass barriers, cleansing stations, sanitizing of carts and one-way aisles, and put limitations on the number of products a single customer can purchase. The union is still pushing for security guards inside major grocery stores after reported incidents.

Four workers from around the country joined the virtual press conference, including Holtham, to say they are struggling as they work more hours than ever before and worrying they will bring the virus home to their loved ones after encountering 2,000-3,000 customers each day.

"Hundreds of people a day walk right up to me, with or without a mask. Everybody shops on their phones so they want to show me their phone, they want to push their phone at me," she said. 

Kristine Holtham, a meat packer at Kroger in Lansing, speaks on the conditions grocery store workers deal with.

Some workers say customers indicate they worry for workers' safety, but others exhibit potential symptoms and tell them, "don't worry, it's just a smoker's cough."

The issue of wearing masks has become a political battleground, employees say. Holtham said after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order requiring masks, she would give masks to customers not wearing one. One man, she said, refused to wear the mask saying, "I don't give a damn about your health."

"It really took me back ... that was the last day I asked anybody to wear a mask," she said. "The response, the retaliation from people when you do ask them to wear a mask ... believe me, if you ask somebody to wear a mask it's like telling them to throw their gun away. So people in my store are scared to death even to ask anybody to put on a mask."

Kroger had announced $130 million for "thank you pay" on Friday, following the appreciation pay first provided workers for their efforts in March. It follows "Hero bonuses" that were paid in April through mid-May, with a final payment on May 23.

The one-time thank you pay, which will be $400 for full-time associates and $200 for part-time associates, will be paid in two installments on May 30 and June 18.

Meijer has extended hazard pay for workers through June.

"We are total targets, sitting ducks for the virus," Holtham said. "And that risk is why we deserve hourly hazard pay. We're not heroes, we're sacrificing; this is a risk that we are doing. We deserve hazard pay until I no longer have to put on a mask to work at a grocery store."

The union believes more grocery workers than its 68 members have died from the virus, but the union said major chains and non-unionized chains have chosen not to release employee records.

Kroger did not immediately respond for comment Wednesday.

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_