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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Union grocery workers share experiences with Blumenthal, push for increased protections

    Three weeks after contracting COVID-19, Julie Sabo is still home but ready to get back to work as soon as possible at Stop & Shop, where she's been an associate for nearly 40 years. She had a "violent, violent cough, one like I've never had in my life" but didn't need to be hospitalized.

    Sabo said she's "feeling excellent, compared to how I was." Her doctor cleared her for work Monday, and she said Tuesday she believes she's headed back on Sunday.

    "I'm eager to go back into the store to be with my fellow brothers and sisters, to be with them during this crisis," Sabo said, "and I also want to get back to my customers, because when we work in the store, we have a very personal relationship with our customers, and I think they probably want to know where I am."

    She is getting two weeks' emergency pay as well as disability pay, but she is worried about what would happen if a single parent gets sick but isn't eligible for disability pay from the union because he or she has worked there for under a year.

    Sabo was one of a few members of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 919 to share their experiences and concerns with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in a Zoom meeting on Tuesday morning. Local 919 President Mark Espinosa later clarified that part-timers who have worked at Stop & Shop for under a year and get sick can receive two weeks' disability pay through the union's disability fund.

    Blumenthal is urging Congress to support the "Heroes Fund" in the next federal COVID-19 aid package, which would provide some workers a raise of $13 an hour from the start of the public health emergency until Dec. 31, 2020.

    Eligible workers would include grocery store employees, police officers, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses and truck drivers.

    "We need to reward, retain, recruit," Blumenthal said. "Reward, retain, recruit. That's the purpose of the Heroes Fund."

    Union organizer Emily Sabo, who represents 14 stores in the southwestern corner of Connecticut and is Julie Sabo's daughter, said it's "great to get our members more money because they deserve it and they need it."

    But she also wanted to push Stop & Shop to do more. She criticized the company for waiting for an executive order to act, and has heard feedback from workers that managers are afraid to tell the customers no, and are letting them in the store without masks on.

    "It seems like upper management and staff of the company doesn't have the guts to speak up to the customers," Emily Sabo said. "At this point, I think it's time to let go of, 'The customer is always right.' We need to protect our members at all costs."

    In response to Emily Sabo's comments, Stop & Shop spokesperson Maura O'Brien said in an email that the company was among the first supermarkets in the country to offer special shopping hours for those over 60, and took early action to implement Plexiglas shields, occupancy limits and one-way aisles.

    She added, "Stop & Shop associates are speaking directly with customers who are not wearing a face covering to remind them of the new state mandate. We are having them expedite their shopping trip — and requesting that they please wear a mask next time they shop with us."

    Wearing a mask on the Zoom call, employee Pat Valdez also expressed concerns about customers while on her break from the Stop & Shop on Whalley Avenue in New Haven.

    She said, "the majority of people are being good, they're being respectful," but some are complaining about following the arrows, coming to the store with their children, and not staying 6 feet away from workers restocking.

    Union representative Jorge Cabrera said he has been pleased with some of the changes in stores, such as increased access to hand sanitizer and gloves, and one-way aisles. But Local 919 is working to get grocery workers designated as emergency first responders by executive order from the governor, as has happened in Minnesota and Vermont.

    Cabrera started a petition to Gov. Ned Lamont a month ago to ensure workers can immediately apply for unemployment insurance, get 14 paid sick days, and have access to child care services.

    Cabrera said that some members who don't have COVID-19 but are in a high-risk category or live with immunocompromised relatives are using their personal and vacation time, but they're running out.

    e.moser@theday.com

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