A food and retail union is calling on more than 60 store chains to reinstate protective measures against COVID-19 as cases are on the rise and the Omicron variant has started to pop up across the country.
In a letter sent to the CEOs of Walmart, Kroger and others, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) asked grocery and retail chains to encourage mask use at all locations, provide protective equipment like hand sanitizer and masks to employees, and re-establish social distancing measures.
“As you know, throughout this difficult period, the threat of COVID-19 variants has persisted and evolved even as many of America’ largest food and retail companies have relaxed their safety measures,” the letter said.
“Now, with the Delta variant driving a dangerous winter surge of COVID-19 cases in 39 states and new variants like Omicron further raising fears about public safety, we believe it is critical for our nation’s largest retail and food employers, including Walmart, Amazon, Safeway, and Kroger to take immediate steps to protect essential workers and members of the public during this holiday season.”
New internal UFCW reports indicate that there have been at least 213 retail and grocery worker deaths from COVID-19 and at least 50,600 workers infected or exposed to the virus, the union said in a press release Friday. The deaths are up 11 percent and infections and exposures are up 17 percent since June.
The union of 1.3 million workers asked the companies to offer paid sick leave to workers just in case they get a vaccine or booster and experience a reaction to the shot. Hourly wages should also be increased to offset inflated food and grocery costs for workers, the letter said.
“Collectively, each of the safety and protection actions outlined above represent critical steps that you and your respective company must implement to save lives and livelihoods,” the letter said.
After a largely mask-free summer, some companies started to push masks again in their stores after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reversed course in late July and recommended masks for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in areas of higher transmission of the delta variant.
But many business owners still have been lax about mandating masks and have dropped social distancing protocols in their stores as they’re afraid of angering customers.
Paul Swanson, a manager at the Wayzata, Minnesota, location of grocery retailer Lunds and Byerlys, said that its store relaxed the mask rules for its customers after people got vaccinated in the summer. Workers at the unionized chain are required to wear masks, he said. He’s worried about getting sick as the store has become packed during the holiday season.
“It’s little disheartening when you show for work and me and my co-workers are wearing masks, but they’re not,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.