Editorial: You Have Always Been Essential

2020 has added an unbelievable amount of new terminology to our everyday conversations hasn’t it?  Pandemic, Covid-19, novel coronavirus, social distancing, n95, kn95, tracing, voluntary quarantine, Wuhan, re-opening metrics, unemployment on steroids, Remdesivir and Chloroquine just to name a few.  We are living through a global crisis the likes of something that we would normally only see portrayed in a film, an old science fiction book or on TV.  A pandemic was not something that the world, our country, or even our Union was remotely prepared for.  The guidance and opinions of the government(s), the CDC and the WHO changed so much during the first few weeks that many people were left wondering if there would ever be a real path to a solution.  As this article is being written there are many that probably still feel that way.  At the same time others may be starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel because of what they hear and see on the daily news shows.

Our Union was thrust into a unique circumstance and needed to act quickly.  Although some of our staff (field reps mainly) were prepared to work remotely, many were not.  It took a great deal of scrambling in the last few days before the shutdown to get to a point where all Local 1500 departments and benefit funds could run remotely.  Proudly, in just under 2 days, we were able ensure that there would be no disruption to any of the services that we provide our members daily.  Although our office never 100% closed after the state shutdown was announced, it was only occupied by a few of us for the first 10 days or so.

To ensure a fast turnaround, we applied for the essential designation immediately, but the insane influx of requests clogged Albany and the approval took two weeks to get.  Our attorneys contacted everyone they could to get this done and I assure you that we could not have done it without them.  The day we received the approval we started bringing our office staff back inhouse and got our Reps back into their stores to check on their members,  evaluate the shops for safety, and to answer as many questions as they could.  Considering they had never been in a situation like this before I think they did an outstanding job!  Between figuring out what was needed to keep our members safe, negotiating new safety standards with your employers or distributing more than 50,000 masks and literally thousands of gallons of sanitizer in the first 2 months, we really tried to provide a safer environment for you and your employers.  We have worked with our sister Unions, the Central Labor bodies, elected officials and of course our International Union throughout to get as much information as possible and learn how to handle this new menace.

When we got our jobs in the stores (many of us as teenagers), none of us ever assumed that we would be risking our lives and/or the safety of our families by just going to work.  If we had signed up to join the local police force, fire department or went to school to become a medical professional, we’d of had to accept that there was a certain degree of danger doing the job we had chosen.  When was “essential worker during a pandemic” covered during your orientation…if you even had one?  Were you ever told that a time could come when you would HAVE to go to work and face an invisible deadly threat, or be subjected to invasion-like customer counts, all while just trying to keep your community fed?  Let’s face it, that is what each and every one of you has been forced to do since March.  With the customer counts through the roof, the fear hoarding, and bizarre behavior spread in your stores faster than the virus did around the globe. 

When the elected officials decided that you were an “essential” resource to your community during the crisis, it was a day of mixed emotions.  First, with all due respect, you have ALWAYS been “essential” and vital to your community, why did it take a pandemic for everyone else to recognize that?!?!  Second, you would not have to worry about being laid off like millions of your friends and neighbors have.  However, you were now being put in a position where you were going to potentially be exposed to the virus every day.  That is a serious roller coaster ride and all that happened BEFORE they closed the schools and turned worlds even more upside down.  For all grocery, pharmacy, and food production workers everything literally changed overnight. 

There were so many questions and so few answers early on.  Many company officials initially rejected the idea of masks being worn because it looked bad and sent a negative message to the customer.  Unfortunately, the initial CDC guidance substantiated their feelings by saying that it wouldn’t help stop the spread of the virus.  Thankfully, like the CDC, many of your employers quickly changed their opinions and started to provide masks & shields while we worked with them to get plexiglass barriers installed on the front ends and in the service departments to help protect our members who were already starting to get sick.  Because of the unknown nature of this virus there were so many hurdles that needed to be cleared in short order to protect you.  Considering, like you, we were all learning what needed to be done on the fly I am very proud of the work that our team did.  Although I do recognize that we were far from perfect, we addressed every concern raised and tried to find the best solutions that would help the largest number of people.

No matter what happens in a situation like this there will always be some that believe that more could’ve been done, that things should’ve been done earlier or that they would’ve done things differently.  That’s just human nature at its finest.  I will always respect the opinions of others, but when it comes to situations of this magnitude, I think energy is better spent focusing on continuing to be positive and productive.  Why not focus on trying to find additional safety measures that can protect ALL our members or lobbying the local, state and Federal government for additional long term benefits for ALL those that were afflicted and/or lost their lives rather than arguing over which department deserves more money or protection than another? 

I recognize that the trend in today’s America is that it’s more important to make sure that everyone hears your opinion rather than trying to listen to the thoughts of others around you (unless of course you agree) but that isn’t something I subscribe to.  We try, as we always have, to find the best possible solutions to every circumstance and to approach every opportunity with an open mind and a single desire, to protect and service every member as best we can.  Some days that could be arguing with one employer about the need for plexiglass over a deli counter and another day it could be fighting with all your employers to ensure that your hazard pay isn’t reduced or eliminated.  As your Union we don’t have the luxury of just drilling down on a single point, issue or employer (no matter how much we may want to) because every day we are dealing with dozens of varying issues throughout our jurisdiction. 

Believe it or not one of the main goals of our Union is to ensure that when this pandemic finally ends nobody goes backwards when they think/talk about grocery workers.  For far too long, your jobs have been referred to as transient, easily replaceable, or unskilled.  Is that how the elected officials or your communities see you now?  No!  Now you are seen as essential, front line workers, who perform extremely well in a crisis.  With all due respect that’s how it always should’ve been and that’s how it needs to stay! 

Thank you for the opportunity to represent and serve the best workers in the business.  Your hard work, sacrifices, and extraordinary efforts have been seen and discussed on a national stage for the first time in a VERY long time and you deserve all that attention and more.  I hope you trust that we will never stop fighting to make your jobs safer, your lives more comfortable or for you to be given the respect you deserve, both on the job and in the state and local political houses.  Stay safe, keep communicating with us, protect each other and we will all get through this together.

Robert W. Newell, Jr. – President
The Register Summer 2020