Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins made the right call Monday when he announced that COVID-19 testing would be available, regardless of symptoms, for all grocery store workers and other “essential” retail workers.
The change reflects growing concern among grocery store employees, management and unions nationwide that they are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 but may lack access to testing and personal protective equipment.
On April 7, Albertsons, the second-largest supermarket chain in the U.S., and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union issued a joint statement calling on states and the federal government to grant grocery store employees “the temporary designation of first responder or emergency personnel status.” Such a designation, they said, would provide their workers better access to priority testing, personal protective equipment and other workplace protections.
Kroger, America’s largest supermarket chain, has also released a joint statement with the union making the same point.
One doesn’t have to be a public health expert to understand why grocery stores — just about the only place most families are still shopping — are on the front lines of the fight against coronavirus. Even as sales in other retail sectors have plummeted, grocery sales have skyrocketed, increasing a record 26.9% in March alone, according to U.S. Census data.
If a silver lining can be found in this startling statistic it is that major supermarket chains are hiring workers and offering increased pay. Texas’ leading chain, H-E-B, for example, is temporarily offering a $2 pay increase it calls “Texas Proud Pay.” Walmart and Kroger are providing similar pay hikes, with the latter planning to hire as many as 3,000 people in North Texas alone.
At the same time, the employees and managers are increasingly aware of the risks they face by fulfilling the needs of their customers. Since April 20, all Walmart and Sam’s Club employees are required to wear masks either brought from home or provided by their employer. And many stores across the country are limiting the number of customers who can enter at any given time and have installed plastic shields at checkouts.
All of these measures are prudent. But without adequate access to COVID-19 testing and protective equipment such as masks and gloves for employees, going to the grocery store will pose challenges to social distancing strategies for many Americans, including the workers themselves.
As Molly Kinder, a Brookings Institution fellow who’s researching front-line COVID-19 workers, told us recently, “Even with some of the measures to put up Plexiglas shields or limit the number of customers, the reality is these workers are putting themselves in harm’s way. And getting first-responder status would move them up the priority list to give them access to the same lifesaving PPE that other first responders and health workers are benefiting from.”
Making COVID-19 testing available to all grocery workers, regardless of symptoms, as Jenkins has done, also goes a long way toward protecting those who keep our refrigerators and pantries stocked.
Yet, sadly, in many stores across the country, sick leave, protective equipment and testing are still problems for these front-line employees. Given that COVID-19 is asymptomatic in many who’ve contracted the coronavirus, personal protective equipment and testing for all essential workers in grocery stores would seem a no-brainer.