The pandemic has thrown many twists and curves our way over the past 12 months, but we will continue the never-ending fight to keep our membership protected. Whether it be hand sanitizer, masks, plexiglass shields, hazard pay, protected time off, social distancing enforcement, and now vaccinations, we will step up to get you the protections you deserve.
The conversation started something like this in early March of 2020 with a couple of different company officials: Union- “Hey we have several members that are seeking to wear a mask while at work, so the coronavirus does not spread one way or the other.” Company Representative- “We would rather not have people work with a mask. You know the CDC states that there is no real benefit to it. Plus it will probably hurt our image with customers if employees wear masks in the stores.” That was the start of the coronavirus battle and to this date it continues. Now the battle has taken on different forms over the last year, and for the most part, the Union and the Companies have partnered to conquer the many obstacles that face our membership, like scheduling concerns, safety, or even fear.
When the pandemic first hit our area, many of our members were concerned about going to work, and with good reason. It quickly became evident that no matter what was going to happen in New York, supermarket employees would be expected to continue working throughout the crisis. One of the first things our Union did was get your companies to agree to a relaxed attendance expectation for our members. Many Local 1500 members were too apprehensive to report to work. Some because of underlying health conditions for them or a family member. Others were just too afraid to report to work in an increasingly unknown and potentially dangerous atmosphere. The good thing was we lobbied to make sure they could stay home without the fear of disciplinary action.
In mid-March of 2020, Local 1500 reached out to many agencies, including the Governor’s office to get as many masks as possible onto the faces of our essential workers. By the end of March, we had gotten tens of thousands of masks donated from all over New York for our members. As soon as we got them, we sent our Representatives out to the stores to give them out to you. This happened at a time when it was virtually impossible to purchase any masks or any sort of PPE from anywhere, and it was a godsend for Local 1500 members. When masks became available for purchase, we purchased tens of thousands more.
During the same time frame, we were in constant communication with each of the companies that we represent. Our next big task was convincing them to install plexiglass shields in their stores. I’m sure you remember the mad rush to the supermarkets, which were the only places open for business at the time, that caused dangerous overcrowding inside the stores. How could our members be properly protected if social distancing guidelines were not being enforced? It was nearly impossible to have people stay six feet away from the essential employees. So we sought to have plexiglass shields installed at the registers to help our cashiers, who could not move away, stay healthy. One by one, companies began to install plexiglass shields first at the registers, then customer service counters, then service departments. We know it was not perfect, but it was a huge step in the right direction.
However, it was not enough. While we were fighting for hazard pay for our members and petitioning the Governor’s office for more PPE, things just kept getting worse around us. But on an early April Saturday morning, a tractor trailer showed up at Frank Meehan Hall, filled to the ceiling with pallets of gallon-sized bottles of hand sanitizer. This was another huge step toward protecting our membership. We unloaded 26 pallets, one case a at a time, by hand, that day and within 5 days, had gallons of sanitizer delivered to every store in our jurisdiction. Five days later, another truck showed up, this time with personal, 2-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer. We were on a roll, but it still was not enough. We got thousands of these small bottles into the hands of our membership within days. Whatever it took to protect our people, we were on it. We kept pushing and pushing for our members.
We kept expressing to elected officials that supermarket employees are not only essential but should be considered frontline workers and should thus get elevated protections. We vowed to keep the fight going until proper recognition and respect was given to the supermarket employee. One day in July, while all of this was going on, the U.S. Army showed up to our Headquarters with two more truckloads of hand sanitizer from the Governor’s office. We will take whatever we can get for you, and keep fighting for more.
As the months went on, the conversations switched to the vaccine. Around the world there was a tremendous build up coming out of the Summer and right through the Fall of 2020, about how, where, who, and especially when the Covid-19 vaccine would be available. On December 14th, 2020, the first vaccination in the United States was administered to a nurse in Queens. Since then, most of America wants to know when the vaccine will be available to them. This especially included our members, who have faced the public health crisis head-on since day one. As of January 11th, 2021, grocery store workers in New York were deemed eligible to get the vaccine. However, if you have searched for a vaccination appointment, either for yourself or someone else, you have experienced that appointments are almost impossible to get, as the vaccine supply is still very low compared to the number of people that want it.
Just as with every other aspect of fighting the coronavirus, Local 1500 has reached out to as many municipalities as possible to have the vaccine made available to our membership. At the time of this writing, we have worked very closely with the Suffolk County Executive’s office, after they reached out to us with a schedule of available appointments. Over the past few weeks, we have been fortunate enough to successfully schedule hundreds of Local 1500 members to be vaccinated that live or work in Suffolk County. I have sometimes been told that this is a thankless job…well not this time! We have gotten many heartfelt thank-you’s from our membership on Long Island and it is pretty rewarding to see this process through.
As I stated before, we will never stop working to make sure our members are as protected and healthy as possible. We will keep going with Suffolk County as long as the appointments continue to become available to us. We are also actively working to do the same in Nassau County, the Five Boroughs, Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties. We will not stop until all of our members who want the vaccine are able to get it. Please be on the lookout for updates, indicating when you can start emailing our dedicated email address (StopTheVirus@UFCW1500.org) to request an appointment. As always, you can contact your Representative and they will get the information to you.
The past year has been a very bumpy ride, but we are on this trip together, so please do not hesitate to reach out to your Union if you need something. Our goal is and will always be to protect you and your working environment, and we will never leave your side, no matter how bumpy the ride gets.
Aly Y. Waddy - Secretary Treasurer
The Advocate, March 2021