Grocery store workers demand their turn for Covid vaccinations

People standing in line to gain access to a Ralphs grocery store in El Segundo, California. Stores are regulating how many people can be inside the store at the same time. March 22, 2020.(David Zaitz/Special to Salem Reporter)

A union representing thousands of grocery store workers in Salem and across the state is calling on Gov. Kate Brown to move its members up in line for the Covid vaccine.

In December, public health authorities rolled out a state plan to first vaccinate health care and corrections workers and residents of long-term care facilities, then educators and older Oregonians. The vaccination schedule prioritizes Oregonians whose job or age group puts them at particular risk for catching or dying from Covid.

But the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 555 says the schedule leaves out grocery store workers who are also at high risk because of frequent interactions with the public. The union represents 28,000 workers in Oregon and southwest Washington, 2,000 of whom are in Marion and Polk counties.

In a comment submitted to a panel advising public health authorities on the vaccine rollout, Kristin Anderson said she’s routinely exposed to hundreds of people each day, many of whom aren’t wearing masks properly, at her job at a grocery store (she didn’t say which one). 

“I have seen zero support in Oregon for essential workers that work in fields other (than) healthcare,” she said. “I am sad that our state seems to be failing us.” 

During the pandemic, videos have emerged of maskless people confronting grocery store workers, including in Salem. After the governor enacted a mask mandate last summer, the state’s worker safety agency was flooded with complaints about customers not wearing facial coverings in retail and other settings. 

The union issued a sharply worded statement on Friday calling the governor’s decision to leave grocery store workers out of the current priority groups a “gross oversight.” 

As the vaccine was approved last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommended vaccination schedule to help states develop their own plans. The CDC’s plan calls for putting grocery store workers in phase 1b along with firefighters, police officers and others. 

Oregon is currently in the middle of phase 1b, but health officials have not announced a clear schedule for when essential workers will become eligible for the vaccine or clarified which types of workers will be included.

“Our Governor’s politicization of public health policy has severe repercussions to the health and lives of workers as well as their families,” said Dan Clay, the union’s president, in a statement. ”By ignoring the CDC’s science-informed recommendations, Oregon has imperiled front-line workers as well as the hundreds of thousands of customers they see on a daily basis.” 

Clay also said that grocery store workers tend to disproportionately be people of color, who have been vaccinated at lower rates than their white counterparts. He also pointed out that Washington state’s vaccination plan follows the CDC’s prioritization schedule for vaccinating grocery store workers. 

Charles Boyle, spokesman for the governor, said in an email the state is still in phase 1b. So far, the phase has included educators and people 70 and up. Next week, people 65 and older will be eligible. 

He said the Oregon Health Authority is reviewing the recommendations from the Vaccine Advisory Committee on prioritizations on the current phase “from a logistical and implementation perspective.” 

Earlier this month, the 27-member volunteer committee issued its recommendations that called for prioritizing frontline workers, including grocery store workers. 

“We are working with OHA to operationalize the (committee’s) recommendations, which did not include a definition of “essential” or “critical” worker, for example,” he said.  

He said he expects the governor to announce the next groups to be included in phase 1b on Friday. State health officials have previously said Oregon will likely begin vaccinating those groups in April.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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