New York, NY – RWDSU/UFCW Local 338 is comprised almost entirely of essential workers, a great many of them helping to keep New Yorkers fed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the challenges, workers, especially those in grocery stores, have not backed down. The nearly 100-year-old union representing them now hopes shoppers and companies will do the same to prevent a second wave of infection.
“We are 99.9-percent essential workers,” said Nikki Kateman, a spokeswoman for the union. “We represent food retail & grocery workers, pharmaceutical retail, medical cannabis workers, we represent health care and human services at assisted living facilities, non-profits that care for the developmentally disabled and Meals and Wheels, and in affordable housing complexes – the janitors and the supers.”
Local 338 also represents non-essential workers in transportation and in the public sector, according to Kateman.
“At the outset of this, there was a massive rush for essential retail items where people were stacking up, some were hoarding and there was an explosion in the stores where some people were doing tons of overtime working crazy hours in order to keep the stores open,” said Kateman, of the grocery store industry, which has shouldered some of the brunt of the crisis. “Things have tapered off and normal shopping has resumed, but the number of shoppers have increased a little bit because people aren’t going to restaurants as often anymore.”
Customers are doing more bulk shopping versus three or more months ago, according to Kateman.
“In the very beginning it was very stressful because we didn’t know what we were going to get, how long it was going to be and with the panic buying and the frenzy of the media it made everybody a little nervous,” said Wally Waugh, a grocery store clerk at Stop & Shop in Oyster Bay. “The union worked excellently with the company and we were able to be kept informed, and from the outset we had what we needed and we adequate protective equipment despite the shortage going.”
The CDC wasn’t very clear in the beginning and people were under the impression they shouldn’t be wearing masks at first, according to Kateman. However, once that guideline was overturned, Local 338 worked with supply chains to supplement personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves. They also fought for plexiglass in the stores their members worked at.
“At any point of potential contact with a member of the public, like customer service, deli or meat department – wherever there was a place of transacting there was plexiglass going up,” said Kateman. “We’ve also adhered to social distancing by putting markers on the floor so that people know it’s a one-way aisle.”
His Stop & Shop had plexiglass long before stores like Walmart and Target reported that they would start installing the item, according to Waugh.
Initially, as workers were learning more about the crisis, employees for were working 12 to 13 hours, sometimes 15 hours a day, according to Waugh.
“We were trying to keep pace with what was going on,” said Waugh. “As time went on it and we got a better understanding of what was going [by our union] it became easier. We are still concerned about the way things are going, but we are comfortable now, because we have the proper equipment to do our jobs, we are kept informed and the supply line has opened up a lot, but most of the workers are weary since we don’t know how long this is going to continue.”
The union fought for Local 338’s members getting hazard pay, which eased tensions for essential workers in grocery stores. There is PPE on hand for workers and hazard pay has extended to July 4, but there are concerns about a second wave.
“The problem we are seeing in the news is that people are letting their guards down,” said Kateman. “[Shoppers] are not necessarily wearing the mask, the ones that do leave their gloves and masks in the parking lots and shopping carts outside of stores, which means workers then have to clean that up.”
Unfortunately, six members of the local died and 10 more contracted the virus across different industries, according to Kateman.
Waugh is grateful that the Oyster Bay Stop & Shop had decided to work with his union very early on to prevent the workers from getting sick and as a result there has been no infections at his location, but he knows that those without unions or with companies that are reluctant to adhere to PPE and social distancing are not as lucky as he is.
“We even got text messages about where we could get tested,” said Waugh. “You know what it is, what alleviates the fear, its that we know that we have a support system behind you and that is important. That gives us the confidence to go in. Not just the money, because I know a lot of us if we had to choose health or money, we would choose health. I would. It’s that we are able to feel safe and comfortable because the union fought for us.”