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The Exchange

What Safety Standards are in Place for Essential Retail Workers in Grocery Stores, Pharmacies?

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Ellen Grimm for NHPR
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For "essential retail workers," exposure to the public is part of the job -- scanning and bagging groceries, filling prescriptions. 

But protective measures vary from state to state and even within a single state. Some stores are allowing only a certain number of customers in at a time; many are setting safety-distance markers at check-out lines.

We look at what precautions New Hampshire and nearby states are taking, along with federal guidelines. Recently, meanwhile, the Union of Food and Commercial Workers asked the CDC to issue new mandatory guidance on safety protocols for grocery stores, pharmacies, food processing and meatpacking facilities.

Air date: 9 - 10 am, Tuesday April 14, 2020

The Exchange also received this comment from the communication manager of the SEA/SEIU Local 1984, the union that represents hundreds of retail workers in the state's liquor stores, which have been deemed essential: 

The members I’ve spoken to say that if they need gloves, hand sanitizer or cleaning wipes, then the liquor stores are being fairly responsive in providing that and keeping that in stock. Most stores now have plexi-glass installed at the registers. There have been some issues with the stores not having enough disposable face masks. For example, members have been asked to reuse their disposable face mask, so most are coming in with their own cloth mask as a workaround solution.

I think there’s a wide range of emotions from our members surrounding the idea that a liquor store is considered essential during a pandemic. First, members are definitely thankful to receive the temporary 10% pay increase. But many employees still definitely are questioning why they have to choose between their health and their livelihood. Many employees would like to see the state implement curbside pick up so that customers and employees are able to engage in a contactless transactions.

GUESTS :

John Dumais: President and CEO of the New Hampshire Grocers Association, which provides COVID-19 news and issues updated guidelines for its members.

 

Mike Violette:  President and CEO of the Associated Grocers of New England, the largest retailer-owned wholesale grocery distribution center in New England; the organization also runs ten independent stores in Vermont and New Hampshirel the largest retailer-owned, wholesale grocery Distribution Center In New England

 

Jim Carvalho: Political Director for United Food and Commercial Workers local 1445, which represents workers in Northeast New England, including eastern Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. The UFCW recently asked the CDC to issue mandatory guidelines for workers in food and retail business.

 

Transcript

This is a machine generated transcript and may contain errors.

 

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy and this is the Exchange

Laura Knoy:
While many Granite Staters are safely enclosed in their home offices, grocery store workers, pharmacy employees and other retail personnel deemed essential still interact daily with the public and across the country. These workers have clamored for better protection against the coronavirus. But policies still seem to vary from state to state, from store to store. And so today, in Exchange, we examine what precautions New Hampshire and New England retailers are taking to help their employees be safe. And let's hear from you, especially if you work at a store deemed essential. What protections do you have? How long did it take to get them and what more would you like? Also, how can customers help you feel better about coming into work? Our guests are John Dumais. He's president and CEO of the New Hampshire Grocers Association, which represents more than 800 stores in the state. Also with us, Mike Violette. He's president and CEO of Associated Grocers of New England, a wholesale supplier which also owns 14 smaller independent food stores in Vermont and New Hampshire. And later on, we'll hear from Jim Carvalho. He's with a regional food workers union. John, to you first, please. What practices and protections are now in place for most grocery store workers in New Hampshire? This has been an evolving scene here.

John Dumais:
It really has Laura.

John Dumais:
This is a new area that we're finally getting into. Never had this kind of situation happen in the past. So there is a number of guidelines that are set up for the stores and we published those recently that talk about how to keep the store as clean and sanitary as possible. One of those early on was removing canvas bags from coming into the store. So they were not bringing any bacteria into the store to make it even worse. Hand-washing every hour or so, sneeze guards, 6 foot separation between customers throughout the store and sanitation each night of the store.

John Dumais:
All of these things are planned to give a very safe environment for the consumers, but also very important for our own employees.

Laura Knoy:
What about gloves and masks? John, how widely are these being used?

John Dumais:
Well, we're certainly urging the consumers to to wear those out as much as possible when they come into the store and hopefully when they leave the store that they're disposing on properly, not throw them in the parking lot. As far as the growth, the employees in the grocery store, that's a little book more problematic. They're just not available. And we've been we as the association have been trying to access them for the members where you've got a couple of leads on them now that may be coming to fruition, but it's it's almost impossible to find enough gloves. You figure how many employees there are in a store and they have to change them every day. That's quite a bit for the stores to get and they just don't have them. If they get them at all, the consumers have picked them up right away.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. You're competing with, you know, health care workers and nursing home workers and other workers, so.

John Dumais:
Right.And we don't want the N ninety five. We want to make sure those stay to the first responders, the doctors that are going into the hospitals and nursing homes. They need the more important ones. But we're doing what we can do to keep it there. The sneeze guards that the check out stands, the Plexiglas barriers are a big plus to doing that. And if everybody just cooperates with that and and works with us to get that, they'll have a very easy time of coming into the store, getting what they need and leaving there all in a safe environment.

Laura Knoy:
What's the evolution, John, of this been like for you and New Hampshire stores just over the past four weeks where we went from pretty much business as usual. You went in, maybe you tried to stay away from other people, but it was pretty much the way it's always been a month ago. And now here we are. We you know, we've got the line saying, stay away. We've got the partitions that you mentioned. We've got customers wearing masks. I mean, what's this been like for you to have to evolve and learn about this all and put it in place so quickly?

John Dumais:
Well, I think that that's that's the problem. The problem with this situation, we've had an emergency operation center in existence for over 12 years. And in that time, we've done mostly winter storms or other conditions that required power outages, etc. that we had to alert the membership to and keep everyone aware it was happening. This is a long term situation. It's not something, that's just going to be over a short period of time. And we know like in every snowstorm that when the consumers come in, they want to grab a lot of batteries. They want to get all the bread. They want to do all the things upfront. So they there's a little bit of overbuying what they need to have. And that's only for a short period time, I think. Now, under saying that this is going to be several months to accomplish this, there has been a greater amount of bulk buying of the products. And unfortunately, when they do that, that means it became a shortage for a lot of the other consumers to follow them. So one of the directives we asked out there is please only shop once a week, one person per family to come into the store to give us more room in the store. Store can't have more than 50 percent of the employee of the customers in the store at any one time. And all of that is meant to ease the volume so that everybody has it.

John Dumais:
There's always been a lot of food in the food chain from farmers all the way through processing, through wholesalers to retailers. We've always had enough reserve in there to cover everything as needed. Unfortunately, that when there's excessive buying in there, that puts a drain on the entire system. So eventually it backs up all the way back to the farmer can even process the crops or the cattle or whatever needs to be done fast enough to make up with the demand. And then will that replenish the processor, processing it, going to the manufacturer? Develops it into packaging for the wholesalers and then the wholesalers are having it available for the retailers. So as we have empty shelves, we start to see a little bit of that happening all the way through the food distribution system in the state. It is getting better. It is getting better. Probably I'd say, about 80 percent the way back to normal at this point, some critical items that are sensitive will always be some issue. I mean over Easter. We saw where they were limiting the number of egg cartons of eggs that you could take. And it just made sense that everybody wanted to have eggs for Easter and there just wouldn't be enough to go around. So this way everybody can share in the wealth of what we do have.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Mike, going to bring you into this. How have the shifting guidelines and growing threat from coronavirus, especially for workers who deal with the public daily? How has this affected the people that work for you?

Mike Violette:
Yeah, it's it's obviously been that a lot of change. A lot of it's sudden and it almost seems to change every day, although it's definitely leveled off at this point. So, you know, we saw the influx start in retail around March 12th, as were where it was when it really started. And it just continued on in that following week was was completely insane. But, you know, our key is trying to protect our workers as best we can. And as John, you know, spoke of trying to get the proper mask and in the proper items that we can to protect them has really been a challenge. So, you know, we've had to think outside the box and use different sources than what we typically would have. Usually, you know, we have a fair amount of gloves for most of the time because they're used in our industry and used in our stores. But even those have been tight. But we've we've we've fared pretty well with that. When it came to masks, as John had mentioned, very, very challenging to get that, particularly the N95s, which we want to stay away from. And then John indicated leave those for them, for the medical folks. But we've we've been able to come across a bunch of cloth maskss. And it's kind of unique in itself that we've had a number of people that have helped us make these.

Mike Violette:
We've purchased some. We've had, you know, quilting clubs that have made them for our stores and for our wholesale operation. And we're able to get some the type of mask that you would use in a doctor's office, which is a little more comfortable for the for the cashiers or the associates to wear in the store, because part of it, again, is the comfort in, you know, there are concerns if it's a mask and you're touching your face all the time, that that can create issues as well. But we've we've put up the Plexiglas barriers and social distancing and particularly with a lot of our stores are smaller. So that can be more challenging. So we need to be diligent as we can be and much more diligent. We've asked actually some of our managers to help out and play a more proactive role in helping keep safer distance between customers and our associates. An example being as a a meat person comes out to place meat into the meat case. A lot of times, you know, customers are right there right away wanting to, you know, grab some of the packages right away. And we've now asked our management team to go out there, step in and just, you know, ask them to keep their distance and allow them to fill the case. And then they can can can shop it after.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. You got to have some really good interpersonal skills to intervene in cases like that. You know, some people might understand, but some people might say, hey, I'm the customer. So that's real pressure on your managers. Mike, but I I understand what you're saying. Your stores are smaller, so it is harder to keep people apart. So that's one example of sort of what you said outside the box thinking about it's not a perfect situation. So you're just trying to figure it out as you go along. What other examples or changes have you made in your stores Mike again, the smaller local stores.

Mike Violette:
You know, in certain situations, we've we've had to make aisles one way. Just just to, you know, to keep the social distancing proper because the aisles are shorter and they're and they're tighter. We've we've actually sometimes we've been stocking at different hours so that we can get most of that done when there's not a lot of people in the store or off hours. We've actually gotten to the point of sometimes just closing off an aisle for a short period of time so that the associates can refill the shelves. So it's just it it can differ from store to store. And that's I think what you'll find there are whole industry is stores are all different sizes and have different different practices.

Mike Violette:
But it's all down, you know, like having these managers interact with the customers. You made a really good point that they're not accustomed to doing that. But to be honest, the customers have been great. You know, a lot of times it's just they just don't realize, you know, what what they're doing or the behaviors that they're doing. So they're they're very understanding and very cooperative and have been very accommodating.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. And, you know, speaking from a customer perspective, nowadays, when you go to the grocery store, you want to get in and out really quickly. So, you know, maybe you're just focusing on getting that box of pasta and running out. We've heard from lots of our listeners, gentlemen, from our survey at NHPR dot org, about retail workers and customers. And I want to encourage listeners to contribute to that survey. We're using your stories to help shape our coverage. And we really do want to hear from you. Here's one that came in from Alex in Epsom. And it relates to what you were just saying, Mike. Alex says, What are retail businesses doing to prepare everything from staffing to customer restroom sanitation? And John, I'd like to hear from you about staffing, too. This is something that, you know, from a customer perspective, we don't think about, but how have you and the stores that you work with, John, changed their staffing to keep workers safer.

John Dumais:
Well, you're right. That is a very problematic situation there with a rush we had at the very beginning. It was longer hours, more people coming in. More confusion over what is a protocol in the stores. All those things put a strain on a lot of the retailers, especially the cashiers and the baggers who were the final ones, who meet them leaving the store and all of that. They had long hours. And so what some of the stores have done is they're closing a little bit earlier. As Mike has talked about, and are using them to also restock the shelves and sanitize everything down so that they're clean for the next day. So they're getting stressed out more than anything and they're very tired. And the best we can do is to help supplement that at some point. And we have a great opportunity with our brethren in the restaurant and lodging industries that there's some they want to work, they want to be helpful in the situation in a lot of the stores are able to take on additional help at this time to help restock the shelves and do some that extra work to relieve those cashiers. The other thing is that we want to reassure them. What are the opportunities or what the threats are they hear about as far as the food products, which are not necessarily true. For instance, if they're touching the food that's on the shelf or coming out of the cartons. Is that safe product? And there's no indication that the virus can be maintained on any packaged good items that are out there. So they feel a little safer now that, you know, they know that what they're touching, what they're packing for the consumer is not a threat to them. They appreciate having the sneeze guards brought up in front of the customers so that there's a barrier between both. Neither one can get infected from that going forward. All of those things are reassuring them they're doing the right thing and they just they deserve a lot of credit for keep trying to do the right thing to help the customer.

Laura Knoy:
Absolutely. Gentlemen Fran wrote in, she says, Very concerned that we are forced to use plastic bags. My reading suggests that the virus doesn't last on any hard excuse me, soft or hard surface for any length of time. If baggers feel uncomfortable, can't you give them gloves? So Mike said earlier that, you know, you've got enough gloves, Mike. But John, you said a lot of stores do not have enough gloves. So what do you think of Fran's e-mail, John?

John Dumais:
Well, I think she she has a valid point. She has some concern with it. We know that a lot of times those canvas bags or reusable bags are not cleaned on a regular basis. And even one time, if you go back after one time and it's gone home, it's sat in the car that maybe warm environment in the car, this bacterial growth is happening in those canvas bags. And so that's why the governor came up with an edict that we're very proud to see that said that he was temporarily banning them from the store because we don't need to we're trying to keep the most sanitized environment available for the consumer and for the products in the store and to bring in a bag that may have some bacterial growth in it. You're contaminating not only the products that are going into the bag, but also the cashier or the bagger. Who is who is putting it into the bag is now putting their hands in there as well. And they could be contaminating something undone down the line.

Laura Knoy:
So that's yeah And we're getting a little sciency here. But it's important. And we've all had to kind of, you know, revisit our our science these days. So you're worried about bacteria? John. Right. Not the virus on cloth bags.

John Dumais:
Well, both both aspects. I think that they can. There's no information for sure of how long it will stay on a reusable bag. But again, that bag has already has some contamination on it and could be some additional, whereas the plastic thin plastic bags are first time use. Absolutely. Totally sanitized to begin with. That makes it makes it more sensible for. Not only the cashier and the bagger, but also for the consumer that would they've gone to that point is is going to be bacterial free and also virus free.

Laura Knoy:
Well, here's another email from Diane. Fran, thank you for that one. Diane in Portsmouth writes, What are supermarkets doing to provide guidelines for employees to keep their families safe when they arrive home? And Mike, I'll throw that to first. We've heard from health care workers who some of them are renting separate apartments so that they don't contaminate their families. We've heard from other health care workers who basically the first thing they do when they get home is they throw all their clothes in the wash. What kind of guidelines are you providing, Mike, for your employees to keep their families safe?

Mike Violette:
Yeah, I mean, one of the one of the things that that we've done is from from our out of right out of the gate is is enabled people that if they don't feel well, is too discouraging them from even coming to work in to do that. We've we've provided up to 80 hours pay for them to stay out and self-quarantine if that's necessary to to do that. If if if that's what they're recommended to do.

Mike Violette:
But a lot a lot of them are doing similar to what you just suggested. When they get home there, they're cleaning. We're encouraging to wash their hands repeatedly to make sure that they're not taking things back with them. But clothing can be an issue. So a lot of them are are taking extra safeguards like that as far as washing their clothes when they when they return.

Laura Knoy:
What about you, John? Is there broad advice from the New Hampshire Grocers Association for Workers when they return home?

John Dumais:
Well, as Mike said, I think everyone has to look at what they can do to be as safe as possible.

John Dumais:
Certainly checking your temperature to make sure that you're not running a temperature. If you are, then we encourage them to be quarantined for 14 days to make sure that they're not going to have anything that they would pass on to other employees in the stores going forward and just to maintain good hygiene all the way through when they go to the store.

John Dumais:
We certainly are going to be promoting that in the store through the guidelines we have in there about what they should be doing, very similar to that same thing of washing hands on a regular basis. Coughing on your sleeve, if you need to cough or something and other items that would make them make a lot of sense right now.

Laura Knoy:
Well, quaratine for 14 days, John, do most grocery store workers have sick time so that they don't become, you know, financially destitute, not working for 14 days?

John Dumais:
Well, yeah, and I think the new guidelines are addressing that. Making that available that there is some assistance there for the operators of the stores to give their employees that opportunity.

John Dumais:
We would rather have had them on the payroll and and be safe than than to have them sitting at home and not getting compensated for that.

Laura Knoy:
All right. Let's take some calls, gentlemen. And Michelle is calling in from Keene. Hi, Michelle. You're on the air. Thanks for calling the Exchange today.

Caller:
Good morning. I am calling them from things to just express my gratitude for my local Monadnock food co-op that the actions that they are taking. I am a part time postal worker. And as we all know, that situation is becoming more and more scary. They have actually hired me on a part time basis as an additional person to sanitize gosh It's probably over a hundred surfaces every day, five hours on a circuit. And so as a member of the co-op and as a now an employee, I just am very grateful for their proactive stance. They've been fabulous about communicating what the possibilities are in terms of anybody becoming sick and I just feel really good about that and wanted to share it.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Michelle, thank you so much for calling. And Mike, it kind of reflects something that one of you said earlier. I think it was, John, that the grocery sector is busier than ever. But other sectors are of our economy are kind of slumping. Many businesses are closed down. So it's nice to hear about this synergy between sectors. What do you think, Mike?

Mike Violette:
Well, yeah, it's it's definitely helped us considerably with both our wholesale and retail operations just just getting people. So what you know, one of the big things that that we've been able to do is we've had previous people that have worked for us in the stores that have been laid off at their other jobs that have come back, come back to work. They're fully trained. They can hit the ground running. We've had college students that have come back in.

Mike Violette:
One of the other piece that we've we've tried to do to encourage people to is to offer them premium pay so that so that people show up for work and then it doesn't put a burden on. On the other on the other workers.

Mike Violette:
This also enables us to use people to do a lot more cleaning. You know, we have a lot of practices where the check out may be cleaned between each customer individually and as far as using the pin pads, quite often those are cleaned each time or should be cleaned each time that somebody uses those with the disinfecting cloth.

Laura Knoy:
All right. Well, thank you very much for the call, Michelle. I'm glad it's working out for you.

Laura Knoy:
Coming up, we'll take more of your calls. What are your thoughts? Question stories about keeping essential retail workers safe. Also, a retail union representative describes what he'd like to see to protect workers. That's all coming up in a moment. So stay with us. This is the Exchange on NHPR.

Laura Knoy:
This is the Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. Today, essential retail workers. They're still on the job interacting with the public daily and around the country they are seeing rising rates of Corona virus infection. This hour, we're examining what protections are in place now for these workers and what more might be needed. And let's hear from you. If you're a retail worker, tell us your story. Our guests are John Dumais, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Grocers Association, which represents more than 800 stores in the state. Also, Mike Violette, he's president and CEO of Associated Grocers of New England, which operates 14 smaller stores in New Hampshire, in Vermont, and is a wholesale supplier as well. And gentlemen, Dennis from Weare is calling in? Hi, Dennis. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Well, hello, good morning.

Laura Knoy:
Good morning, Dennis. Go ahead.

Caller:
Yes, I was just wondering, because I read a lot of articles on the virus itself and I was wondering if you have a difference between detectable and viable. And I heard that the viable efforts for three days. On surfaces, so to protect myself. I want to know. Is this true or not?

Laura Knoy:
Ok, so concerned about surface contamination. And John, I think you address that. I had a friend from France actually tell me that when he comes home for the grocery store, he wipes down every single product he buys. That would be a big task for me. I got five people in my house. But what about that? It is a concern among shoppers. Thank you, Dennis, for calling.

John Dumais:
Well, thanks for the question on that.

John Dumais:
The CDC has done quite a bit of review in looking at the food packaging industry. Food's going into the food stores or through the food distribution system. And they have qualified that there is probably no opportunity to have a problem with food products coming in in a food store that the virus won't survive long enough on any of those items to be of concern to the consumers or the employees that are handling those products all the way through, they did talk about different surfaces. Copper has a different level than aluminum than plastic would have.

John Dumais:
But in total, since the store is being so sanitized and on a regular basis kept clean and the product when it is received is already virus free, that is going to continue to do that. There's not any opportunities to really have that expand beyond that. And we haven't heard of anything throughout the entire country where the food products themselves or the stores that they're coming out of are the cause of the virus spread. It doesn't have any way.

Laura Knoy:
Dennis, thank you very much for calling. And John and Mike, I want to bring another voice into our conversation now. With us on the line, Jim Carvalho. He's political director for the United Food Workers and Commercial Workers Union, Local 1 4 4 5 that represents workers in northeastern New England, including a small number in New Hampshire. And Jim Carvalho, a big welcome. Thank you for being here.

Jim Carvalho:
Thank you for having me.

Laura Knoy:
What do your members Jim want the most in terms of protections on the job?

Jim Carvalho:
Well, our members, not unlike every other grocery worker out there, access to, you know, all this personal protective equipment is key. But unfortunately, you know, as Mike and John have already said, it's very hard to come by in any industry for any of these essential workers.

Jim Carvalho:
So our members are looking more towards also, you know, having proper hand sanitizer, being able to take frequent breaks to wash their hands. And our members, grocery workers in general, looking for some common sense from customers. You know, I think customers may not realize come kind of their habits that they've just come accustomed to in the stores that everyone's got to kind of change and rethink how we do our shopping. Now, as you're passing by, a workers stocking shelves are going to give them a little more space than you may have given them in the past. Please. People wear masks, cloth masks when you go out. It really helps the workers in these industries feel at least a little bit safer as they're out there, you know, putting themselves and their families at risk to keep people said, and if you need items when someone's parked myself, I'll just sort of reaching over them or trying to reach around or, you know, just say, excuse me, I want to give you some space, but I need this item here. Can I get in here and get this item off the shelf and just kind of, you know, readjust your of your normal habits to kind of give everyone enough distance and do things a little differently and keep everyone safe.

Laura Knoy:
What's the range of protections that you see, Jim, in the region that you focus on northeastern New England? What's the range of protections that you see for workers in different types of retail settings?

Jim Carvalho:
Yeah, I think it's been, obviously. Everyone's been learning from this. So things have been evolving. You know, we our union. We reached out to our employers very early on about instituting a lot of these things like even back at the beginning of March. Then you need to make sure you have enough hand sanitizer or any gloves you can have have them available for workers. We started pushing on our our employers early on, too, about limiting the number of customers doing the one way aisles. Things like that that have kind of slowly evolved elsewhere. And these things have all kind of grown as we kind of figured out what this means for us in this new world You know our union. We reached out early on about making sure the company is going to provide the two week six pay that doesn't count against a regular sick time if they do get sick. We also reached out early on and got the company to agree to the hazard pay to make a little more money during all this. You're starting to see this kind of spread across the industry a little more as well as people kind of realize that this isn't just a couple week thing, that this is going to be a kind of an ongoing thing that we've got to figure out how to keep people safe, the workers and the customers in the store.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. And what's the balance that you've seen again in your region, Jim, of mandatory protections versus voluntary protections? Are there states or cities that have said you must retail operations, provide this for your workers?

Jim Carvalho:
Right. You know, there is a range of that. That's why you know, us as a union, we reached out with the employer kind of to work out in our grocery stores kind of the protections. But the union, we've been reaching out to these different state governments, governors offices in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, trying to have them enforce a little bit stricter standards for customers and grocery stores to follow. We reached out early on to say Baker's office. Governor Baker's office in Massachusetts. And he was very receptive, his office early on about working with us and figuring out how to make his grocery stores a safe place for the workers and the customers. And over the course of the last few weeks, they've implemented pretty strong standards. First, they allowed the grocery workers to access free emergency childcare than they kind of implemented these safety measures for the stores to follow. You know, how you have to send people home if they're showing symptoms. You have to close for a sufficient time overnight to clean the stores and restock. They just recently last week instituted a 40 percent cap in Massachusetts, which is still pretty high. We'd like to see that come lower.

Laura Knoy:
A 40 percent cap meaning? Meaning what?

Jim Carvalho:
Jim, the number of customers that are allowed into the store one time, 40 percent of what the fire marshal deems, you know, fire safety acceptable, which can still mean, you know, 2 300 people in a building at a time for some of these larger supermarkets that are, you know, 50, 60 thousand square feet.

Laura Knoy:
So that's mandatory in Massachusetts.

Jim Carvalho:
Yes. That is across the entire state. Well, we're very happy with, though, just over this past weekend, which I think really needs to be done across the country. Massachusetts as well. They opened up the state free priority testing for grocery workers so that they can call a number, make an appointment. And there's a couple of sites in Massachusetts, where they drive up. You know, they wait in their car. They get, you know, the swab. And then a few days later, they're told the results, whether they're showing symptoms or not showing symptoms. They have access to this testing. And this is obviously incredibly important because even people that don't show symptoms as we know now, can spread the disease. So it's important for the workers, you know, to be safe. The customers to be safe. But also, I mean, it helps the business. The last thing these grocery stores need is for, you know, a case, a coronavirus to, you know, make their entire workforce sick, and then they can't even operate the store. So being able to identify who's sick now and allowing them to take the time off is really important.

Jim Carvalho:
So allowing the grocery works in Massachusetts. That's the key to get them tested.

Laura Knoy:
That's really interesting. And I had not heard that. So in Massachusetts. Grocery store workers have access to free testing.

Jim Carvalho:
Yes, absolutely. And they call ahead. They make an appointment and they drive up to, one of the sites is Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. There's another site in western Mass at the Big East Fairgrounds, and they get tested and get the results a few days later.

Laura Knoy:
One last question for you, Jim, and thank you. This has been really interesting. As you know, the federal government, the CDC, state governors, they've all evolved on this, sometimes issuing different advice than other entities than each other. How much is this lack of protection that we have seen in the past? It's it's getting better. But, you know, it seems to vary. How much is that due just two conflicting and frequently changing advice from what I understand, your union recently addressed this in a letter to the CDC.

Jim Carvalho:
Correct. Yes, it is. I mean, it's difficult because especially the region as small as New England, there's obviously no crossover amongst all our states. Even, you know, even New York at times and, you know, Vermont, western Massachusetts, Connecticut. So for us to kind of really figure out these standards certainly doesn't help. As you know, one state institutes some measures, another state might not be quite there yet. But then, you know, there's obviously border towns where people might do their shopping over the border, you know, in Nashua, New Hampshire, if they live in other parts of Massachusetts and vice versa. So that's why it's important for us to also kind of push strong federal guidelines and standards that everyone has to follow just so everyone's kind of on the same page and, you know, make it feel safe, whether they're shopping in Massachusetts or New Hampshire, Maine or New York.

Jim Carvalho:
It's important to have everyone to be given that clear guidance from the federal government, which has been slower, unfortunately, to come around.

Laura Knoy:
Jim, thank you very much. It's good to talk to you.

Jim Carvalho:
Yeah, absolutely.

Laura Knoy:
That's Jim Carvalho, political director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents, as he told us, workers in northeastern New England. And coming up, I will ask my guests about this idea of state by state mandates and rules, whether federal rules would help.

Laura Knoy:
This is the Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. This hour, protecting essential retail workers from the Corona irus at grocery stores, liquor stores, pharmacies. They are interacting with the public daily and around the country Their rates of infection are rising. We're asking what protections are in place for these workers. Let's hear from you, especially if you work in retail. Tell us about your situation. Our guests are John Dumais, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Grocers Association, and Mike Violette, president and CEO of Associated Grocers of New England, which operates some smaller stores in the region and is also a wholesale supplier. And both of you, Mike, first, please. What are your thoughts on Jim's call for federal rules, federal guidelines that everybody has to follow and then we don't see all these different policies from state to state? What do you think, Mike?

Mike Violette:
Well, yeah, I mean, you know, obviously it simplifies everything by having a federal regulation. But I think the biggest thing where we see where we distribute throughout New England is the different areas are just so different on on what what the requirements can be.

Mike Violette:
You know, the conditions of of a rural area in New Hampshire or Vermont are much different than what you'd find in Boston or some of the cities. I think I think it can present other challenges as well. But I think, you know, it just getting people to do what we've asked of them to protect themselves and protect others, I think is a big part of, you know, getting through all of this.

Mike Violette:
Quite honestly, the social distancing is such a big, big portion of it.

Laura Knoy:
Well, so would it be easier, Mike, if everybody had to follow the same playbook or harder?

Mike Violette:
It may be harder depending on what the source of supply is, because, again, is it as you put some of these guidelines in place, it's your ability to access the the the equipment, the protection devices, whether it's face mask or the masks that you have. It's if you had access to all of that, it could be very simple. But I don't see that happening anytime soon. When, I mean, we're still scrambling every day to get masks for for our people, even something as simple as that.

Laura Knoy:
What about mandatory sick leave? Would that be a federal policy that would be helpful to both workers and retailers? Because, again, everybody would be on the same page. Well, you think, Mike?

Mike Violette:
Yeah. I believe it. I believe it is. I haven't followed a federal part from the CDC on it as much. We've we've incorporated that. That we did that at the very, very first weekend of this.

Mike Violette:
We put out that we're doing it individually with all of our stores and with our distribution facility, that we make that available just so that it discourages people from from coming to work. So, yeah.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, for not feeling good. Right. And John, what's the argument for voluntary policies? What's the argument against volun, against mandatory policies?

John Dumais:
Well, we've always looked at the voluntary as is something that everyone can comply with. When you have a mandatory situation, as Mike talked about, you get around that. How does that when you do a mandatory policy, that means everyone has to comply with that. And those resources aren't always available to every player. And we have a huge disparity between the major supermarket chains, the big box stores, the neighborhood stores, convenience stores, country stores, all those different formats have different availability to get or implement these different policies. So, yes, as you mentioned, it would be nice to have an a uniform national standard. However, it would put a lot of mainly the smaller independent operators at a great disadvantage. And they're already under the gun quite a bit. You know, our industry doesn't make a lot of revenue as it is to do a lot of these new opportunities. If the federal government was to mandate something and then provide the resources to get that, now would be one thing.

John Dumais:
But that doesn't always happen either. And that's a concern we have.

Laura Knoy:
So you're saying, you know, don't mandate gloves and masks, federal government if there aren't enough to go around. What about sick leave, though, or just respite leave for people who are probably pretty exhausted from working long shifts under stressful conditions?

John Dumais:
Right. And again, I think that they were doing that on a mandatory basis. Everyone every every owner of a store, a manager or a store that I know about is very concerned about their employees, their associates. And they want to make sure they remain healthy. They need the rest time. They need to have a break from from what they're doing. And again, to accomplish that, there's some opportunities where they can do it through hiring some restaurant individuals who could supplement them for a while to back off from that. So each one is looking at what they can do to accomplish these measures as they can. And I think the employees, for the most part, appreciate that management is trying to keep the place sanitary, giving them a safe environment to work in. And as Mike mentioned in the very beginning, I think the big thing is that if we get the consumers to also cooperate in and be civil about what they're doing when they're in the store, that makes everyone more palatable all the way through. We do need guidelines and we've put them out. The federal government has also put out guidelines for the consumers that we've distributed recently out to everybody again. And in that, it is talking about a lot of things that you can do. But again, it's not mandated you do it.

John Dumais:
I think he has done a good job of trying to keep that in place and also that it's not a mandate in most cases. It's a recommendation to have a safe environment.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and I'll definitely ask you guys in a moment about what you want customers to do to better protect these workers. And you talked about being civil, John, I want you know, I'm always very nice to people in the grocery store. So I hear you on that. Barbara in Goffstown writes, Listening to the programming and hearing John speak to the stress and exhaustion of the workers. How about offering them an extra paid break during their shift? Barbara says, I went to two stores quickly last Friday morning and came home exhausted from the stress, the environment. Can't imagine doing an eight hour shift. Barbara says, let's give those workers an extra paid break.

Laura Knoy:
And I think both of you addressed, you know, the desire and the movement among store owners to to do that for workers.

Laura Knoy:
Katie says, My neighbor comes home from working at a large retail hardware store and strips down on the porch, puts his clothes in the washer and goes and takes a shower. What surprises him and me is that there's absolutely no letup in customer traffic. If anything, they are busier than ever. Katie says, Aren't people supposed to be only going out for essential supplies? It turns out everything from seeds to plants to lumber are essential.

Laura Knoy:
This is more a political question, Mike, but I'll throw to you anyway. What about the decisions that governors have made in terms of what's essential and what isn't? I myself was surprised to learn recently that florists are considered essential, so, Katie, thank you for writing and Mike, what do you think?

Mike Violette:
Yeah, I mean, it's I think it's very challenging and it and it's hard, but you can see where all of those applications come in. You know, one way or another that it does become essential depending on what the usage is of the particular item. So I think that's that's what kind of makes it, you know, this whole thing exceptionally challengeable. I mean, as I've looked at some businesses that are open to go, really thinking to myself. And then as I think of what people, you know, could utilize that for, well, I can pretty easily come up with something that's that's pretty, pretty important. So I think it's really, really hard to to just cut come up with a clean cut.

Mike Violette:
You know, this is what's essential in this and this is what's not. And I know there's been a lot of suggestions out there about cutting back and getting tighter control on some of these. What's what's deemed to be an essential business.

Laura Knoy:
And John, what do you think about. Again, we talked about this earlier, but the advice of stripping down on the porch, putting your clothes in the washer and taking a shower, I mean, is that something that you guys are recommending your workers do?

John Dumais:
Sure. I mean, it is notan. Nothing wrong with ever having taken another shower, too.

John Dumais:
You know, you feel more comfortable with that, especially if you have children or elderly in the house. You won't protect everybody that you can. It's always safe to do more than do less when it comes to that.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I got an e-mail from John who says I'd like to ask the panel if individual store managers can make it mandatory for customers to wear masks. My personal experience when I went to Costco in Nashua, the mask wearing by customers was maybe 60 percent. While at Trader Joe's in Bedford, it was 99 percent. John says, I have made my own masks and it is not hard to do. I wish it was mandatory at all stores. Boy, Mike, this gets to what we talked to earlier, store managers really having to utilize their diplomatic skills. What do you think about John's suggestion, Mike, that managers tell customers you got to wear a mask or you can't come in?

Mike Violette:
Yeah, I mean, we we don't we don't have that policy, it's it's hard. Obviously, we would encourage them to to to do that.

Mike Violette:
You know, there's arguments on both on both sides as far as max mask usage from. From what I had in you know, the CDC is recommending that everybody wears one. Now, at this point. But there's there's there's there's different opposing views to that. And I think I think it would be very hard to enforce that and remain business friendly.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. Well, and toward that point, we got a note from Ann in Sullivan at our survey at NHPR dot org, and says, When I was in the grocery store about a week ago, there was a man with no mask, coughing, not covering his mouth. Ann says, I don't know how we police this or how a store could be asked to handle this, but it is a big concern Ann says if we are going to monitor the doors and let people in by in one by one, maybe we should screen them for temperatures. And thank you for writing and, John Dumais. Boy, this is tricky. I've heard complaints like this. I've also heard about other customers who seem clueless about standing six feet away. Well, what do you think? John, you want your customers to feel safe, but also welcome. And the focus of our show today. You want your employees to be safe?

John Dumais:
Absolutely.

John Dumais:
And and, you know, we do know that there are some stores that are actually doing that. They're having the line space six feet out outside of the store as they let him in. And each one is getting a temperature check going in. And if they do have a higher temperature, they are requested to please return home and talk to their local physician. We have to do it very diplomatically. First of all, there aren't there aren't a lot of those thermal thermometers available. And so you're not everyone can do that again. This is the idea that in a meeting on a voluntary basis, you're going to do everything you can possibly do to keep your customers happy and safe in the store. But not everybody can do that. So you do the best practices you can and those that are doing it. You know that you have to be diplomatic about how you approach the customer. The one who coughs and sneezes without any kind of protection certainly should be spoken to in a gentle and kind manner saying you understand the situation. We appreciate your cooperation with this. But to mandate that you have to leave immediately under every circumstance is isn't always the right thing to do.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and it's spring allergy season. So, you know, some people are just coughing and sneezing because of all the pollen that is now out there. So this gets to something that I wanted to ask both of you about, and we've touched on it.

Laura Knoy:
But more directly, what do retail workers want from customers? We've heard from a lot of listeners who say they really care about these workers. So if they really care. What can they do for their part? And Mike I'll, go to you first.

Mike Violette:
Yeah, I mean, I think the biggest thing that customers can do is just just express their appreciation. I can't tell you how far that that goes, you know, with these associates.

Mike Violette:
You know, our people and throughout our entire industry, these people that are on the front line, the cashiers. I mean, it's unbelievable their service and commitment that they've made. And we've put a big focus on what we our industry's always focused on taking care of the customer. It's always been that way. But it's it's getting them to understand. And these cashiers really and our associates understand that it's a bigger piece. This is taking care of your entire community, not just taking care of one customer. And I think that's why we've seen the level of commitment that we have from these people. It's just been fantastic just to see what they do. And people thanking them. We've had people people come up and send emails. We post them on the bulletin boards, people, you know. But even just a friendly thank you for what you're doing goes a long way. There's actually a particularly in Vermont, there's a big piece going on that. So I think it's hashtag supermarket heroes or something where a lot of customers have gone on and named their hero from a particular store and stuff. And it's really been great. It's followed closely by the by the associates. But that goes a long way.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I take one more call, if we could. This is Mary in Northwood. Hi, Mary. Thanks for calling the Exchange today. Go ahead.

Caller:
Hi, Laura. Good morning and hello to your guests. I'm really appreciative, of course, of the grocery store workers and, you know, all they've done to make it possible for the rest of us or some of us at least to stay at home. And I understand the difficulties that, you know, the managers have faced with the mask problem. But I wonder whether they would consider establishing store hours when everyone in the store agreed to wear a mask. There are cloth masks available. I've been making them myself, and I know people who've made hundreds of them. And I know they're available to store managers. There are Facebook groups that are making them available free of charge to grocery stores. So if we could have hours like the senior hours, where all employees and shoppers agreed to wear masks. We could overcome that difficulty with requiring people to wear masks, perhaps.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's interesting. OK. So thank you for calling, Mary. So, John Dumais, what do you think? Setting aside a time where everybody, customers and workers alike, agree to wear masks similar to the senior hours that we've seen at some stores. What do you think, John?

John Dumais:
All right. Well, I think the senior hours to address that First is that that was very helpful. A lot of them, again, as a that's a voluntary effort. But I think almost a hundred percent of the stores are doing that now that give the senior population access to this products before there's a large crowd coming in there. And it has seen it had been sanitized over night. So it's a much better environment. I think the big issue is that like everything else, even with when we had the reusable grocery bags, you know, it's nice to have you bring them back and reuse them again, except that not everyone brought them with them. They forget them in the car or do something else with them. And so it was a haphazard situation. And I think the same thing would happen here that if you had a mandated hour when you said that everyone has to wear the mask and you have someone who's just skipping out to get something they need and didn't had, bring the mask with them, didn't have a mask there. They're there at disadvantage. They're turned away. And we don't want to turn anyone away. We want to try to help everyone get the good, get the groceries that they need and return as fast as possible to their home. And so the more we can promote that, the more we can have access to the masks. Yeah, that that's a plus. But I'm not sure that it can work in every situation that you can mandate it 100 percent all the time.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I think I see what you're saying because sometimes, you know, I used to use reusable bags all the time, but sometimes I would just swing by the store real quick on my way home and pick something up. And yeah, I would forget the bag. Also for me, I live in Concord, so I guess if I forgot a mask, I could come home and get it. But some people live in rural areas and the grocery store is half an hour away. So. Right. I guess I see what you're saying there, John, about this being kind of tricky. Mike, I'd like to ask you one last question. I've talked about this with a lot of business people. What changes do you think will come about in the way that your business operates, that you think might be good to hang on to? Even when we are hopefully soon at some point past all this? What do you think, Mike? Changing the way you do business?

Mike Violette:
Yeah. You know, it's in a couple a couple different ways, you know? One of it is just the cleanliness of what has been installed in everyone. You know, I think that's going to become our business has always been very focused because we handle food on cleanliness. But I think this whole situation has brought it to an entire new level. It made people very conscious of it with with everything that they do from cleaning our bathrooms to sanitizing between customers and all of that. I think it's I think that the is going to be upped then it's just gonna become more of a habit. And so I'd like to see us stay on with that. And people are gonna see big changes in the industry. Part of being able to recover from this is because what skill rationalizations were? A lot of the manufacturers where they might have offered all different types of items are gonna be narrowing that down. You're gonna be noticing that you're on the next in the next few months as they're not producing the same number of items.

Mike Violette:
So instead of producing twelve different types of salad dressing, there might only be producing eight in their eight bestsellers just to be able to catch up with this. So I think you're gonna see some some utilization.

Laura Knoy:
Well, we focused on workers today, but that sounds like a very interesting show down the road. Mike and John, just looking at the food supply, the distribution, the production and how that might change, but we'll let it go for today. I really appreciate you being with us. Mike, thank you very much.

Mike Violette:
Well, thank you for having me.

Laura Knoy:
That's Mike Violette. He's president and CEO of Associated Grocers of New England, which supplies smaller independent food stores and convenience stores and operates 14 stores in New Hampshire and Vermont. John Dumais. Always good to talk to you. Thank you for your time.

John Dumais:
Likewise. Thank you very much for being with having us.

Laura Knoy:
That's John Dumas. He's president and CEO of the New Hampshire Grocers Association, which represents more than 800 stores in New Hampshire. And you've been listening to the Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.