Highly Transmissible COVID-19 Variants Underscore Urgency of Essential Worker Vaccinations, PPE, $5 Hazard Pay, and ‘Five to Survive’ Pandemic Platform
NATIONWIDE — On a press call today, essential workers at Amazon, Walmart and Petco — who are members of the worker advocacy group United For Respect — called for immediate changes in vaccine distribution to address shocking racial and economic disparities in early vaccine rollouts. Currently, vaccination plans in many states do not prioritize essential retail workers in the first phase for the shot, even as newer strains of the virus are spreading in communities across the country. Even in states where “essential workers” in retail are prioritized, white people from wealthier areas are getting far more shots than BIPOC people in working class neighborhoods, due to systemic racism in the vaccine rollout.
Today retail workers with United for Respect are expanding advocacy for workplace health and safety:
- Prioritize public-facing retail workers in vaccine plans: Public health authorities must do everything possible to include retail workers in Phase 1B, Tier One, everywhere — and eliminate all barriers to vaccine access for essential workers. Companies like Amazon and Walmart that are positioned to profit from vaccine distribution must prioritize providing employees with vaccinations as promptly as possible — on-site, and free of charge.
- $500 vaccine incentive for essential workers: Retailers should provide all workers with a $500 cash bonus for getting the COVID-19 vaccine, and up to 3 days of paid time off (PTO) to receive both doses of the shot and and recover as needed.
- Improve safety in the workplace: Retail employers must issue all employees N95 masks free of charge, in line with the new recommendations to stop the spread of the new variants, and prevent customers who refuse to wear a mask from shopping indoors.
These new demands are part of an update to United for Respect’s Five to Survive pandemic platform.
PUBLIC-FACING RETAIL WORKERS CALL FOR VACCINATION AS A MATTER OF PUBLIC HEALTH
With no option to stay home, retail workers and their families are especially vulnerable to coronavirus infection. Because of their interactions with dozens, if not hundreds, of strangers in one shift, vaccination and upgraded PPE for retail workers is an urgent priority for community health amid the spread of potentially more lethal strains of coronavirus.
United for Respect member-leaders called attention to the urgency of these efforts:
“We’ve done more than our share; we’ve worked for almost a year now getting your groceries delivered to you. Those of us who have survived deserve better than this chaos and cutting in line. We need the vaccine now,” said Allegra Brown, who delivers groceries for Amazon Fresh and is based in New Jersey.
Petco groomer Phil Andrews, who lives in Florida, explained the anxiety of working in a public-facing retail job while also being immunocompromised. “There are now over 147 cases of the new UK variant in Florida. I am HIV+, and so for me — as an immunocompromised person — the coronavirus dangers are extreme. Life or death. This isn’t a game. In Florida this virus is everywhere. I’m scared right now, and that’s why I am ready to speak out.”
“Vaccinating essential workers has got to get figured out right now. We are the ones who are interacting with the public every day, we are at risk for getting the virus and spreading it. We’ve had at least three known confirmed cases of the UK variant of COVID in North Carolina in the last few days. This news is really scary. The news is saying cloth masks aren’t cutting it with this new strain – we need N95 masks now and Walmart must provide them,” said Walmart associate Drew Board, who works in North Carolina.
On the call, United for Respect research director Bianca Agustin cited a study published in the British Medical Journal, which found that customer-facing grocery store workers, like cashiers, were five times more likely to test positive for coronavirus than their coworkers in different positions within the same store. Additionally, it found that a majority of workers who tested positive for the virus were asymptomatic.
Public health expert Dr. Mary Bassett, who is Director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, joined United for Respect workers to underscore why mass vaccination is also an issue of racial equity. Early reports indicate that the Black and brown communities who are overrepresented in low-wage essential work and who have been devastated by the pandemic are least likely to receive the vaccine.
ESSENTIAL WORKERS STEP UP TO PROTECT PUBLIC HEALTH
Nearly a year into the public health pandemic, the wealthiest corporations and largest employers have continued business-as-usual, raking in profits while leaving employees without additional pay or proper PPE for their work on the frontlines. A report released in November 2020 by United for Respect and its partners, Institute for Policy Studies and Bargaining for Common Good, found that the total wealth of America’s billionaires rose by more than $1 trillion over the course of the pandemic.
Amid the failure of leadership by American business executives to adequately protect their employees, their customers and their communities, essential workers have had to step up:
- In November 2020, at the height of the holiday shopping season, workers at Walmart, Amazon, and other retailers announced the Five to Survive platform — baseline standards for protecting health and safety in workplaces.
- Associates at Walmart have been filling in where Walmart’s leadership has failed, sharing information about positive cases and safety issues themselves on a worker-sourced COVID-19 tracker and growing calls for hazard pay and a role in decision-making on the company’s board of directors.
- Amazon workers have been sounding the alarm throughout the pandemic about the lack of safety measures being taken in their warehouses, tracked thousands of positive cases at Amazon facilities and are signing onto a petition calling on the company to end dangerous “Time off Task” policies.
- Workers at the leading pet care brands — Petco and PetSmart — have been fighting for greater protections in their workplace, contrasting their poverty wages with the immense wealth and resources of the private equity firms that own these stores. United for Respect member-leaders have sent letters to CVC Partners (owner of PetCo) and BC Partners (owner of PetSmart) demanding these private equity firms prioritize workers’ health and safety and minimize the economic hardship on employees and their families.
- Art Van Furniture was bankrupted by private equity giant T. H. Lee in March, which sped along its liquidation as the pandemic grew, leaving former workers without healthcare. UFR members fought for a hardship fund this summer and in the fall, sent a letter demanding T.H. Lee pay back money they contributed to their own flexible spending accounts that was lost in the chain’s liquidation.
- Shopko workers won a $3 million settlement in October for 4,000 former Shopko workers who had been promised severance nearly 18 months earlier.