WAUWATOSA, Wis. (WDJT) — A local grocery store chain asked the governor to designate their workers temporarily as ‘first responder’ status on Friday.
It’s part of a bigger movement started by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
The UFCW says this temporary ‘first responder’ status would unlock additional state benefits, which would help them secure free coronavirus testing, treatment, personal protective equipment and more.
“I don’t think there’s disagreement about the fact that grocery workers are on the front lines,” said Melanie Bartholf, Political and Retail Director for UFCW Local 1473.
Outpost Natural Foods with four stores in the Milwaukee area and nearly 400 workers, sent the letter dated Friday to the governor.
“We are standing together with the union to ask the governor for that additional support for grocery workers in the state,” said Margaret Mittelstadt.
“We’re very grateful to them for joining us and asking the Governor for that first responder designation,” adds Bartholf.
Along with free coronavirus testing, treatment and access to PPE, the temporary designation would also give grocery workers access to childcare.
As of now Outpost has 40 employees who are unable to come to work due to compromised immunity, childcare or sickness.
“Those who are staying home out of concern for that exposure are using the paid time that they have available, but at some point that may run out,” says Mittelstadt.
“We’re also asking for paid leave,” said Bartholf. “So our members can have paid time off for illness, treatment, quarantine or care for a family member.”
Governor Tony Evers’ office tells CBS 58 they do not have the ability to do the things the union is asking for regarding healthcare coverage, paid leave and more without legislative action.
In a statement they say in part: “There is a lot more work the legislature needs to do in order to support and protect our workers and businesses.”
Still, the union wants answers.
“If there is a reason why he can’t act, why that is, we just haven’t gotten that communication,” said Bartholf.
“We have to start right now to at least address the issues and perhaps we can fast track some of that legislation which would benefit people earlier,” adds Mittelstadt.
For now grocery stores are implementing precautions like putting in plexiglass and social distancing lines, but they say it’s been a challenge to get enough masks.
Area health experts agree grocery workers need special consideration when it comes to PPE.
“It’s difficult to maintain that social distancing and they should get in my opinion some personal protective equipment,” said Dr. John Raymond, President and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin.
“Grocery worker, transportation person, you’re definitely more exposed than people that are not required to go out,” said Jeanette Kowalik, Milwaukee’s Health Commissioner.
The UFCW has 11,000 members across the state and about 5,000 who currently work in grocery stores. Even with thousands of food employees under the union, they feel fortunate to only have a fairly low amount of COVID-19 positive members as of today.
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