Blog Posts > Seth DiStefano: Classify Front-Line Workers Among Our First Responders
April 29, 2020

Seth DiStefano: Classify Front-Line Workers Among Our First Responders

Beckley Register-Herald – Gov. Jim Justice needs to immediately classify grocery store, food processing and pharmacy workers who must work during this pandemic as first responders through Executive Order. Read op-ed.

Being classified as an “essential” employee during the COVID-19 pandemic and response may guarantee you keep your paycheck, but it doesn’t keep you and your family from getting sick.

Those who keep shelves stocked, medicines filled, and the food supply chain moving know this well. While you and I can pick and choose when to go food shopping or even place an order for curbside pickup to keep our physical distance, the “essential” employees keeping our supermarkets and grocery stores have no such privilege.

At an average of just over $400 in weekly pay, the single mother stocking shelves can’t stop working when customers get within the CDC-recommended six feet of physical distancing. The pharmacy tech handling orders for 8-12 hours per shift, barely two feet away from customers checking out one after another, doesn’t enjoy the same privileges you and I do when it comes to being able to work from home until the worst of the pandemic passes.

Truly, the men and women ensuring we can keep food on the table and medicine at the ready represent our best. They deserve more than accolades on social media or passing thanks. They deserve policy action to protect themselves as they provide one of the most critical services there is during a pandemic response.

This includes access to COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment like cloth masks, and face shields to keep them, their families and customers safe. In the event they do get sick, they have a right to free medicine and treatment. If we classify workers keeping the grocery store chain of supply running smoothly as first responders, grocery store, pharmacy and food processing workers can also qualify for free child care, critical to keeping working families on the job during this critical public health crisis.

The last month has opened our eyes to what defines an essential worker. Most of those working on the front line of this pandemic make low wages and have little to no access to benefits like paid sick days. We take for granted the worker putting together a curbside pickup order until our grandparents call us asking to pick up their groceries because they’re scared to come outside of the house. The same can be said for all of the men and women making sure families across West Virginia and the country whom we didn’t always notice until we had to count on them to get through the biggest public health crisis of our generation.

These workers have to serve all of us. At all levels of our food supply chain, those in the processing and meat packing plants, the truck drivers, and the men and women in the stores themselves have always been essential. It’s time for our public policy priorities to reflect that reality by demanding Gov. Justice use his executive authority to classify those grocery store employees as the first responders they truly are.

Classifying these workers as first responders will further the progress West Virginia has made flattening the curve against COVID-19. It’s not just access to testing, personal protective equipment and child care for the duration of the crisis. It also means guaranteed medicine and treatment for many working families, who, in most cases, have no access to health care when they get sick.

Gov. Justice, I urge you to follow the example of states like Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts and Vermont by classifying grocery, pharmacy and food processing workers as first responders. Let’s make sure these “essential” workers are given the essential protection and benefits they deserve as they are on the front lines getting all of us through this pandemic.

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