Watch CBS News

Once viewed as essential, grocery workers now treated as "expendable," union chief says

Grocery union demands vaccines and hazard pay
Grocery union demands vaccines and hazard pay for workers 14:16

Once lauded as essential and deserving of "hazard pay" for working during the coronavirus pandemic, grocery store employees are now treated as "expendable," according to the head of the union that represents them.

"Ninety percent of our members are more afraid today than they were 60 days ago and 30 days ago because of the new variants," Marc Perrone, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, told CBSN. 

More than 400 of the union's grocery worker members have died of COVID-19, but the number is likely higher, he added, noting the difficulty of tracking deaths around the industry. 

Although grocery workers don't believe they should be at the front of the line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, the union leader expressed outrage that only 13 states prioritized them at all. "That's criminal," he said. "We ought to look at the people with the most exposure." 

Lifelines in the Lockdown 26:28

Perrone also said grocery store owners also should ensure that customers wear face masks to keep workers safe rather than leave it in the hands of employees to enforce safety policies. "No shoes, no shirt, no service — it could be the same with masks," he said.

Beyond calling for measures to protect grocery employees, the UFCW continues to advocate for legislation mandating hazard pay for frontline workers. "If you take on risk you should be paid more," Perrone said.

In Perrone's view, Kroger's recent decisions to close two stores in Long Beach, Calif., and two more in Seattle, rather than temporarily pay an extra $4 an hour, had more to do with sending a message to employees than with cutting labor costs.

"Clearly Kroger could have kept those stores open," he said. The chain earned $3 billion in additional profits last year, compared with 2019, mostly due to the pandemic, he noted. "They could have shared those profits with those workers."

Some grocery stores fight "hero pay" for frontline workers 05:19

Amid a national debate on increasing the federal minimum wage, Kroger wanted to say that "If you try to legislate wages in this country, we are going to retaliate in some way," Perrone said.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.