Over 17,000 grocery store workers have gotten COVID — but they can't get vaccines

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'I think they just kind of feel like there is no end in sight,' said the executive vice president of one local union protecting grocery store workers.

The mayor of Long Beach, California, Robert Garcia, announced Thursday that he would be helming a COVID-19 vaccine clinic for food and grocery store workers with 3,000 slots available.

"Some great vaccine (and food) news," Garcia tweeted. "Next Friday March 5, we are planning a super-sized food and grocery worker only vaccine clinic at the Convention Center. We have over 3,000 slots open for restaurant workers, bodega and market employees, cooks, and anyone in food."

Garcia's announcement was a glimmer of hope for the millions of food workers across the country, who are deadlocked in a battle with states that have blocked them from getting the shot.

In many places, grocery store workers aren't prioritized to receive the vaccine — despite being frontline employees deemed "essential" during the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies grocery store workers as being eligible to receive the vaccine in phase "1B" of rollout, and recommend they receive it alongside first responders like police officers and firefighters. But states have so far been allowed to set their own guidelines, with uneven results.

Earlier this week, Marc Perrone, the international president of United Food and Commercial Workers, a labor union representing 1.3 million workers in food, retail, and other industries in the United States and Canada, told a CBS affiliate it was "criminal" that only 13 states and the District of Columbia are prioritizing grocery store workers for vaccine eligibility.

"Ninety percent of our members are more afraid today than they were 60 days ago and 30 days ago because of the new variants," he told the outlet, adding, "That's criminal. We ought to look at the people with the most exposure."

According to Perrone, some 400 union members have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, with the actual number of grocery store worker deaths, including those not affiliated with a union, likely being much higher.

More than 17,000 UFCW members had contracted the virus by the end of 2020. One October study found that 1 in 5 grocery store workers had contracted it, often asymptomatically.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have so far prioritized grocery store employees to receive the vaccine, including California, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, according to the Washington Post.

But even in states where they are eligible, like California and New York, grocery store workers frequently face logistical hurdles and delays in actually receiving it.

"Once again, grocery workers have been put on the back burner and forgotten about," said a worker in Seattle, speaking with the Post.

"People are frustrated, to say the least."

Elsewhere in the country, the rollout for food workers has been bleak. In Connecticut, unions are slamming Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont for opting not to prioritize food workers to receive the vaccine.

Keri Hoehne, executive vice president of the local UFCW union chapter, told a local outlet, "Our members right from day one were out in front of the customers, so we never thought they would be out of line, that they wouldn’t get any preference." She added that she sees nearly a dozen cases a week of COVID-19 among grocery store workers.

"[Grocery store workers] really felt like at least they were going to get some protection and have a little bit of that anxiety relieved," Hoehne said. "And I think they just kind of feel like there is no end in sight. They just don’t know when they will have any kind of normalcy or any kind of safety."

According to a local NBC affiliate, the Connecticut Food Association also issued a statement criticizing the state for excluding grocery store workers. Stores remaining open, it said, "would not have been possible without the selfless individuals who came to work every day so that others could feed their families. We will be having difficult conversations with our associates who believed they would be eligible for a vaccination in the next phase.”

Unions in Oregon are also blasting state decisions that have delayed grocery store workers from getting the vaccine.

Dan Clay, president of an Oregon UFCW chapter, told the Salem Reporter, "Our Governor’s politicization of public health policy has severe repercussions to the health and lives of workers as well as their families. By ignoring the CDC’s science-informed recommendations, Oregon has imperiled front-line workers as well as the hundreds of thousands of customers they see on a daily basis."

He noted that grocery store workers who have been among the groups hardest hit by the pandemic. According to a CBS report, 15% of grocery store employees are Black, while 14% are Hispanic. The report also notes that 15% do not have health insurance and nearly 1 in 5 have an income below the federal poverty level.

The state of Texas also opted not to prioritize grocery workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, prompting widespread backlash from unions in the state.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) assured grocery store employees in April that "everyone across our state appreciates your hard work to help Texans respond to the #coronavirus."

Then, ignoring, CDC recommendations, he chose not to include frontline food workers in phase 1B of the state's vaccination rollout.

The decision left grocery workers infuriated.

"You feel like you don’t matter when your own state goes against every recommendation that there is out there," said one Houston Kroger employee, speaking to the Texas Tribune earlier in February. "Why don’t we matter? What’s your answer to that?"

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.