USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

April 13, 2020; New York Times

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery store employees and other workers who were suddenly acknowledged as “essential” received military-style “thanks for their service” even as they were exposed, often unnecessarily, to the coronavirus. At Amazon, for example, frontline employees have had to struggle for safe working conditions; 74 workers are known to have tested positive for COVID-19, and one has died. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos has added $24 billion to his personal wealth and Amazon stock has hit an all-time high as the call goes out for 175,000 new workers.

Writing this week, Steve Dubb points to national figures showing that more than 1,500 supermarket workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and dozens have died. Many more are in quarantine with symptoms but have not been tested, including a disturbing number of undocumented immigrants who, for fear of being picked up by ICE or other authorities, are staying at home to die or recover.

Who will stand up for these brave workers, if their employers will not? You might think the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would act. After all, they were established to protect the health and safety of all of us. Well, think again. The CDC has issued new guidelines that say it is okay for essential workers to continue to work after exposure to COVID-19 if they meet certain conditions. Before now, they would have had to quarantine for two weeks.

The assumption seems to be that the risk to these workers (and those around them) can be minimized with precautions. But they and their unions feel differently.

“I think the CDC guidelines they put out the other day are soft,” said Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents 1.3 million workers. Nearly 3,000 of the union’s workers have been directly affected by the virus—through infection, quarantine, hospitalizations and some awaiting test results—and 30 have died.

The new CDC guidelines state that workers who may have been exposed to the virus may continue to work as long as they are asymptomatic, wear a mask at all times for 14 days from the exposure, and have their temperature taken prior to entering their workplace. They also need to follow CDC guidance on social distancing, which is a fool’s errand in a grocery store aisle. Also, anyone who comes within six feet of such an employee—customer or coworker—should be notified and considered “exposed” as well.

These guidelines are not sitting well with workers or with labor advocates. Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, the co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, suggests these new guidelines encourage employers to pressure staff to return to their jobs too soon, and often without adequate protection or adequate pay.

“It’s a complete reversal of the policy that the CDC has for the public,” Goldstein-Gelb says. “It disregards the fact that, right now, workers are dying every day needlessly in unconscionable numbers.”

With so many other places closed, grocery stores are one of the few places where people congregate, even when they follow the suggested social distancing and mask-wearing directives. They are high-risk areas for transmission, especially for workers, who have often not been given protective masks and gloves and must attend to customers that might not be wearing any kind of protective covering, either. While the CDC recommended that everyone wear cloth face masks back in early April, doing so is voluntary.

Some grocery store chains and individual stores have taken steps to limit the number of people in the store at any one time, placed plexiglass between checkers and customers, and marked the floor to keep customers six feet apart while waiting to check out. Others are woefully lacking. Not all are providing their staff with masks and gloves and the proper cleaning supplies needed. Not all are providing adequate time to thoroughly clean and disinfect their stores each day. And in some areas, stores rely on churches and other nonprofits to make and donate masks for their workers, as they cannot locate ones to purchase for their employees.

These same CDC guidelines hold for the meat processing plants that have also become hotspots for the virus. In addition to representing grocery workers, the UFCW also represents 250,000 meat plant workers, including those at a plant in Greeley, Colorado, where last week 30 workers tested positive for the virus. These new guidelines have Perrone very worried for his workers in these plants; most are in remote locations, and a major outbreak would mean a disaster for the rural areas and the hospitals nearby.

While many states and employers are accepting the CDC’s revised guidelines, not all are lining up with them. In Minnesota, Dr. Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease epidemiology and prevention for the Minnesota Department of Health, says her office issued stricter recommendations for when workers should return following exposure to the virus. Under these, workers should return to their jobs only after a 14-day isolation period, unless they are so critical that their absence would create a “crisis situation.” And in those cases, the employer should contact the health department to determine just how to manage that return.

“We look to CDC as a lead, and we have decided in Minnesota that we want to take a bit more of a conservative approach to this,” says Ehresmann, “and we have amended those guidelines in the ways that we think are better for our state.”

Perhaps, as Goldstein-Gelb told the Times, it is time to re-examine the term “essential employee” and improve the safety and pay for workers who meet that definition. The CDC’s new guidelines seem to be focused on expediency in meeting the needs of employers and customers, with limited attention to those “essential employees” that we claim as our heroes. We expect better—and these people deserve more.—Carole Levine