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Coronavirus Sparks Labor Unrest in Grocery Sector

Coronavirus Sparks Labor Unrest in Grocery Sector
Food retailers like Whole Foods Market are hiring during the coronavirus pandemic, but concerned employees want more protections and pay

While the coronavirus pandemic has led to increased sales and work opportunities at food retailers, workers at various grocery companies have moved for greater protections and pay for being exposed to greater risk during the pandemic.

Employees at Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market held a nationwide “sickout” on March 31 to demand increased workplace safety and such benefits as hazard pay and sick pay for workers who are ill but haven’t been tested for COVID-19.  Meanwhile an employee of Whole Foods’ parent company, Seattle-based Amazon, who was fired for taking part in a walkout for similar reasons on March 30, considered legal action. And at San Francisco-based Instacart, workers walked off the job on March 30, calling for hazard pay, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, and paid sick leave for vulnerable workers with pre-existing conditions or whose doctors recommend that they self-quarantine.

Whole Foods workers had originally slated May 1, International Workers’ Day, as the date for the sickout, but concerns about contracting and spreading the virus between co-workers and customers caused them to hold the one-day strike earlier.

“Many cities and states have effectively shut down, making us literal emergency workers,” the group, known as Whole Worker, told USA Today. “The level of risk combined with the inflated profits from the past few weeks mean that us grocery store workers need to be fairly compensated, as well as given an option to self-quarantine without fear of being evicted.”

Whole Foods recently boosted hourly pay for full-time and part-time workers by $2 through April, as well as offering double pay for any overtime hour worked through May 3. Further, all employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or quarantined get up to an additional two weeks of paid time off.

The striking employees want more, however, including improved sanitation, physical distancing between workers and between workers and customers at stores, double-time wages for hazard pay, and three weeks of sick pay for workers who need to isolate or self-quarantine.

In a statement provided to the media, Whole Foods noted, in part, “We have taken extensive measures to keep people safe, and in addition to social distancing, enhanced deep cleaning and crowd control measures, we continue rolling out new safety protocols in our stores to protect our Team Members who are on the front lines serving our customers.”

After a protest at an Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island, N.Y., at which more than a dozen workers walked off the job, according to CNN, employee Christian Smalls, who had organized the protest, was fired for violating “multiple safety issues,” the company told the newspaper. According to Amazon, it instructed Smalls to remain at home with pay for 14 days because he had been in close contact with an infected employee, but Smalls went to the warehouse on the day of the protest.

Smalls has claimed that other employees who also had contact with the infected worker weren’t sent home, despite other workers’ concerns.

New York Attorney General Letitia James is also “considering all legal options” on behalf on Smalls, and “calling on the NLRG (National Labor Relations Board) to investigate,” according to her Twitter feed.

Amazon, under its Whole Foods Market chain, is No. 10 on PG’s 2019 Super 50 list of the top grocers in the United States.

For its part, Instacart has defended its safety measures against worker criticism, with the company’s president, Nilam Ganenthiran, countering, “Over the last month, our team has had an unwavering commitment to prioritize the health and safety of the entire Instacart community.”

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