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Grocery workers sought protection from COVID-19. New guidelines should help.

Updated April 13, 2020 - 7:07 am

New coronavirus safety guidelines for Nevada grocery stores broaden not only cleaning and distancing standards for the public but also protections for workers.

“These new rules go as far as we can go to protect the public, which has to shop at grocery stores, and the employees who are risking their lives to serve the public,” said Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, a member of the Southern Nevada Board of Health. “It means the employees don’t have to work in unsafe conditions and can’t be fired for blowing the whistle or walking off the job if the guidelines are not being followed.”

In the guidelines, which are designed to maintain uniformity in stores, Gov. Steve Sisolak also included a workplace discrimination reminder to the stores and other essential businesses, as more employees raise safety and health concerns.

It reads: “It is against the law for any employer to take any adverse action such as firing or threats against a worker for exercising safety and health rights such as raising safety and health concerns to their employer, participating in union activities concerning safety and health, filing a safety and health complaint or participating in an Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) investigation.”

The new measures, which do not have enforcement provisions, come after a Review-Journal story revealed that there are no health regulations in place for coronavirus-related inspections at Las Vegas area grocery retailers, as more workers and customers are exposed to COVID-19. The lack of coronavirus oversight in Southern Nevada left some gaps in the way the stores were instituting safety measures.

In the past 10 days, employees testing positive were reported at Walmart, Costco, Vons and Smith’s Food and Drug in the Las Vegas Valley. In Nevada, 2,836 people have tested positive as of Monday.

As concerns grew, retailers had already put in place many of the recommended safety measures as COVID-19 numbers have risen.

But workers continued to contact the Review-Journal voicing their concerns. All spoke anonymously because they were afraid of losing their jobs.

Union leader approves

Michael Gittings, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 711 in Nevada, said he was happy with the new state guidelines.

“I think they are good, commonsense measures,” he said. “But our members would like to see more customers comply with the distancing guideline and wear face coverings the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends.

“We’re trying to do everything possible to protect not only our union workers, but all workers in the industry. When you think about it, we’re all in this together.”

The new grocery store guidelines set by the governor and the Southern Nevada Health District include:

■ Encouraging customers to follow the 6-foot social distancing rule with floor markings and posted signs.

■ Limiting the number of customers in a store at the same time.

■ Designating one-way store aisles to maximize spacing between shoppers.

■ Assigning employees to direct customers to maintain their distance at checkout lines.

■ Installing hand sanitizer dispensers at entrances and key areas inside stores.

■ Putting up plexiglass shields at checkout stands to protect cashiers.

■ Offering protective gloves and face masks to employees when available.

■ Closing self-checkout stands that can’t be sanitized between customers.

■ Discouraging the use of reusable bags.

Stores following guidelines

Nancy Keane, a corporate spokeswoman for Albertsons and Vons, said her companies “will comply with all local and state regulations.

“We have already implemented multiple initiatives to ensure the safety of the people who shop in and work in our stores,” Keane said. “As we all continue to navigate through this public health crisis together, Albertsons and Vons are continuing to do everything we can to prioritize the health and safety of our customers, communities and associates and to also ensure our customers have access to the food, medications and other essential goods they need at this critical time.”

Walmart spokeswoman Tiffany Wilson said her company has made significant operational changes that comply with the Nevada guidelines and, in some cases, go beyond the guidelines.

“As the COVID-19 situation continues to develop, Walmart remains focused on the health and safety of our associates and customers,” Wilson said. “We continue to follow and communicate the CDC’s recommended guidance on behaviors like washing hands, social distancing and the cleaning of surfaces.

“We will continue to consult with health officials and experts inside and outside Walmart as this situation evolves. We greatly appreciate the work our associates are doing for customers, members and their communities, and we will continue to prioritize their health and well-being.”

A Smith’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

And a Costco spokeswoman refused to respond to a request for comment, referring a reporter to the coronavirus update section on the company’s website.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter. German is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing. Support our journalism.

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