Zinder: Enforceable Requirements Will Save Lives for Grocery Workers on the Frontlines

As local cities and counties grapple with the best approach to enact the necessary measures to keep the public safe during this pandemic, one thing is clear.  Essential workers and the customers they serve demand clear and consistent regulations that don’t vary from city to city or store to store.   In particular, Counties are charged with overseeing public health, so they have a unique role in maintaining uniformity.  Yesterday the Orange County Board of Supervisors abdicated that responsibility by choosing the language of recommendations as opposed to requirements.  The decision to give businesses the option to enact sensible health protocols will put lives at risk.

Since the beginning of this global outbreak, grocery and drug retail employees are maintaining the frontlines. While non-essential businesses remain closed, grocery stores continue to see high foot traffic.  Indeed, it is one of the only places where the public is allowed to gather legally.  Over the last four weeks, stores have received numerous health guidelines  – distribution of masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, to name a few.  Every store has been told to enforce crowd control.  Yet still, some Orange County grocery workers have access to masks, while many don’t.  Some stores take crowd control very seriously and staff the entrances, while others allow shoppers to congregate to an unsafe degree.  The action of the Orange County Board of Supervisors does nothing to alleviate this problem.

In the absence of leadership, several cities have rushed to fill the void.  Irvine, Costa Mesa and Buena Park have all enacted strong temporary ordinances requiring masks in grocery stores.   These efforts are straightforward, and they will undoubtedly protect the lives of essential workers and the public.  But this has created a patchwork of regulation that is confusing for everybody.  I can shop at Ralphs in three different cities, and have three different sets of expectations.

During this crisis, employers have developed protocols on their own.  They are not uniform across the industry.  Indeed, they are not even uniform within the parent company.  For example, Ralphs has been ordered to limit their capacity to 25% of maximum occupancy while Food 4 Less has been ordered to allow 50% of capacity. Both companies are owned and controlled by Kroger. It is increasingly apparent that we cannot rely exclusively on the industry to implement measures to keep us safe.

The particular guidelines that the Board of Supervisors established are thoughtful and reasonable.  But the time for issuing guidelines is over.  Too many people will get sick while we wait and hope that the industry will implement them.  We need enforceable requirements, and we need them now.

Andrea Zinder is the President of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 324, President of UFCW Western States Council, and Vice President of the UFCW International Union. Local 324, represents more than 18,000 essential workers in retail food and retail pharmacy in Orange and parts of Los Angeles County.

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