Guest Columnist

Iowa workers are on the front lines of COVID-19 - it's time to restore hazard pay

A shopper walks down an isle at a local super market, Friday, May 29, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.  (AP Photo/Charlie Neib
A shopper walks down an isle at a local super market, Friday, May 29, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

All across Iowa, front-line workers are continuing to show up for our communities every single day despite the very real dangers they still face with more than 72,000 COVID-19 cases statewide and more people getting sick every day. Workers in our neighborhood supermarkets and at food processing facilities are among those most at risk.

Without the courage of these essential workers who continue to put themselves in harm’s way, our families would not have the food we need during this crisis. Given the growing risks, as COVID-19 cases continue to spread, it is time for CEOs of these businesses to step up and guarantee hazard pay for all front-line workers.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 617 represents over 400 workers doing essential jobs. The members of our union know firsthand that the danger did not go away for these workers. Yet many of the CEOs of our country’s largest grocery chains and food manufacturing plants ended or refused to provide hazard pay for these workers, acting as if the pandemic was over and these brave workers were no longer at risk.

In reality, essential workers continue to get sick and die from COVID-19. There have already been at least 100 grocery worker deaths and thousands of grocery workers infected or exposed to the virus, along with 35 food processing worker deaths and more than 4,900 food processing workers infected or exposed in these facilities. Here in Lee County, 6 of our members and counting have been infected and all of Iowa’s essential workers continue to live with the daily fear of not only becoming sick but also of putting their family in danger by bringing this deadly virus home.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, UFCW Local 617 members have worked tirelessly. Virtually every one of them is working seven days a week, and several are even working 12-hour days to meet increased demand. Their employer is putting profits before people, seeing other facilities shutting down due to COVID-19 outbreaks as an opportunity to take over more shelf space in grocery stores. Instead of recognizing the hard work of these brave men and women, this company has left these workers without any hazard pay during the pandemic. This is unacceptable given the unprecedented health risks our members face and the increase in sales this company is profiting from. The reality is that this company can afford to provide the hazard pay that these hardworking men and women have earned and deserve, but is more focused on profits. It’s simply not right.

Knowing about the situation these workers face, it’s no surprise to see the CEOs of major food companies like Hy-Vee, Fareway and Walmart raking in billions in profits during the pandemic and still cutting hazard pay for brave front-line workers. These companies are treating these workers as expendable at a time when the danger of COVID-19 is just as real as on day one of the pandemic and we continue to count on these essential workers to be able to put food on the table for our families.

Even worse, our country’s largest grocery chains refuse to release the numbers on how many of their workers have died, become sick, or exposed during this pandemic. It is outrageous that these CEOs are keeping all of us in the dark about the dangers these workers face and the hazards that still exist across Iowa. Our families deserve better.

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As COVID-19 cases continue to spread across Iowa and our state’s essential workers continue to serve a critical role dire for our communities, it is time for all of these CEOs to finally recognize the very real risks that exist in food processing facilities and grocery stores and provide the strong hazard pay that these workers have earned for the danger they face every day. The only way we will get through this is together, and that starts with companies doing the right thing and putting Iowa workers and families first.

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Robert Cale is the president of UFCW Local 617, the union for over 400 workers in an essential business in Lee County, Iowa, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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