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For Grocery Workers, Covid-19 Threat Means Bring Your Own Mask

April 1, 2020, 6:51 PM

Publix Super Markets Inc. is the latest grocery-store chain to allow cashiers and stocking clerks to wear masks and gloves on the job, while continuing to tell employees that there are better ways to stay safe at work during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Florida-based grocer this week joined Walmart Inc., Kroger Co., Albertsons Companies Inc., H-E-B, Giant, and Trader Joe’s when it began posting notices at stores informing employees that they can bring their own protective gloves and masks to work. Publix said it will offer some gloves for workers but, like other national grocery chains, won’t provide face masks. It cited a nationwide shortage of protective masks and the need for available supplies to go to health-care workers battling the pandemic.

“While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend that people who are well wear masks to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including coronavirus, we understand some of our associates prefer to wear masks for their personal comfort while at work,” Publix said in the notices.

Publix didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The move comes as grocery store workers, whose companies continue to operate as “essential” in states where businesses are largely shuttered, are pushing for “hazard pay,” sick leave, and safety protections on the job. It is an example of the ongoing push-and-pull between food-retail workers, who are expected to continue punching in amid the growing public health crisis, and supermarket chains that have seen demand surge from panic buying but are uncertain about the future as customers hunker down.

“There is good reason to believe that the entire crew has been at least exposed to the virus,” said a Trader Joe’s employee in New York City, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. New York has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in the country. “As the pandemic grows and we learn more about prevention, people are more interested in wearing masks, and some are even making their own,” the employee added.

Trader Joe’s didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Employees at Amazon’s Whole Foods staged a “sickout” on Tuesday, demanding the company expand its paid-leave program and offer health insurance to part-time workers. Employees for other food retailers have launched online campaigns and labor unions are pushing state and local governments to force companies to take certain precautions.

Wash Your Hands

Publix and other grocery-store operators have been installing plexiglass shields at registers and other points of contact with customers, and putting up signs and markers designed to keep people the recommended six feet apart. But many employers in the sector continue to tell employees that basic precautions, such as regular hand washing, covering one’s mouth when sneezing or coughing, maintaining social distancing, and avoiding touching one’s face, are the best way to avoid infection.

The federal Health and Human Services Department is expected to soon offer guidance on the widespread use of face masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. In the meantime, the CDC has said businesses should encourage employees to take basic preventive measures.

“We remind our teams that the CDC has advised that diligent hand-washing and sanitizing is much more effective than simply wearing gloves,” Alberstons spokesman Andrew Whelan told Bloomberg Law via email. “If employees do elect to wear gloves, they must wash their hands and change their gloves once per hour, and continue to sanitize their hands throughout the day with their gloves on.”

CDC guidance on use of protective masks is largely limited to health-care workers. The CDC recommends those workers used N95 respirators, which filter airborne particles containing the virus. But the CDC also has said a significant shortage of those respirators means even health-care workers will have to use alternatives.

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has said employers should consider providing face masks to workers and customers in some situations, including for workers who show signs of the disease. OSHA has yet to mandate their use in grocery or retail stores.

Hazard Pay

Publix’s new face-mask policy is welcomed, four employees who spoke on condition of anonymity told Bloomberg Law. But they said they want a bigger piece of the economic pie.

More than 8,000 people have signed a Coworker.org petition calling on Publix to increase workers’ hourly rates during the pandemic. Nearly 21,000 have signed a similar petition seeking “hazard pay” for Trader Joe’s employees.

Food-retail and mass-merchant sales jumped by 12% in the first week of March, as shoppers flooded supermarkets to stock up on food and other necessary items in response to the pandemic, according to a Bloomberg Intelligence analysis. Larger food retailers operating in states under shelter-in-place orders could eventually have trouble keeping shelves stocked as supply chains bog down, however.

Kroger on Tuesday announced it is giving workers a $2 per hour “hero bonus” through April 18, stemming from negotiations with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Albertsons and H-E-B also provided $2 temporary pay raises, while Walmart paid bonuses of up to $300 for workers clocking in during the pandemic. Trader Joe’s recently gave workers a bonus, based largely on individual store performance.

Publix, by contrast, has responded to calls for temporary pay bumps by issuing $50 store gift cards to employees.

“To me, the gift cards feel a bit half-hearted, as if we’re being given credit to the company store in return for putting ourselves at risk,” a Publix employee in Florida told Bloomberg Law. “Gift cards don’t pay bills or rent.”

—With assistance from Bruce Rolfsen.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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