Why local grocery workers say they should be classified as ‘first responders’

No businesses around the area have been busier than grocery stores. And while stores remain packed, and workers keep stocking shelves and checking out customers, some of them are lobbying to be classified as “first responders” during this pandemic.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, representing grocery store workers in the D.C. region, first made the plea a week ago in an online petition to the regional governors, as well as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

They argue that with grocery store employees forced consistently exposed to the public, they are therefore working “on the front lines,” and are risking exposure to COVID-19.

The workers have been classified as “essential,” by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, which allows them some benefits, like access to child care. But the union is asking for still more.

The union argues that by changing the store employees’ classification, it would benefit the public and the union’s members.

A change in classification would provide grocery workers with “free coverage for all coronavirus treatments and tests,” said UFCW Local 400 president Mark Federici, in a statement. He also said the medicine and personal protective gear would also be paid for.

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It’s the access to testing and protective equipment that particularly stands out to the union, after a store employee tested positive for COVID-19 at the Giant in Columbia Heights.

It’s now been two weeks since that person was at work, but the news led other workers to self-quarantine under a cloud of uncertainty.

“Unfortunately, because they are not designated as first responders, they don’t have access to testing, treatment, or protective equipment they need,” said UFCW Local 400 spokesman Jonathan Williams, in an interview with our partners at NBC Washington.

“We’re also concerned about our customers, because if any of our members are sick, and perhaps asymptomatic, they may not be aware that they’re sick. They could be infecting others at the grocery store.”

While several local and national grocers have boosted pay, sick leave policies, and cleaning procedures, the union said the reclassification during the pandemic is a needed step right now.

The reclassification would have to come from the executives of D.C., Maryland and Virginia. But so far, the union’s argument has yet to get traction with local and regional leaders.

See the union’s full request via their website.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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