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Grocery workers’ sick deal

July 30, 2010

From the Seattle Times:

Tasha West-Baker can make you a latte, slice your lunch meat or make you a cake at Safeway.

And she could make your entire family ill for days.

West-Baker doesn’t get paid sick days from the grocery chain, where she has worked for seven years. She works four days a week to support three kids on her own. Just staying home with a cold for three days could cost her 75 percent of her weekly paycheck.

That means that when she’s sick, she’s at Safeway — at the Starbucks kiosk, at the deli, in the bakery — and sending her sickness home with our groceries.

“My nose is stuffed, my eyes are a yellowish color,” she told me. “I have to work because I want to be able to feed my kids.”

I would tell you which Safeway, but it doesn’t matter — none of the 36,000 grocery workers in the state receive paid sick days from Safeway, Albertsons, Fred Meyer or QFC.

One in four Puget Sound grocery workers surveyed by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) reported coming to work sick in the last year because they didn’t have paid sick days, said Tom Geiger, spokesman for UFCW Local 21.

The union’s contract with the grocery chains expired in May, and has been extended twice, Geiger said. In negotiations for the new contract, the union is asking for seven paid sick days a year. The employers have not yet responded. (My calls to their representatives at Allied Employers were not returned.)

Currently, workers have to be sick for three consecutive days before they are paid for the hours they are missing, sort of like an insurance deductible, Geiger said. You have to take a hit before the help kicks in.

“And after three days, whatever you have turns into a pretty significant illness,” he said.

The problem stems from the fact that most grocery workers only do so part-time; one-third make $10 an hour or less. Since losing a day means a significant cut to their paycheck, they go to work.

Janella Enamorad, 21, has worked at QFC for two years.

Last year, she came down with pneumonia but couldn’t afford to stay home, so she went to work — and did food demonstrations.

“That’s the way it goes,” she said, adding that she eventually stayed home and lost 14 of the 20 hours she works every week. She and West-Baker have seen all kinds of things: Pregnant workers suffering cramps, others working with 100-plus fevers.

Last April, Fred Meyer worker Jason Weaver, 27, called in sick with stomach pains. He was told there was no one available to cover his shift. Weaver got as far as the store parking lot before his appendix burst.

“I was in a lot of pain,” he said. Worse, his sick pay didn’t kick in until he was out for three days.

“You earn your sick pay,” he said. “So if you call in and you’re really sick, you should be able to use it right away.”

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of the advocacy group MomsRising, is sending some of the local grocery workers’ stories to Congress in the hope that lawmakers pass the Healthy Families Act, which would guarantee paid sick days for all.

“Many of the workers who have the most contact with the public aren’t able to have paid sick days,” she said, adding that while the recent H1N1 epidemic closed businesses and shut down schools, grocery stores — and their workers — kept going.

“H1N1 is a good example of what could be passed from person to person,” said James Apa of Public Health Seattle & King County. “People being able to go home and not expose others is important for ending the spread of infection.”

Geiger acknowledged that it’s hard for workers to ask for more in a weak economy.

“This is not a time when we are going to bargain some get-rich contract,” he said. “We just don’t want them to get kicked in the teeth.”

Nor do we want the public to get kicked into bed after going out to the grocery store for a few things, and coming home with more than we bargained for.

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