“On the front lines”: grocery workers help keep Corvallis fed during pandemic

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Jade Minzlaff, News Contributor

Grocery workers in Corvallis and surrounding communities face potential viral exposure to themselves and families as their work keeps food available during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Miles Eshaia, the communications lead for the UFCW Local 555, a union that represents grocery workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington, said that the union is working to keep its members safe during the pandemic, but that some risk is unavoidable.

“We have non-stop concerns coming in, people are scared for their health and safety, they’re scared for their families. We have members who live with parents or are taking care of aging parents, who have children who are immunocompromised,” Eshaia said.

UFCW Local 555 represents most Fred Meyers, Safeway and Albertsons stores in the region.

“Our members are on the front lines of the pandemic,” Eshaia said. “The sneeze guards have gone up, which aren’t enough, social distancing in stores has happened, but is not happening enough.”

Eshaia said that some UFCW members are staying in hotels so they do not risk exposing their families to COVID-19.

Workers at the First Alternative Co-op, a grocery store in Southtown, Corvallis, organized a petition with demands for their workplace to maintain worker safety and control during the pandemic, which has received 1,027 signatures as of May 13.

Since the release of the petition, First Alternative has instituted a hazard pay of $2 an hour retroactive to March 1, and has offered two weeks of paid time off during the pandemic, but has not formally addressed the demand to include workers in all major store decisions.

Donna Tarasawa, Outreach Coordinator for First Alternative, said in a statement over email that she disagreed with the workers who wrote the petition, and that she felt the petition was “totally unnecessary”, and that she felt management was being “extremely generous.”

The First Alternative petition was followed by a similar petition from the Corvallis Grocery Outlet, which has received 183 signatures, whose workers stated similar demands, calling for hazard pay of $3.00 per hour and safety precautions for workers.

Management at the Corvallis Grocery Outlet were contacted but declined to provide a statement due to a schedule conflict.

Most grocery stores in Corvallis have remained open during the lockdown, but have added social distancing policies and other measures that aim to keep customers and employees from potentially spreading the virus.

Richard, who asked not to be quoted by his full name, is a worker in stocking at the Fourth Street Safeway in Corvallis.

Richard said that he felt safe going to work, and that he felt the store has been taking the appropriate precautions to promote social distancing, but that during the pandemic there have been both fewer hours available to work, and fewer people working.

“[Customers] should be nice to us,” Richard said. “We’re not medical workers, but we’re still essential.”

Alex, a worker in the courtesy department of the Safeway in Philomath, who also asked not to use his full name, said he personally felt safe and that since the pandemic started his store has been busier and there are increased duties for workers in efforts to keep customers and employees safe.

According to Alex, whose work includes greeting customers, only one entrance and exit are being used so that Safeway workers can monitor the number of people inside. Alex said that some customers refused to exit through required doors, but that it was rare.

“I’m not a bouncer, and I’m also not getting paid like a bouncer… there are some people who don’t want to follow the rules, even though they’re for their safety,” Alex said.

Safeway has provided workers with a face mask and hand sanitizer, according to Alex, and he said that he felt management was not overworking them, and was providing accommodations for immunocompromised workers.

“Food, in general, is kind of what keeps our society from falling into chaos… If there’s no food, people start to freak out really really quickly,” Eshaia said. “So, our grocery workers, they’re essential employees. They are essential to our society.”

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