Union urges CEOs of food chains to reinforce mask wearing

The nation’s largest food and retail union is urging more than 60 retail and grocery chains to implement stronger measures to help protect hourly workers amid a surge of virus infections and the new variant omicron.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union said in a letter to the CEOS of Walmart, Kroger and others that they should reinstate social distancing protocols and urge customers to wear masks at all locations. It also is pushing chains to provide paid sick leave benefits to encourage workers to get the initial vaccination or the vaccination booster should they have a reaction. The union, which has 1.3 million members, also said that companies should further increase worker hourly pay to alleviate the impact of surging prices in food and other basics.

“Throughout this difficult period, the threat of COVID-19 variants has persisted and evolved even as many of America’s largest food and retail companies have relaxed their safety measures," wrote UFCW president Marc Perrone in a letter furnished by the union. “Now, with the delta variant driving a dangerous winter surge of COVID-19 cases in 39 states and new variants like omicron further raising fears about public safety, we believe it is critical for our nation’s largest retail and food employers….to take immediate steps to protect essential workers and members of the public during this holiday season.”

After a largely mask-free summer, some companies started to push masks again in their stores after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reversed course in late July and recommended masks for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in areas of higher transmission of the delta variant. But many business owners still have been lax about mandating masks and have dropped social distancing protocols in their stores as they’re afraid of angering customers.

Paul Swanson, a manager at the Wayzata, Minnesota location of grocery retailer Lunds and Byerlys, said that its store relaxed the mask rules for its customers after people got vaccinated in the summer. Workers at the unionized chain are required to wear masks, he said. He’s worried about getting sick as the store has become packed during the holiday season.

“It’s little disheartening when you show for work and me and my co-workers are wearing masks, but they’re not," he said.