The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is stepping in where it says the government has failed, running its own coronavirus contact-tracing program for 1.3 million members.
Since the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S., the union has sent agents into grocery stores, meatpacking plants and food-processing facilities.
They talk to workers and comb work schedules to figure out who might have been exposed. Then, they notify the employer's human resources department and direct workers to free testing sites, some provided by the union.
County health departments are often overwhelmed, and with no national tracking system, workers must fend for themselves, said Marc Perrone, international president of the union.
"The counties really don't have the resources at this point in time to ultimately be able to do that, and they haven't," he said. "In the vacuum, we are trying to serve that role."
The union is using business agents and shop stewards to fill in the gap. Among its grocery, meatpacking and food-processing members, there have been at least 223 deaths from COVID-19. More than 34,000 front-line workers have been infected or exposed.
Among the outbreaks have been several meatpacking plants in Minnesota, including the JBS pork plant in Worthington.
Local UFCW 663 in Minnesota works with companies — from supermarkets to meat plants — as best it can to help with contact tracing, said Matthew Utecht, the local president.
"We're doing it locally to the best of our ability," he said. "It depends on the information supplied by the [companies]."
The Local 663 follows up with infected workers and looks at their schedule to find workers with whom the person came in contact for the tracing.
The UFCW Local 400 in the mid-Atlantic region collects information through its officials, via phone and from a form workers can fill out on its website.
It also checks out posts on Facebook. The union keeps a tally of workers who have COVID-19, as well as those who are quarantined while awaiting test results.
"In some cases, we are the only people that are calling and warning members that they might have been exposed," said spokesman Jonathan Williams. The local checks out every rumor it hears of a case, so "we end up chasing down a lot of situations that aren't cases."
The union is also keeping track of all workplace outbreaks — and reports them to health authorities if employers don't.
In Dallas, Candice Oglesby, a 35-year-old shop steward who works at a Kroger Co. store, this summer investigated a rumor that a member at another location was sick. Management, she said, didn't notify employees.
She made a few calls, tracked down the person, who had tested positive for COVID-19, and took down the names of those she might have infected.
"I am doing the investigative work," Oglesby said. "I can usually talk to people and figure out who it is, and figure out who isn't there."
The union typically blasts text messages to all employees of an affected store, warning them that there's a case.
Kroger said in a statement that it follows U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and usually completes its own contact tracing within 24 hours. "We are in regular communication with our Dallas union partner, and they have not provided any indication that our contact-tracing process is unsatisfactory," the company said.
In the Philadelphia area, union representative Linda Bello, 52, said that in the spring, she was handling as many as 15 calls about cases each day. "Some were panicked, some were scared," Bello said.