Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The union representing Giant and Safeway workers in D.C. has repeatedly called on Mayor Muriel Bowser to designate grocery store, pharmacy, and food processing employees as “first responders” so they can qualify for priority testing, but Bowser is hesitating to do so.

As of April 9, City Paper knew of at least two grocery store employees working in two separate locations that have tested positive for COVID-19. An employee at the Giant in Columbia Heights has tested positive along with a worker of the Trader Joe’s on 14th Street NW. The availability of priority testing could reveal cases that already exist in grocery stores because workers come in contact with so many people on any given day, argues United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400.

new order Bowser released Wednesday evening put in place social distancing requirements at grocery stores to better protect workers, but stopped short of any “first responder” designation. The order says “retail food sellers” like grocery stores need to instruct and enforce all customers to wear face masks and maintain six feet of distance from one another while shopping. Among other things, management at stores also needs to provide employees with face masks and gloves, if feasible, and check them for COVID-19 symptoms before they begin a shift.  

“Our folks who are doing essential work, including grocery store workers, are on the frontline of the response to this pandemic and all of us who want to continue to rely on the supply of food need to do everything in our power to keep them safe,” Bowser said during her Thursday morning press conference. 

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UFCW Local 400 applauded the new order, but demanded additional support. “More must be done,” says Mark Federici, president of UFCW Local 400, in a statement to City Paper. In addition to demanding a “first responder” designation, the union is calling on D.C. to enforce limits of “no more than 10 people at a time per 10,000 square feet, and no more than 50 customers in a single store at a given time.” The mayoral order’s language is vague on this point, asking stores to merely “limit the number of customers who can enter the business at one time.” Additionally, the union insists every worker should be required to wear protective equipment and their employer must provide them with masks and gloves. Right now, the union says, Giant and Safeway management is attempting to provide these critical items and is encouraging employees to bring their own if they can’t.   

When City Paper asked about designating grocery store workers as “first responders” during Thursday’s press conference, Bowser said these individuals can access the testing site at United Medical Center, a public hospital located at 1310 Southern Ave SE. This testing site is open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and by appointment only. 

“Our grocery workers in Washington D.C. can certainly call our hotline and be tested in United Medical Center and we don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t work,” said Bowser. “In fact, the briefing that I got this morning is that we were undersubscribed for the number of people who can go to UMC yesterday. I think we had 200 appointments allocated and we had 110 people show up and we continue to work for our appointments for this Friday. So for our food workers showing symptoms—they can call that hotline and be directed to UMC for testing.” 

Only select individuals experiencing COVID-19 symptoms can get testing according to guidance released last week: D.C. residents who are 65 or older; D.C. health care workers; first responders who work the D.C. government; and D.C. residents who have underlying health conditions. 

“Offering testing on limited hours for limited days does not quite meet the demand that is necessary to test every grocery worker. We represent thousands of workers in the District,” says Jonathan Williams, UFCW Local 400’s communications director, in response to the mayor’s comments. “Having a threshold of only a few hundred tests available to the entire general public per day is inadequate to meet the needs of our members on the front line.” 

On March 30, D.C. opened a COVID-19 testing center for first responders. Police officers and firefighters have seen dozens of COVID-19 cases and Williams expects the same would be true of grocery workers, who similarly interact with many people who could be carrying the virus.  

The city still only tests individuals who show COVID-19 symptoms (cough, fever, and shortness of breath). Officials have to be strategic because there aren’t enough kits and protective equipment to test everyone. This concerns Williams because people can be infected but appear asymptomatic. 

“A shortage of tests is all the more reason that grocery workers need to be designated first responders,” says Williams. 

At least five councilmembers have called on the mayor to declare grocery workers as “first responders,” according to the union’s own count. When Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray asked the mayor about designating grocery workers as first responders during a April 3 press conference, Bowser stressed that grocery store workers are essential, but for the purposes of procuring and providing them personal protective equipment, as they do with other first responders, D.C. is still evaluating how that can happen. 

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