Danny Esposito, of Simsbury, (left) takes a customer’s temperature before allowing her to enter LaBonne’s Market in Watertown last spring.

Unions representing thousands of grocery store workers vented their frustration Monday night with Gov. Ned Lamont’s decision not to prioritize the group in the next wave of coronavirus vaccinations.

“We’re disgusted, we’re frustrated,” said Mark Espinosa, president of Local 919 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents about 7,000 Stop & Shop grocery chain employees in Connecticut. “They are front line employees. They are essential. Let’s face it, if they’re not in the stores, people are not eating.”

“In the first weeks and months of the pandemic, our members were considered heroes,” said Ronald Petronella, president of UFCW Local 371, which represents about 5,000 supermarket workers statewide.

Lamont abandoned the state’s previous methodology for a vaccination rollout, which had prioritized people with underlying medical conditions and certain types of workers in essential, high-risk jobs.

But the governor’s announcement Monday — which ironically was made the same day the national Food Industry Association celebrated “Supermarket Employee Day” — shifted to a priority system that is strictly age-based, with one exception: school employees and child care providers. The next round of shots will open March 1 to people who are between ages 55 and 64, teachers and others who work in schools, and day care workers.

Besides grocery story workers, the administration also had been considering giving priority in this next phase to transportation workers, as well as people 16 and older who have underlying health conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and teachers and other school staff. Only the last group is being given priority in Lamont’s new plan.

The governor said he would focus more vaccines on urban centers because of their larger populations. But some advocates also pressed for the next wave to place even more emphasis on cities, which not only have been hit hardest by COVID-19, but are home to many low-income residents who can’t afford quality health care or work retail or service jobs that can’t be performed remotely from home.

Lamont’s new approach drew sharp criticism Monday both from the CT NAACP and from the Connecticut ACLU.

“We agree with and are in solidarity with those calling out this plan as inequitable,” the ACLU chapter tweeted. “It is. Disability rights, racial justice and workers’ rights groups, we see you, and all the ways Gov. Lamont is leaving marginalized people behind.”

Espinosa asked, hypothetically, why a grocery store worker age 54 would not be prioritized when a healthy 55-year-old, with good health insurance and a higher-paying job that can be performed safely from home, is next in line for a vaccination?

“The members were looking for a little bit of security, a little bit of relief,” he said. “They’re at risk every day.”

Petronella added that more than 30,100 unionized grocery workers have been exposed or infected since the pandemic began, including hundreds of UFCW members across Connecticut.

“Those exposures lead additional employees to be quarantined from work, and each case has a widespread ripple effect,” he added. “There is also no way to count the number of customers exposed by each infected member. Getting our members who serve in these essential functions vaccinated as quickly as possible is imperative to the health of our entire state.”

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UFCW Highlights Urgent Need for Vaccine Access and Hazard Pay for Essential Workers

On Feb. 9, the UFCW hosted a national press call to underscore the need to expedite COVID-19 vaccine access for frontline food workers, and called on grocery companies and state leaders to work together to mandate hazard pay.

On the call, UFCW International President Marc Perrone announced that among our members, there have now been nearly 400 frontline worker deaths due to COVID-19 and 77,600 frontline workers infected or exposed to the virus. In the grocery industry, 137 of our members have died due to COVID-19 and over 30,100 grocery workers have been infected or exposed, and in the meatpacking industry, 132 of our members have died from the virus and 21,900 meatpacking workers have been infected or exposed. Perrone also emphasized that essential workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants lack access to the vaccine in over 35 states.

“COVID-19 is still a national emergency, and the threat of this pandemic for essential workers is worse now than ever before,” said Perrone. “Companies like Kroger, Walmart and others still refuse to publicly disclose the full impact of COVID-19, including how many frontline workers have been infected and died, even as the speed of virus infections has increased in the last two months.”

“Essential workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants are not being prioritized for vaccine access in many states and continue to face delays that further endanger their health,” Perrone added. “Simply put, the failures in early vaccine distribution under the past administration have left millions of Americans and essential workers defenseless. Governors must immediately work with CEOs in these industries to ensure the vaccine is free for all essential workers and that workers have paid time off to receive each dose.”

Members of the UFCW who work in grocery stores and meatpacking plants also spoke on the call and highlighted the need for vaccine access, as well as hazard pay.

“Because companies wouldn’t do the right thing, my union helped to push for hazard pay, and last month, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to mandate that grocery chains like Safeway provide an additional $4 per hour in hazard pay for grocery workers like me,” said Sue Wilmot, who is a member of UFCW Local 21 and works as a front-end grocery checker in a Safeway store in Seattle.

“I hope more cities will follow Seattle’s lead and pass their own grocery hazard pay mandate,” Wilmot added. “More importantly, I hope that our elected leaders and President Biden push for national hazard pay because every frontline worker has earned this. But hazard pay is not enough on its own. Essential workers like me also need access to the vaccine as soon as possible because COVID cases are increasing. The vaccine rollout has been too slow. This needs to change.”

“In the spring of 2020, a COVID outbreak tore through my plant and I was one of the workers who got sick,” said Antonio Jimenez, who is a member of UFCW Local 663 and works at the JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minn. “I was out of work for weeks to recover, worried the whole time about passing the infection on to my children, family and friends. Most people I know have at least a couple friends who got COVID. In my plant, more than 50 percent of the workers at my plant got COVID. It was devastating.”

“We need our leaders to prioritize meatpacking workers for vaccine access,” Jimenez added. “We need to make sure that frontline workers receive hazard pay for the health hazards they face. Workers like me risk our lives to feed America every day of this pandemic. Is it so much to ask that we be vaccinated and receive hazard pay?”

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Recreational Cannabis: Connecticut’s Next Union Workforce

Since legalizing medical marijuana in 2012, Connecticut has seen substantial economic and workforce development as it relates to this growing industry. In less than a decade, the state has seen four cultivation sites and over a dozen dispensaries open to serve medical marijuana patients. This session, a recreational use bill will be introduced, which has the potential to bring even more economic prosperity to the state. The Connecticut AFL-CIO is working with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Locals 371 and 919, Governor Lamont and the General Assembly to ensure that cannabis workers have a voice on the job and benefits needed to support a family.

Here’s what you need to know:

Legalizing recreational cannabis will create tons of jobs. Connecticut cannot afford to create another low-wage industry. These jobs need to be fair, equitable, good paying jobs with benefits. The most effective way to do this is with an inclusion of a Labor Peace Agreement (LPA) in the legislation.

  • An LPA ensures that workers have the choice and a fair chance at forming a union free from employer intimidation and scare tactics. Labor Peace Agreements level the playing field.

Since 2010, the UFCW has helped pioneer the development and stabilization of the cannabis sector. Currently, tens of thousands of cannabis workers across the United States are represented by the UFCW.

  • The UFCW represents cannabis workers from seed to sale — which includes growing and cultivating facilities, manufacturing and processing facilities, as well as laboratories and dispensaries.

What’s the union difference?

Union cannabis workers earn 13% more than nonunion workers. A competitive salary is not the only benefit to union membership. UFCW members can earn a completely free bachelor’s degree for themselves and their immediate family members. The UFCW is also a national leader in workplace safety. Unions ensure that workers have dignity and respect in the workplace.

Connecticut needs not only jobs, but good paying jobs with benefits. Wherever cannabis is legalized, the UFCW is committed to building a successful industry with a thriving, diverse, and skilled workforce.

Emily Sabo

UFCW Local 919

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UFCW New England Health Fund

Effective January 1, 2021, as a result of contract negotiations in 2019, the individual Health and Welfare Funds from the five New England Locals have joined together to form this New, United, and Powerful Health Fund. Please note the two new contact phone numbers; 860-470-8551 and 888-705-1092 (toll-free). The Pension Office phone number remains the same at 860-677-8118. Please call with any questions.

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