'We're Getting Sick, and We're Dying': Grocery Workers Seek Return of Hazard Pay

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A grocery union on Thursday organized public events to draw attention to its calls for hazard pay for workers as it heads into negotiations with Fred Meyer.

UFCW Local 367 used a digital mobile truck displaying hazard pay messages to visit eight stores in Pierce and Thurston counties ahead of negotiations. Workers were at stores to describe their frustrations as front-line workers during the pandemic.

"We didn't join the Army, you know? We didn't join the FBI. We signed up to be grocery workers, and all of a sudden, we're thrust thrust into a global pandemic. And we're on the front lines, and we're getting sick, and we're dying, and our families are getting sick, and some are dying," said UFCW 367 president Angel Gonzalez in an interview Thursday with The News Tribune.

"And it doesn't seem to register for employers that we need safe working conditions, and we also need hazard pay."

A Fred Meyer representative did not respond to questions over the hazard pay issues Thursday.

Workers for months have spoken out after Kroger, among other employers, eliminated extra pay for workers implemented at the start of the pandemic.

"When we got it, it was $2 per hour. So it's not a very large amount of money by any means," Gonzalez said. "It's not going to help us to become rich, by any means. But it certainly makes it a little less painful. And shows that our employers recognize that we have value and they show us some respect."

Other incentives, he said, were offered instead.

"You know, $30 here, a little discount there. Some gift cards that I can only use at my employer is sometimes worse than nothing. ... And you're going to make profit off of that money because I can only purchase goods in your store," Gonzalez said. "So it just, it doesn't seem to register with these employers that we are sacrificing our families. We're sacrificing our health."

He added that at least one Fred Meyer cashier in Pierce County had died of COVID-19 in recent months. As for actual numbers in his own union's ranks who've been infected, he said, "We have information, sometimes anecdotal, sadly, but we do have information at least — it's in the hundreds."

OUTBREAKS CONTINUE

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department in its latest update showed that in the past 28 days, the grocery industry was near the top in the rankings of cases and outbreaks, with four businesses in the past month dealing with outbreaks and 23 cases related to those. It was only outpaced by the department's "other" category, which is a catchall for workplace settings that include a single business experiencing an outbreak.

One business recently removed from the outbreak list was the Fred Meyer distribution center in Puyallup, which by the end of 2020 was listed with 64 cases. The site made headlines multiple times last year as it faced different COVID-19 outbreaks.

The distribution center's workers are represented by Teamsters Local 117.

Gonzalez said his union wants to see grocers make N95 masks available to workers, beyond the PPE available now.

"Even through PPE, our members have been getting sick. Remember, we have exposure to every person that comes in our stores, and our customers are not always comfortable with masks," he said. "They don't believe in masks sometimes, or they simply don't wear them properly.

"We are getting PPE from the employer, but we want to get quality PPE, and that takes the form of N95 masks."

While the union is talking to Fred Meyer about hazard pay on Friday, Gonzalez noted, the union has sent a letter to Albertsons/Safeway to bargain over the issue as well.

"We sent a letter to Kroger in December asking to sit down and bargain over the impact of increasing cases of COVID," he said. "And we have done the same in the last couple of weeks at Safeway/Albertsons, we have not had a response from Albertsons yet."

GOING VIRTUAL

As a result of the pandemic, Gonzalez said the union has worked toward a more virtual meeting presence for members to meet safely and learn about current issues, such as hazard pay and the COVID-19 vaccines, and sign petitions.

The union is part of a pilot program using a new app, AveNew Activist, created by L+R, an international design technology firm, at the direction of AveNew, a digital platform created for union members.

"it's become a virtual union hall," Gonzalez said.

Barb Maynard, co-founder of AveNew, said the app can help build off in-person events such as Thursday's truck-digital billboard display.

"They may not be having the truck out there every day, they may not be standing in front of that store every day. But what they're doing with their members to engage them in a digital environment is what's kind of radical here. And so they're actually continuing to put out messages."

In the meantime, Gonzalez is looking forward to Friday's talks.

"We will not stop until our voices are heard," he added, "and all options are on the table. We will go as far as we have to go to get our voices heard. And we have no problem with that. Because you know what? We already are at very high risk."

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