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Essential Workers Still Impacted by COVID-19

UFCW study calls for policy actions to better address impact of virus and protect workers from future pandemics
Emily Crowe, Progressive Grocer
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Some 4% of respondents to a UFCW survey said they were unable to return to work after contracting COVID-19.

A new year-long study undertaken by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) is detailing the effects of COVID-19 on union members throughout the meatpacking and grocery industries, as well as other workers. Based on the findings, the UFCW is highlighting the sacrifices essential workers have made throughout the pandemic and the actions that should be undertaken on their behalf.

The UFCW Essential Worker Health Survey was conducted between June 2021 and May 2022 and includes input from nearly 20,000 UFCW essential workers across all 50 states. The study’s aim was to determine the frequency, severity and duration of COVID illness among workers; safety measures, mandates and specific support measures from employers; and attitudes toward vaccinations.

The organizations found that UFCW members who reported having COVID infections before May 2021 were twice as likely to be re-infected in the past year, and of those who contracted the virus, 59% said that they believed it was through their workplace.

Some 6% of respondents who contracted COVID needed to be hospitalized, which is significantly higher than the nationwide 2% rate of hospitalization, and 4% have been unable to return to work since getting sick. Additionally, as of May, half of respondents said their lives were still deeply impacted by COVID and the pandemic.

In terms of vaccines, 88% of UFCW member respondents were at least partially vaccinated in summer and fall of 2021. By this past January, half of all respondents were fully vaccinated and boosted. While only 13% of UFCW employers had a vaccination mandate in place last summer, two-thirds of respondents believed they should be required.

"This UNMC study makes clear that COVID-19 has – and continues to have – a serious and significant impact on America’s essential workers,” said Marc Perrone, UFCW International president. “The UFCW is calling on Congress, the Biden Administration, and states and localities to take bolder steps and policy actions to better address the impact of the pandemic, and to help protect workers from future pandemics.

“These essential workers paid a hefty price for continuing to do their jobs, which kept food on American families’ tables and our economy moving throughout the pandemic,” Perrone continued. “They deserve immediate action as they continue to confront ongoing risk and the nation’s recognition for their service.”

The UFCW is urging immediate action on several health and safety issues, including:

  • Ensuring essential workers in every industry have access to dedicated paid sick leave that protects their employment status when dealing with infection.
  • Immediately moving on legislation, like the America’s Meatpacking Workers Act, to protect some of the most vulnerable workers in the hardest-hit industries.
  • Implementing a nationwide Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) infectious disease standard, and holding employers accountable who do not take steps to protect essential workers during pandemics.
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