First Alternative Co-op workers organize for hazard pay, seat at the table during coronavirus outbreak

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Jade Minzlaff, News Contributor

Workers at the First Alternative Co-op are circulating a petition demanding job security and hazard benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Employees at the South Town First Alternative, along with North Shore First Alternative employees and other Corvallis, Ore. community members, published a petition on March 21 at 6 p.m., directed at General Manager Cindee Lolik. Demands include a retroactive $3.00 an hour hazard pay increase starting on March 12, that all store locations stay open during the pandemic, and that workers be included in all major store decisions going forward.

In a statement over email, Brand Manager Emily Daniel said that as a co-op, there is no single bargaining agent and that complaints and suggestions are encouraged from workers.

At the time of publishing the petition has collected 928 signatures, and management has begun to respond to several of their demands.

“We want to express our sincere gratitude to our staff, who are truly the backbone of the Co-op’s ability to provide for our community. They are on the front lines, bravely showing up each and every day to make a difference,” Lolik said in an email on March 23.

On March 23, Lolik announced that store management would be providing a “Community Hero” bonus to all workers, retroactive to March 1, of an additional $2 per hour, along with the two weeks of additional paid time off during the pandemic.

“We are also giving staff who may feel unsafe working in this environment the option of staying home for one week and will provide them with 60% of their normal wages for that week as a one-time payment. In all of these situations, we are providing job assurance to any staff who want or need to stay home,” Lolik said in a statement over email.

First Alternative has not yet given a statement on the demand for worker involvement in store-decision making.

Kevin Van Meter, a member-owner of the co-op, criticized management for offering an increase below the $3 an hour demanded on the petition, as he said he felt they were able to offer their workers “more than Fred Meyer and corporate stores” were offering during the pandemic. Fred Meyer is currently also offering a $2 an hour hazard pay increase.

Mark Dameron, a produce stocker at the South Town location of First Alternative, said that they believed keeping the co-op open is doing a service to the community.

“We wouldn’t say that management is responding in a bad way intentionally, but we do find that lack of guarantees in terms of worker security are an issue and to be at issue with co-op principles and guidelines,” Dameron said.

Charlie Childress, a grocery stocker and receiver at the South Town location, suggested management should offer resources to help working parents access childcare during the pandemic, and also expressed concerns that the store will become increasingly difficult to maintain as more workers get sick.

“Morale has just been tanking,” Childress said. “We have a giant existential threat and no one really knows what to do, but here we are I guess. We’re all under pretty incredible strain, just trying to keep up while also being front line for people who are gonna get infected, most likely, and having no real backstop for what we’ll do when that occurs.”

Childress said that the community has shown appreciation for the workers who keep the co-op remaining open.

“Seeing people who are generally looked down on for their job or who are generally dismissed as doing unskilled labor suddenly being some of the most important members of the community,” Childress said. “Our place of employment doesn’t seem to think we’re as important as the community seems to think we are, in terms of continuing to provide services so people can get food.”

Van Meter, a member-owner of the co-op and an organizer for the Coalition of Graduate Employees, has been amplifying the co-op workers’ demands over social media.

“I’ve gotten a ton of response from major organizations and major unions in the region and the state expressing support for the workers and this petition,” Van Meter said.

According to Van Meter, the co-op workers have received support from the Coalition of Graduate Employees, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, Jobs with Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Benton County Family Response Team, among other groups.

Van Meter also expressed how the co-op affected him personally.

“Part of the reason that the workers included in their demands for the co-op to stay open is because in South Town where I live, it is the only supermarket. With the expectation we’re gonna have orders to shelter in place, or stay as close to home as humanly possible, having a supermarket we could get to without too much trouble, by walking or riding a bike within a few blocks, is going to be so important to keeping this community safe.”

Van Meter emphasized the importance of the co-op in the local community.

“These workers are putting themselves and their families, and their roommates often, their partners, at great risk to make sure that all of us can continue to survive. They deserve dignity, respect, hazard pay and a say in how these businesses continue to operate,” Van Meter said.

According to a written statement by Dameron, the economic stimulus package signed into law by President Donald Trump Friday is not expected to alter their demands.

Going forward, Kristina Beggen, a worker at the South Town location, said that workers at the co-op would like to see management respond to the petition directly, and address the demand for worker input in-store decisions.

“As workers, we are on the front lines, we are the most at risk, and our perspectives have a lot to offer. Those in management have been having meetings about their responses to the pandemic and I think workers deserve to have appointed delegates at these meetings,” Beggen said in a statement over email.

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