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'They Are Saving Our Lives': Demand Grows for Grocery Store Employees, Other Frontline Workers to Receive Hazard Pay Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

"Crewmembers are terrified, knowing their job is putting them on the frontlines of a global pandemic."

People shopping in the egg and dairy case on March 13, 2020 at Whole Foods Merket in Vauxhall, New Jersey. (Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Grocery stores and other U.S. businesses remaining open amid the coronavirus pandemic are facing pressure from unions and activists to provide hazard pay for employees whose jobs involve tasks that put them at direct risk of exposure to the infectious disease.

"Trader Joe's needs to provide workers hazard pay starting right now," tweeted Trader Joe's Union, an account formed by a group of workers pushing for the store's employees to unionize. "Crewmembers are terrified, knowing their job is putting them on the frontlines of a global pandemic. It is not enough to receive [paid time off] only after being proven sick."

"We have been hearing from workers across the country interested in unionizing," the group added, "but we've also been hearing from workers who feel forced to work until they get sick, who don't have the means to find safety or security in calling out, and who are terrified at what's to come."

A video posted by chef José Andrés of supermarket employees stocking shelves in the early hours of the morning Monday sparked an outpouring of gratitude for the essential role grocery store workers are playing in providing Americans with food and other necessities during the outbreak.

Supermarket jobs are overwhelmingly low-wage and often don't come with decent benefit packages—or the luxury of working from home until the COVID-19 outbreak subsides.

"They deserve hazard pay and paid sick leave," said one Twitter user. "They should also get some [paid time off] once this crisis passes."

Andrés, founder of a non-profit devoted to providing meals following natural disasters, amplified that demand:

Unions are also demanding hazard pay for public-sector workers facing possible on-the-job exposure to COVID-19, which has infected at least 3,600 people and killed 66 in the United States.

"The federal government has hundreds of thousands of workers who come in daily contact with the public—workplace inspectors, mail carriers, hospital workers, park rangers, passport processors, Social Security representatives, museum workers," the Washington Post reported Saturday.

In written testimony to Congress last Wednesday, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) demanded that government employees facing possible exposure to the novel coronavirus receive adequate protections and hazard pay.

Government Executive reported last week that three Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers in San Jose, California tested positive for COVID-19 and "a couple dozen employees deemed to have had contact with those workers are home on self-quarantine."

TSA workers are not currently eligible for hazard pay, despite their jobs requiring daily interactions with hundreds of travelers.

"We do everything we can to protect passengers, but who is protecting us?" Hydrick Thomas, president of AFGE's TSA Council, asked in a statement last Thursday.

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