Grocery stores have become stalwarts for Americans during the coronavirus pandemic — when almost everything else is closed, you can rely on supermarkets to be open. Food stores have been deemed an essential service and their employees, essential workers. Now, two industry organizations want these employees, who risk exposure to the coronavirus by going to work, to be considered akin to first responders.

United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents about 1.3 million workers, and The Kroger Co. supermarket chain, are calling on federal and state government officials to designate grocery store associates as “extended first responders” or “emergency personnel.”

“Since the onset of this pandemic, Kroger family of companies associates, who are also members of the UFCW, have been working tirelessly to make sure that millions of American families have the fresh food and products they need,” a statement from Kroger chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen and UFCW International President Marc Perrone reads. “As all Americans are now witnessing — grocery workers play a critical role in our communities and they must be protected.”

Granting grocery store workers a temporary designation of first responder or emergency personnel would “ensure these frontline workers have priority access to personal protection equipment like masks and gloves,” the statement reads.

The groups say this is not just about employees – it’s about protecting the customers they serve and our nation’s food supply in general. First responders like health care workers are lacking the necessary PPE, so government officials have been working to ensure the equipment gets to those who need it the most and that supplies on conserved.

At least 30 grocery workers in the U.S. have died of COVID-19, according to the UFCW. That toll includes Leilani Jordan, a 27-year-old clerk at a Giant in Maryland, and Wando Evans, a 51-year-old Walmart worker. About 30,000 more supermarket employees are sick with the respiratory disease around the U.S., the union estimates.

The UFCW recently started the “Shop Smart” campaign, urging shoppers to wear a mask to help prevent the possible spread of the virus while at grocery stores.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also recommending that Americans wear cloth face coverings while out in public. The UFCW wants the U.S. government to make face covering and gloves mandatory for customers as well as for workers.

To help protect store workers and prevent the spread of coronavirus, shoppers should also practice social distancing by keeping at least six feet of distance between themselves and others. Some stores are enforcing this by limiting the number of shoppers allowed in at one time and by marking the floors with places to stand. Other suggestions for safe shopping include going to the store alone and prepared with a list to get in and out faster.

Source: CBS News