Roeland Park group asking for more protections for grocery store workers during pandemic

Roeland Park city staff says sales tax numbers are higher than anticipated because large retailers, such as Price Chopper and Walmart, remained open during COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders. File photo.

As concerns for personal and public health remain high during the coronavirus pandemic, a group of Roeland Park residents are expressing particular concern for grocery store workers across the Kansas City metropolitan area.

A number of Shawnee Mission grocery stores last week increased safe shopping protocols including the installation of Plexiglass shields and physical distancing stickers at checkout counters. Despite this, a group of Roeland Park residents is still seeking ways to further protect the Kansas City metropolitan area’s grocery store workers — and ultimately shoppers and the community.

“There’s been a group of us who want to work on the issue with the lack of checks in our region on the grocery stores, and also how we think the protocols are a little bit too relaxed that were given by the county and the city,” Roeland Park resident Stephanie Iser said. “We’re not aware of any current checks being planned on this, and we feel like that could negatively impact our grocery store workers and make them more at-risk.”

Although the group says there’s more that can be done by the city, county and the state, public officials say they are focused on education and voluntary compliance. Meanwhile, Roeland Park Councilmember Michael Rebne is advocating for the city to provide all of its grocery store workers first responder status.

Resident concerns

The group’s concerns revolve around the safety of grocery store workers including “loose” social distancing guidelines and lack of personal protective equipment, Iser said. Iser and her fellow Roeland Parkers witnessed and heard of instances when county guidance isn’t being properly followed, both in Roeland Park and across the metro, she said.

Iser herself at an April city council meeting asked for the city to explore ways to further protect grocery store workers, who are “mostly low-income workers who are being impacted by this,” she said. With COVID-19 likely to pose a significant risk to these workers until a vaccine is put into circulation, Iser said it’s urgent that there’s a plan in place for governmental entities rather than shoppers to ensure compliance so that there’s a “routine in place to deal with this long term.”

“We just want there to be checks in place to make sure… it stays safe for the stores that are doing good and make sure the stores that aren’t doing good, that they get better at it,” Iser said.

Iser said she thinks it would be best to have additional, clearer county guidelines rather than additional city guidelines to provide consistency from city to city. If the county isn’t working to address the residents’ concerns though, Iser said she believes cities should step up and do what it can to provide better protection for grocery store workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, the group may create a petition — which, if created, might be taken to the CORE 4 to advocate for consistency across the Kansas City metro — to address their concerns if action is not taken by city, county or state officials, she said.

Local and county officials weigh in

Roeland Park’s elected officials on April 1 issued a letter to essential businesses that reiterated the guidance from health officials regarding physical distancing. The letter recommended that essential businesses designate six-foot distances, utilize hand sanitizer, designate hours for vulnerable populations and post online about the facility’s hours.

Mayor Mike Kelly said Walmart took the city up on its offer to assist essential businesses if need be: When Walmart rolled out its “one in, one out” policy, the store requested police officers be present, he said. The city has been focusing on education and seeking voluntary compliance from businesses and individuals, he said.

Overall, Kelly said he’s been pleased with the ability to express concerns to the county and state, as well as the ability to be involved in conversations about coronavirus guidance. As far as the city providing additional protocols or checks and balances for its grocery stores, Kelly said he’s a proponent of leaning on experts such as epidemiologists and virologists at this time.

“I’m going to lean on them for advice on what we can and what we should be doing to keep our residents, our workers and those that visit our shops safe,” Kelly said. “I’m absolutely going to heed that advice and if they come with advice of taking additional measures that are within the city’s authority, then we are going to lean on that advice.”

The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment issued guidance for grocery stores last month, which included items such as controlling the point of entry and using signs to direct shoppers and employees. Additionally, the county recommends that stores should provide structure and direction rather than accepting chaos, and should allot time for employees to clean their areas with sanitizing products. Below is a list of recommendations from the health department regarding high-demand items:

  • Place and enforce purchasing limits
  • Isolate the items
  • Block aisles with high-demand items, have employees to distribute them
  • Track hoarding of items

JCDHE Director Sanmi Areola said the department understands its important for grocery stores to be safe and healthy places for the community, which is why JCDHE partnered with grocery stores to provide guidance on physical distancing and controlling shopper amounts in stores.

“We have receieved positive feedback from the guidance we have provided,” Areola said. “Our staffing does not allow us to go into each store to enforce this, but we are hearing that grocery stores have been implementing visual cues to remind people to stay six feet apart.”

The department is currently working on plans to provide COVID-19 testing to grocery store workers as part of its data gathering and testing strategy, which includes testing essential workers, Areola said. If people witness violations of recommended safety measures at any business, concerns should be directed to the city’s law enforcement agency through the non-emergency line, he said.

First responder status

Councilmember Rebne is advocating for the city to provide all of its grocery store workers with first responder status. He said this designation is important as the workers in Roeland Park’s stores tend to be disproportionately the working poor, workers of color and women — those who are most vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic. The first responder status Rebne is advocating for includes the following, he said, per the United Food and Commercial Workers Union:

  • Free childcare while serving the public
  • Free coverage for all COVID-19 treatments
  • Priority tests
  • Personal protective equipment

The UFCW announced on Tuesday that it is calling upon federal and state leaders to designate grocery workers with “‘extended first responders’ or ‘emergency personnel,’” according to a UCFW press release. Mayor Kelly said the city does not necessarily deem anyone a first responder nor is the city advocating for providing grocery store workers to be designated as such.

“We can do a proclamation and say every grocery store worker is a first responder, but that wouldn’t necessarily provide them with better healthcare or childcare or PPE because as local governing body officials, we don’t have a role in distributing healthcare or PPE or certain things,” Kelly said. “It would be kind of a hollow gesture, while I understand why some people might want to do it, it wouldn’t change conditions on the ground.”

Despite this, Rebne said “some in [Roeland Park’s] governing body” didn’t think the city’s guidance document for stores was the city’s responsibility, but it’s now on the city’s social media platforms. A designation would set the stage for the county and state to step up and shows concerned residents that the city is “up to the challenge” of keeping the community safe, he said.

Additionally, as the city collects sales taxes from places like Lowe’s, Price Chopper and Walmart, Rebne said it’s important to ensure that the city operations are not funded “in exchange for the health” of those working on the frontlines. By calling these workers first responders, it shows the public shopping at these stores that the workers need more respect as they navigate a dangerous situation, he said.

“Good representation means we take resident concerns about safety and do as much as we can at the level we’re at,” Rebne said “Once we’ve exhausted that, we help residents focus their energy on the level that will make the most impact. We can’t just walk away.