Higher-risk retail workers can’t afford time off, but fear exposure

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When you think of the front lines of disaster response, you probably envision paramedics, firefighters, police or the military.

But amid the COVID-19 crisis, supermarket workers are putting themselves at risk to serve others.

That prompted one concerned son to reach out to Target 8.

He’s worried about his mom, who’s a long-time employee at Meijer stores, is over 60, has underlying medical problems and doesn’t feel like she can afford to take time off.

“With the bar closures, the restaurant closures, the school closures — it’s making it so the supermarkets are going to be the ones that are most affected by people coming in contact with one another,” said the man who we are not naming to protect his mom.

“It should be OK for (my mom) to be able to be excused from working during this crisis. Anybody at high risk should be able to excuse themselves from work until it goes away or until we have some other handle on this without repercussions.”

Meijer responded to News 8’s request for information with a list of options it’s providing employees.

During the coronavirus crisis, Meijer employees can:

  • Go on short-term disability if they’re in the CDC-defined high-risk category. That’s even if STD was not previously part of their benefits package
  • Take paid time off if they have it
  • Take 30 days off unpaid

In addition to increasing measures designed to keep stores clean and safe, Meijer said it’s also providing free online COVID-19 screening for all employees, continued pay for employees who test positive, reimbursement for 15 days of unplanned, COVID-19-related child or elder care expenses and a team member relief fund, through which workers can apply for financial assistance.

The union that represents 33,000 food and commercial workers statewide, including Meijer employees, said it’s pleased with Meijer and other retailers’ responses to the outbreak.

“I think they are doing as much as they can. They’re trying to do right by everyone,” said John Cakmakci, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 951.

Cakmakci said the biggest problem is the difficulty in communicating what support is available in a situation that’s very fluid.

“I know (the confusion) is causing a lot of consternation among our rank and file workers,” Cakmakci said.

“The biggest issue is getting good, factual information out there.”

Cakmakci is also trying to get the state to reclassify food and commercial workers as first responders in hopes it will make them eligible for federal relief funding down the road.

“These are people on the front lines, and a lot of our members are paycheck to paycheck.”

News 8 is also hearing from employees in the manufacturing industry.

They’re worried about exposure and question why factories are not included in the governor’s mandatory executive order.

News 8 put that question to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office but had not heard back by Tuesday evening.

Michigan Manufacturers Association declined to respond to News 8’s request for information but said:

“MMA has no comment for now on this,” said Brett Gerrish, MMA communications coordinator, referring to the shutdown not including factories.

MMA said it’s “presently preoccupied with all the actions taking place at the federal and state level, as well as informing our members.”

Meanwhile, Steelcase, one of West Michigan’s major manufacturers, told News 8 it’s not shutting down any factory lines “at this time,” but it is operating with modifications to “ensure the health and safety of our employees.”

“Every day we’re factoring in the fast-changing and evolving information to make the necessary decisions,” wrote Steelcase Global Corporate Communications Manager Katie Woodruff in an email exchange with News 8.

“Across all our operations, we have instituted a range of measures to mitigate exposure and contain transmission. Anyone who is ill has been informed not to come to work and will be sent home and directed to seek the care of a medical professional if they do. Anyone who tests positive must self-quarantine for at least 14 days and be free of symptoms before returning to work, per guidelines mandated by the CDC. We have a process in place to manage any additional potential exposures.”

In addition, Woodruff said Steelcase has increased cleaning frequency, positioned sanitation supplies at all locations and instituted social distancing guidelines.

“We are working closely with public health officials and professionals to ensure all appropriate measures are taken to protect employees, their families, our customers and partners,” Woodruff said.


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