Update

Union presses for Congress to protect food supplies, workers

By , Daily Memphian Updated: June 10, 2020 6:36 PM CT | Published: June 10, 2020 2:10 PM CT
<strong>Kroger employee Chris Franceschi (middle) attends a protest on Wednesday, June 10, outside the Kroger Delta Division Distribution Center on Bledsoe Road. Teamsters&nbsp; union members called for more COVID-19 protections of workers and products in the food service supply chain.</strong> (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Kroger employee Chris Franceschi (middle) attends a protest on Wednesday, June 10, outside the Kroger Delta Division Distribution Center on Bledsoe Road. Teamsters union members called for more COVID-19 protections of workers and products in the food service supply chain. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Teamsters urged food suppliers and governments to do more to protect workers and food from COVID-19, during protests Wednesday in Memphis and across the nation.

A Kroger distribution warehouse and a Prairie Farms dairy provided the Memphis backdrops for union events pushing for tougher workplace safety standards and federal funding for sick and family leave, hazard pay, protective gear and expanded testing.


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The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents nearly 500,000 workers in the food supply chain, held demonstrations outside food suppliers and stores in 30 cities.

COVID-19 cases have been logged at 115 meat and poultry processing facilities in 19 states, more than 5,000 food supply chain workers have tested positive, and more than 20 have died from the virus, according to the union.

The Kroger Delta division distribution center in southeast Memphis was briefly disrupted by a work stoppage in March after initial cases of COVID-19 were reported among the workforce there. The union said at least a dozen food processing facilities were shut down by the virus.

Kroger later implemented nationwide $2 an hour hazard pay from April through mid-May. After hazard pay ended, Kroger rolled out a new, $130 million program of cash payments to qualified employees of $400 for full-timers and $200 for part-timers, to be paid in installments May 28 and June 18.

Union leaders said the company actions aren’t enough to ensure the safety of essential workers who face the uncertainty of a continuing pandemic and predictions infections will surge again.

“We are here to call out companies who have turned their backs on their workers,” said James E. Jones, president of Teamsters Local No. 667, which represents workers at Kroger and Prairie Farms.

“At this time, we need as much protection as we can get. This is not the time for Kroger to turn its back on its downtrodden workers,” said Jones, whose local represents 300-400 workers at the Kroger distribution center.

“As essential workers, we are in danger. We have exposed ourselves to disease just to feed our families,” said Jones.

The union is particularly focused on persuading Kroger to relax production quotas that Jones said workers have difficulty meeting while taking precautions against COVID-19.

Kroger Delta division spokeswoman Teresa Dickerson said the company “will continue to safeguard our associates’ health and well-being and recognize their work. At the same time, we will continue running a sustainable business that provides steady employment and opportunities to learn and grow for over half a million associates. The health and safety of our associates, customers and communities is and will continue to be our top priority.”

Earlier Wednesday, a protest was held outside the Prairie Farms dairy on Madison near Overton Square Wednesday morning. The Teamsters union represents warehouse workers and truck drivers at the dairy.

Teamsters representative Matt Brown said the dairy wasn’t targeted because of its record on COVID-19, but as part of a larger initiative to safeguard the food supply chain and its employees.

“We believe this problem is systemic throughout the industry. That’s why there needs to be congressional action,” Brown said.

“Prairie Farms has not implemented hazard pay. That’s one of our requests (to Congress), so these companies don’t go broke while doing the right thing,” Brown said.

The union is working with lawmakers to get food supply chain issues addressed by Congress, Brown said.

Dairy workers came outside on break and joined union representatives on the sidewalk.

Robert V. Fields, a business agent with the local, said, “We are all in danger as essential workers who continue to work during this pandemic, and we must all be given the protections we need.”

“This pandemic is sending shock waves throughout the U.S. food supply chain. It’s clear that the entire food supply chain is at risk to serious COVID-19 disruptions,” Fields said.

A Teamsters news release about the Day of Action said, “These workers are calling on their employers and elected officials at all levels of government to keep them and the food supply chain safe with enforceable safety standards and government funding for paid sick and family leave, hazard pay, access to PPE (personal protective equipment), and testing capacity.”

The union called for enhanced safety measures at all food facilities, including “a shield, test, trace and treat approach, including providing PPE for all workers; adjusting work practices for social distancing; prioritizing regular COVID-19 testing and tracing for food supply chain workers; and free healthcare and quarantine pay to prevent outbreaks for all workers impacted by COVID-19.”

Jones and other union leaders were joined by 10-15 workers from the Kroger distribution center in a mid-afternoon news conference outside the complex on Bledsoe Road off Hickory Hill Road.

Jones linked the workers’ fight for fair and equal treatment to civil rights protests from the 1960s through the recent wave of demonstrations over killings of black people.

Jones said Kroger’s response to workers’ concerns early in the pandemic had improved conditions for employees throughout the Kroger organization, “but the fight is not over. The virus is still here.”

<strong>Teamsters Local 667 president James Jones (middle) speaks to Kroger employees during a rally on Wednesday, June 10, outside the Kroger Delta Division Distribution Center on Bledsoe Road.</strong> (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Teamsters Local 667 president James Jones (middle) speaks to Kroger employees during a rally on Wednesday, June 10, outside the Kroger Delta Division Distribution Center on Bledsoe Road. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Dickerson said there had been three confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Memphis distribution center, and “there is no evidence that any of these cases were work-related.”

“Our associates’ safety is our top priority. We follow all CDC and local health department guidelines, including implementing rigorous sanitation procedures, providing our associates personal protective equipment, physical distancing and temperature checks at our Memphis distribution center ...” Dickerson said.

Kroger said it had spent more than $800 million “to reward our associates and safeguard associates, customers and our communities during the pandemic.”

The grocer said it had provided jobs to more than 100,000 workers nationwide in its retail, e-commerce, manufacturing and logistics operations during the pandemic, easing the sting of job losses in other sectors such as hotels and restaurants.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do. 

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Topics

Kroger Prairie Farms food supply chain International Brotherhood of Teamsters COVID-19 protections
Wayne Risher

Wayne Risher

Business news reporter, 43-year veteran of print journalism, 35-year resident of Memphis, University of Georgia alumnus and proud father and spouse of University of Memphis graduates.


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