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Union seeks ‘first responder’ status for food workers

The Louisville-based United Food & Commercial Workers Local 227 is also working with the companies for extra pay and protections.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
A wide-view shot of an abundance of fresh vegetables on display at a market stall.

OWENSBORO, Ky. — The Louisville-based United Food & Commercial Workers Local 227 is trying to get Kentucky and Indiana workers in the retail grocery, meat packing and food processing industries recognized as “first responders” during the coronavirus crisis.

As workers in essential industries, their risks of exposure are increased, Caitlin Blair, Local 227 communications director, told the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer. Being recognized as first responders would provide the workers with greater access to masks and gloves, better access to testing and quicker results, as well as other services like child care. The designation would put Kentucky and Indiana in the company of states like Minnesota, Michigan and Vermont that have already extended the designation, Blair said.

“Unfortunately, federal legislators left our members out of the recently passed package for these important protections,” she said. “So, we are turning our focus on our states.”

Gov. Andy Beshear, during his Friday press conference, acknowledged the importance of these workers when he said, “We need them and we need to make sure that we have enough of them working. I will do what I can to ensure that those brave souls have the protections that they need.”

Local 227 is also working with the companies for extra pay and protections.

“Companies like Meijer have already agreed to an additional $2 increase until May 2,” Blair said. “We are in discussions with every employer that is deemed an essential industry and working to ensure that every step is being taken to protect our members through enhanced sanitation protocols like plexiglass in check lanes, tape to help customers maintain social distancing, staggered breaks, hand washing breaks and opening up telehealth services in the hopes of encouraging employers to do the right thing so the health care industry isn’t burdened.”

Blair hopes the COVID-19 crisis will change public perception of these workers.

“Those people that are producing the food and stocking the shelves are absolutely front-line workers and essential in this crisis. They are 100% heroes. Going to work and putting yourself at risk to serve your community is the definition of a hero.”

Local 227 negotiates 39 union contracts with industries such as meatpacking, food processing, retail grocery, garment, painting, health care and more, representing 25,000 members in Kentucky and Southern Indiana, with more than 1 million members through the United States and Canada.

In the Owensboro-Daviess County region, Local 227 represents more than 2,700 workers involved with businesses such as Kroger, Meijer, Tyson and Glenmore Distillery.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, and the majority of people recover. But severe cases can need respirators to survive, and with infections spreading exponentially, hospitals across the country are either bracing for a coming wave of patients, or already struggling to keep up.

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