Texas AFL-CIO: Abbott hasn’t classified grocery store workers as ‘essential employees’

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In a press conference by Texas Democrats and Texas AFL-CIO on Tuesday, both groups tore into Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus pandemic response, which they say has failed to adequately protect Texas workers.

Among their criticism of the governor was the fact that he has yet to classify grocery store workers as essential employees.

“The federal government has given states the option to formally classify grocery store workers as essential employees, which then entitles them to priority in terms of personal protective equipment, child care priorities as well as testing priorities,” said Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy. “And despite the fact that several other states have done that, Texas hasn’t done that yet.”

Minnesota and Vermont already classified grocery clerks as emergency workers, the same designation given to medical personnel and first responders, opening them up to free childcare in those states.

Jackie Ryan, a cashier at Kroger and union representative who spoke on the conference call, said that before the outbreak, Kroger would post weekly reports about the number of customers cashiers handled. She said on average, she would see roughly 500 customers per week. Since the outbreak, she said the customer flow has increased, but workers are still not being offered masks or other protective medical equipment by either Kroger or the state government.

“They’re not posting that report anymore in the store,” Ryan said. “And we kind of wonder if that’s because they don’t want us to see the customer flow that we have. You know, doctors and nurses — obviously, we’re not saying we’re anywhere near as important as them — but we are saying that as far as hazard pay and sick leave and things like that, they should take into consideration just the sheer volume of people we come into contact with on a daily basis.”

Texas AFL-CIO also pressured Abbott for delays in filing for unemployment benefits with the Texas Workforce Commission. Last week, The Dallas Morning News reported that more than 800,000 Texans have filed claims, with the agency’s executive director Ed Serna saying the number was exponentially increasing. 

“It’s pretty universal in the state,” Levy said. “We’ve had complaints from workers all across the state who are on hold for hours or are trying to do it online and are kicked offline and can’t get claims filed.” 

Too little, too late

During a news conference on Tuesday, Abbott ordered Texans to “minimize” social gatherings and to only go out for essential services and activities. He also made clear the order was not a “stay-at-home order” that health experts— like the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Nurses Association— have urged.

“A stay-at-home strategy would mean that you have to stay at home — you cannot leave a home under any circumstances. That obviously is not what we have articulated here,” Abbott said.

Abhi Rahman, a spokesperson for Texas Democrats, said it was “too little too late” and said there should have been a stay-home-order a week ago. He also blasted Abbott for forcing local counties to act first (Texas’ largest metro areas, from Houston to Dallas, have already issued stay-at-home orders). 

“The worst is still yet to come here in Texas, and really it’s directly on Gov. Abbott’s hands, the fact that he won’t do anything to help Texas,” Rahman said.

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Texas reached 3,266 cases on Tuesday, with most cases being reported in Harris and Dallas County. Forty-one Texans have died from the virus so far.

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

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