Slow March of Escalating Precautions Worries Workers

Retailers relying on CDC for COVID-19 guidance find anxious employees
Photograph by WGB Staff

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, food retailers looking to keep employees safe and on the job have adhered to recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), yet they have found themselves continually pivoting as those recommendations have proven fluid, open to interpretation and subject to revision as the virus spreads and more is learned about it.

This slow march of escalating precautions—which has seen retail food stores in recent weeks enact one new safety measure after another, from designated senior hours to cleaning procedures, social distancing, temperature checks, capacity constraints and finally protective gear such as gloves and masks—has workers, store owners and associations calling for more stringent and concrete guidance. Some workers have lost faith in their employers, coming to sense they’d been thrust into a crisis with protections that appear to have been inadequate only days or weeks later.

Wegmans Food Markets this week was among many food retailers to announce it was making masks available for employees and would encourage them to use them—a stance that, according to at least some workers, is coming later than it ought to have.

The Rochester, N.Y.-based retailer, which holds a longstanding reputation for doing well by its workers, said its decision was led by the CDC, which said for the first time April 3 that the application of cloth masks may prevent the spread of the virus. Until now, the agency stated that face masks should only be worn by healthcare workers, people caring for the ill or those who were actively displaying symptoms of the illness.

Wegmans CEO Colleen Wegman couched the announcement that Wegmans would provide masks to workers after following “up-to-date, trusted science” to protect workers and shoppers.

“All along, we have followed the guidance of the CDC for the latest trusted advice. Most recently they are advising that the application of masks may prevent the spread of the virus. We are fortunate to have secured enough masks, arriving at stores in the next few days, to make it possible for our people to adhere to this advice,” the CEO's announcement read in part. “As we continue to follow the highest standards for social distancing, sanitation and Plexiglas screens at checkout, we are confident in the measures we’ve taken to keep our stores a safe and positive place to be during this time. We thank you for your support as we continue to learn and ensure progress is made daily.”

This debate, however—which some believe was additionally influenced by concerns over the availability of protective equipment—played out over weeks. And the jumbled federal response—President Donald Trump made a point to emphasize the mask recommendation was “voluntary” and that he himself wouldn’t be participating in the practice—has in turn played on the retail store floors and a growing  perception among anxious workers that their employers could have responded more aggressively.

One Wegmans worker, who asked not to be identified, in an interview with WGB on March 7—a day before Wegmans’ update—pointed out that Target, for example, beat the CDC to its mask recommendations for workers. Wegmans’ policy, the worker added, allowed employees who preferred to wear masks to do so, but the voluntary nature left them with the impression—right or wrong—that the company would prefer they didn’t.

“I’m disappointed as an employee. I just don’t get it. I don’t get why they haven’t gotten behind folks wearing the face masks. It’s not about the worker protecting himself, it’s about protecting the people around him,” the worker told WGB. “So why wouldn’t Wegmans get behind that?”

The worker has been documenting Wegmans’ response in a series of blog posts. One pointed out that procedure to win approval to wear masks was awkward, requiring workers to fill out forms and watch a video to ensure proper usage. The post concluded it lent the perception that the company would prefer workers not wear them.

“Customers and employees just love Wegmans, but I think that that is hurting them right now because they’ve been accustomed to relying on that culture. And this is a whole different set of circumstances,” the worker said.

“I am going to give them some credit for trying to figure out what the right thing is, because even the CDC couldn’t figure out what the right thing was to do issues like masks,” the worker added. “However, if you take too long to respond, you’ve lost the battle on this one. If you drag your feet about protecting your workers and therefore protecting your customers, then you’re infecting them.”

In recent days, labor unions, retailers and industry associations are coalescing around the idea that the federal government needs to establish more stringent designations that essential workers—like those in retail and food industries—get priority access to personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing.

The Consumer Brands Association this week further called on the White House to establish a supply chain office, saying recent port confiscations of items such as thermometers and cloth face masks are also putting worker health in danger.


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