WISCONSIN (SPECTRUM NEWS) -- They are keeping shelves stocked and food in supply. Food industry workers are essential frontline workers in this pandemic, but that title doesn't come with any additional benefits from the state.
Something Outpost Natural Foods is hoping will change. The co-op, which just celebrated 50 years in the Milwaukee area, has safeguards in place to protect its employees and customers. From plexiglass screens at the register, to social distancing reminders and markers. But Manager Jodi Krafcheck said employees are still worried about their safety. "There is a little bit of fear. People are wondering if people coming in here are abiding by some of the guidelines."
Those employees are also putting in more hours. Outpost's workforce is down 10% because of issues related to COVID-19. "There's even greater pressure on our frontline employees who are working now to fill in the blanks," Director of Community Relations, Margaret Mittelstadt shared.
Mittelstadt said even though Outpost has increased hourly wages and offers time off if employees get sick, the co-op can only do so much. "We're looking for some, at least, extra protections beyond what we can provide as a retailer." Mittelstadt explained it comes down to extra benefits for employees, "so that they don't have to worry about how they're going to cover their healthcare or how they're going to cover their childcare if they have to be removed form the workforce because of the coronavirus."
It's an ask outlined in a letter Outpost sent to the governor's office Friday. The co-op joined forces with its union, United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1473. Outpost and UFCW want Governor Evers to give employees a temporary designation of first responders.
Something the union said it's been looking at for more than a month. "We anticipated that there were going to be needs of our members that perhaps would not be met," said Melanie Bartholf with the Local 1473. She told us the union first reached out to the governor in mid-March.
UFCW has several main requests for its members in grocery, retail and food processing. Access to free PPE, after healthcare workers, free testing, treatment and medicine for COVID-19, free childcare and paid leave for illness, treatment, quarantine and care of a family member.
Bartholf told us the current essential worker classification does not give members any access to additional benefits. "it gives us access to childcare but the funding from the CARES Act has not yet made it's way to Wisconsin so there is no such thing as free childcare right now," she explained.
The Wisconsin Grocers Association and Roundy's are also on board. We requested the letters sent by both this week to Governor Evers. Roundy's stressed the need for masks and gloves for its more than 13,000 Wisconsin employees. In the letter the company's president wrote, "our concern is that without personal protective equipment like masks and gloves, our ability to provide essential services going forward will be at risk."
For Outpost employees many feel any extra protection would help. "Any support that would show we are first line, responders that would be huge," Krafcheck commented.
The governor's office told us most of these requests require legislative action and pointed out Evers asked for the ability to designate critical workers in a number of his proposals, but the legislature did not take those up. According to a spokesperson, "there is a lot more work the legislature needs to do in order to support and protect our workers and businesses."
On the childcare front, the governor's office pointed out Wisconsin Shares is an option for employees if they meet the requirements.