“Are we essential or are we sacrificial?”

That’s the profound question recently asked by a grocery worker and member of our union, United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400. We all know what the answer should be. But Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s actions in reopening the commonwealth suggest a view of our members as more sacrificial than essential.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our members who work at grocery chains, and at poultry and meatpacking plants, have risked their lives to ensure that their fellow Virginians are well-fed and nourished. In return, many have gotten sick. Tragically, at least two have lost their lives to COVID-19. We have two dozen confirmed cases at food processing plants in the commonwealth. Across the country, UFCW estimates show that at least 65 grocery workers have died, and at least 9,810 have been infected or exposed to the deadly virus. This hardly is a sign of things returning to normal.

This is unacceptable — and entirely preventable. What Northam urgently needs to do is designate grocery, pharmacy and food processing workers as first responders — and to limit stores to no more than 10 customers per 10,000 square feet, with a maximum of 50 people in any store at the same time.

The first responder designation must include guaranteed free testing and treatment for every worker. With universal testing, infected workers will know to stay home and avoid spreading the disease to co-workers and customers. This is all the more important because many employers provide 14 days of paid sick leave only to employees diagnosed with COVID-19. Without testing, there is no diagnosis. And most workers cannot afford to miss a single day’s pay, much less two whole weeks.

The principle is simple: Until every food employee regularly is tested, workers and customers alike will be risking their health and their lives. And as essential as this is in grocery stores, it’s even more urgent in poultry and meatpacking plants. They pack employees together with no regard for social distancing and operate at dangerously fast line speeds.

This begs the question: Why is Virginia reopening when it ranks 49th of 50 states in testing? Why did it fail to use the six-plus weeks in lockdown to ramp up testing to cover all essential workers?

Making matters worse, until May 14, Virginia was “juking” its testing statistics — first reported by The Times-Dispatch — by combining viral tests and antibody tests in the same figure, even though they reveal very different information.

One would have thought that as a physician, Northam would have insisted on scientifically sound methodologies and put actual results over public relations.

In addition to testing, the first responder designation must guarantee masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment for food workers. Employers still don’t have to provide them, and forcing front-line workers to find and pay for them is just wrong. Plus, poultry and meatpacking plants must be required to redesign their workspaces for social distancing and to lower line speeds.

The first responder designation also needs to guarantee free child care, which enables grocery employees to show up for work even with schools closed.

There is ample precedent for this move. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott have designated grocery and food workers as “first responders.” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser have provided grocery workers access to priority COVID-19 testing sites set up for first responders. And Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan have made free child care available to food employees. Why hasn’t Northam joined their ranks?

The scene in most grocery stores today is chaotic, with depleted shelves and frazzled customers. The situation is even worse in nonunion stores like Walmart and Food Lion. And it’s worst of all in poultry and meatpacking plants, which have become COVID-19 hot spots all across the country. The current lack of testing leaves everyone vulnerable, with workers fearful that every encounter might not just cause them to get sick, but also to transmit COVID-19 to their families — the ultimate nightmare.

Adding insult to injury, Kroger canceled its so-called “hero pay” — a $2 hourly increase on May 16, even though its associates continue to be forced to risk their lives on the job. The small one-time bonus it instead offered is grossly inadequate.

Let’s start treating all food workers as essential rather than sacrificial. That’s what the first responder designation will do. What is Northam waiting for?

Mark P. Federici is president of UFCW Local 400, representing 35,000 workers in Virginia, as well as Maryland, Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Contact him at: ufcwlocal400@local400.org

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