Supermarket workers deserve first responder protections

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The coronavirus pandemic has rightly spotlighted the hard work and dedication of medical personnel — doctors and nurses on the hospital front lines, powering through grueling shifts to save lives.

Other first responders, such as EMTs, members of law enforcement, firefighters and the National Guard, are also deserving of our gratitude and praise for their tireless efforts to help the community.

But there are other groups of workers who have proven indispensable for keeping the country moving — and it’s taken this crisis to illuminate the vital role they play in our lives. Everything that can be done to keep them safe and help them weather this crisis should be done.

Before the pandemic ushered in stay-at-home advisories and many Americans hunkered down to work from home, the employees of meat processing plants, truck drivers hauling needed supplies and grocery store staff labored to keep the food supply chain intact.

Dealing with the public, working in close quarters and being on the open road for long hours put them all in harm’s way. Those who labor in meat processing plants work shoulder to shoulder, and thousands of employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, leading to plant shutdowns.

It’s good for all of us to be reminded that meat doesn’t just show up in the supermarket. The supply chain is made up of people — as vital to our communities as those in more visible occupations.

Up until now, those employed by supermarkets and grocery stores have been “background” workers as well — we don’t really think about what they do, we just know it all gets done. But the pandemic turned the food-shopping experience upside down.

First, the panic buying, as hordes of consumer packed carts (or tried to) with toilet paper, and stripped shelves of bread, pasta and other staples. Stores changed their hours so shelves could be restocked. The market trip became a gauntlet for potential exposure, and while shoppers donned masks and slathered on hand sanitizer, staff toiled to clean and disinfect the stores frequently.

Some of those employees we rarely see — such as the delivery people and stockers — others, like the check-out clerks, are front and center, dealing with hundreds of customers a day.

It’s because of this increased exposure to the public that Stop & Shop and its employees’ union are asking federal and state officials to designate grocery store workers as “extended first responders” or “emergency personnel” amid the coronavirus pandemic to access priority protections.

As the Boston Herald reported, the designation would ensure grocery workers get priority access to testing, emergency childcare and other protections, Stop & Shop President Gordon Reid and United Food and Commercial Workers International President Marc Perrone said in a joint statement Monday.

“For the sake of workers, their families, and our nation’s food supply, this action will provide grocery workers with the vital protections they deserve,” the statement read.

Shaw’s and Star Market also made a similar call earlier this month for a temporary designation of employees as “extended first responders” to access prioritized testing and PPE during the coronavirus outbreak.

This designation should be fast-tracked for workers at all Massachusetts markets, and other states should follow suit.

The pandemic has brought the point home how important these workers are to a functioning society, especially in a time  of crisis — it’s time to take care of them.

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