ANNAPOLIS, Md. – With major grocery chains reporting their first COVID-19-related employee deaths, including one worker at a Giant food store in Maryland, labor unions are asking governors to upgrade these workers from “essential” to “first responders.”

The designation means guaranteed testing along with other front-line workers, according to Jonathan Williams, communications director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400. He said his union members at Giant, Kroger and Safeway food stores in the mid-Atlantic region are exposed to thousands of customers a week, and yet testing has been so limited that they have no idea how many are infected.

“We are prioritizing access to testing and achieving this ‘first responder’ status because this isn’t like a hurricane or an earthquake, you know,” he said. “We’re experiencing a different kind of emergency right now. That means we need to recognize a different kind of first responder.”

If officials don’t act quickly, he said, workers easily could become vectors for the virus and supermarkets could become dangerous places to shop.

While the public is grateful for supply-chain workers in this unsettling time, the union said customers and store owners need to take more preventive steps. Williams urged stores to restrict the number of customers permitted inside at a given time. Starting this week, he added, Kroger and Giant are limiting the number of shoppers to 50% of a store’s capacity, and Kroger also will check every worker’s temperature before his or her shift.

“We’re asking for shorter store hours, asking to have a six-foot distance kept between customers and workers,” he said. “We’ve asked for public-address announcements at regular intervals in stores, reminding customers to maintain a six-foot distance.”

In the past few weeks, governors in Michigan, Minnesota and Vermont have declared grocery workers “first responders,” which also provides them with child care, protective equipment and treatment.

Diane Bernard, Public News Service – MD