As the coronavirus continues to spread across the U.S., setting another daily record number of cases, a strike looms at one of the nation's biggest food distributors --- which threatens to disrupt supplies to major grocery stores across the tri-state area.
Warehouse employees and delivery workers at United Natural Foods say the company has been violating federal labor laws and not complying with COVID-19 safety guidelines. Over 120 of workers in New York's Hudson Valley have voted to strike, according to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The union says UNFI has failed to provide workers with protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
“UNFI should be doing everything it can to keep families safe at Thanksgiving, but we’re worried that the company’s negligence could contribute to COVID-19 spikes, and UNFI workers are ready to do whatever it takes to protect our communities, especially as we enter the holiday season," President of Teamsters Local 445 Dan Maldonado said in a news release.
The union says the work stoppages "could start at any time."
In a statement to News 4, UNFI said that although the company cares "greatly for our associates," if thousands of its workers in seven states go on strike, the move "could lead to poorly stocked shelves at major food retailers in New York City and the greater tri-state area ahead of the usually busy holiday season."
The company also disputes claims that it is not complying with COVID-19 guidelines.
"It’s unfortunate that Local 445’s leaders are now contacting the media to disseminate falsehoods and exploit the pandemic in an effort to try gaining negotiating leverage," UNFI's statement reads in part. "The fact is UNFI has offered its valued drivers at our Hudson Valley distribution center a highly-coveted level of job security and stability that many New Yorkers are struggling to find right now. We presented a long-term contract offer this week that includes annual wage increases, highly-competitive benefits and strong work flexibility aligned with the rest of our network. We’ve also made it known that UNFI will continue adhering to CDC guidelines, as we always have, and investing in what has been recognized as an industry-leading safety effort to protect associates amidst the pandemic.”
UNFI's statement goes on to say: “We hope Local 445 will recognize the strength of this offer and agree to a deal. If the union chooses to launch an irrational strike, UNFI will immediately activate its robust contingency plans and mobilize proven third-party partners to keep the food supply chain operating for all our customers in the tri-state area.”
Stores that receive merchandise from UNFI include Whole Foods, Ahold Delhaize’s Stop & Shop, Allegiance Retail Services’ Foodtown, Park Slope Food Co-Op, and hundreds of other grocery stores, the union said.
Service workers like those at UNFI have become frontline workers amid the pandemic. Back in May, thousands of workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, Fedex and other companies walked off the job or call out sick in cities across the U.S. to demand unpaid time off work, hazard pay, sick leave, protective gear and cleaning supplies.