They’re grocery store and food coop workers, meat cutters, cashiers, pharmacy techs, carryout workers, bakers — even health care professionals cooking for residents in nursing homes. If worry keeps Matt Utecht up at night, it’s because the family he is striving to protect is enormous. Utecht is president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, a union of more than 13,000 members in Minnesota and Iowa, including 1,850 at the JBS pork plant in Worthington which rapidly became a hot zone for the coronavirus. His was the first union to call upon JBS to slow down its line speeds to accommodate 6-feet social distancing. Utecht talks safety, shopping smart and his hope for life after COVID-19.
Q: In March, Gov. Tim Walz recognized grocery workers as Tier 1 critical workers. Would you say it’s about time that someone acknowledged that?
A: Our union led the way to make that happen. I brought together a coalition of union employers, labor groups and an industry lobbyist group to get it done. As Tier 1 critical workers, our members in grocery, meatpacking and food processing have access to guaranteed child care as they continue to be the backbone of the state’s economy. In fact, 98% of our membership is considered Tier 1 critical workers, because we are grocery store workers, health care workers and meatpacking and food processing workers. I’m proud of that.
Q: What do your workers tell you is most important to them?
A: No. 1 is safety at work. No. 2 is having health benefits in place, including expanded benefits for both full time and part time members in certain collective bargaining contracts that were negotiated. Third, paychecks, including hazard pay. Fourth, child care.
Q: Who did you bring together to develop a strategy to keep your workers safe?
A: My staff, our members, UFCW International President Marc Perrone and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health. I also realized early on that we needed to be part of developing more comprehensive guidelines for the industries we represent. That’s why I contacted Gov. Walz’s office, sent letters and set up meetings with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry to enhance meatpacking guidelines for both union and nonunion companies to protect all workers.
Q: Where are you turning for up-to-date information on COVID-19?
A: The CDC, MDH, Governor Walz’s office, UFCW International, Dr. Fauci and the Federal COVID-19 task force, World Health Organization.
Q: How have you been communicating with members? Zoom? Texts? E-mail?
A: I realized early on that we needed to be the calming, steady voice for our union members. That’s why on March 13 we started sending out daily e-mail and text blasts to all of our members about updated COVID-19 policies by industry, expanded union health benefits and information from the state if people need to turn to them for help. My union staff visits workplaces and has continued to check in with our members throughout these past few months as well as to communicate, answer any questions people have and advocate for them. We also text our members if there is breaking news at their workplace, or can text workers in a certain industry so they are up-to-date and can make the best choices with that information.
Q: You’ve also held a town hall or two?
A: We held a Live Webinar with our employee assistance partner, TEAM, for all of our members in mid-April on best practices for staying safe during the pandemic. We have held teletown halls over the phone to provide updates on CDC guidelines and to answer questions that members have. And, of course, we keep our Facebook page up-to-date with relevant information that helps our members and, we hope, keeps the general public informed.
Q: You have been quoted as saying that employers have been “fantastic” to work with during this crisis. That’s nice to hear. What seems to be working well?
A: From the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, the employers we have contracts with across all industries (retail grocery, meat packing, health care, EMTs, manufacturing) responded collectively, providing PPE (as it became available), Plexiglas dividers where social distancing wasn’t possible, deep cleaning protocols and social distancing. They were also the first in the country to provide hazard pay.
Q: What are your union’s recommendations on masks? Optional? Required?
A: We definitely recommend wearing masks whenever you have to go out to get essential items. The UFCW has launched a #ShopSmart campaign that illustrates guidelines of how to wear a mask, social distancing and other CDC-based recommendations for customers when they go out to the grocery store or other retail outlet. You can take a pledge to #ShopSmart. I think that personal responsibility is important; your actions not only protect yourself but also grocery store and all retail workers and others around you. (ufcw.org/coronavirus/shopsmart)
Q: When we reach our “new normal,” what would you like people to remember about your members on the front lines?
A: It took a worldwide pandemic for the general public to realize that these workers and all the others UFCW 663 represents are indeed critical and essential to the health and well-being of the great state of Minnesota. I hope our employers continue to recognize their employees’ sacrifice and dedication with the much earned hazard pay. Let us not forget them and the work they do for us every day as we move toward a cure.