Commentary: Pandemic hasn’t gone away, so why did hazard pay?

By Brian String

As COVID-19 continues to ravage our region, with 350,000 cases so far and more infections occurring every day, front-line workers in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland continue to put themselves in harm’s way for our communities.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 152 represents more than 13,500 workers in many essential businesses in this region, including supermarkets, health care facilities and manufacturing plants. Many of them are required to interact with hundreds, if not thousands, of customers, patients or co-workers every day.

Sadly, they continue to live with the daily fear of not only contracting the virus, but also bringing it home to their families.

Without these essential employees, communities would not have the food, medicines or medical care needed during this ongoing crisis.

Given the risks as COVID-19 cases continue to spread, it is time for the CEOs of every grocery, health care and manufacturing facility to step up and guarantee hazard pay for these courageous workers.

The members of our union know firsthand that the dangers have not disappeared, yet many large grocery chains ended hazard pay for workers as if the pandemic was suddenly over and their employees were no longer at risk. Some workers, especially those in health care whose risk is potentially even greater, never received hazard pay at all.

It was stunning to see grocery chains raking in billions in profits during the pandemic and still choosing to cut hazard pay for their front-line workers.

In reality, these employees continue to get sick and die from COVID-19. There have already been at least 100 deaths of grocery workers, and thousands more have been exposed. In our region, more than 400 employees have been infected while doing their jobs.

These companies are treating their employees as expendable at a time when the danger of COVID-19 is just as real as it was on day one of the pandemic. Our communities count on these essential workers, yet they have nothing to show for it.

On top of it all, our UFCW Local 152 members have worked harder than ever during this crisis. They have been berated by customers for lacking product, endured expletives simply because they enforced social distancing rules and suffered threats of bodily harm over simple mask-wearing.

Many of our region’s largest companies refuse to release the numbers on how many of their workers have died, become sick or were exposed during the pandemic. It is outrageous that these CEOs are keeping us in the dark about the dangers these workers face.

As COVID-19 cases continue to spread, it is time for corporate CEOs to provide the strong hazard pay their workers have earned for risking their health and safety.

The only way we will get through this is together, and that starts with companies doing the right thing and putting workers and their families first.

Brian String is the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 152, the union for 13,500 workers in grocery stores and other essential businesses serving Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.