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Tops workers rally for Covid-19 hero pay, mask enforcement

Tops workers rally for Covid-19 hero pay, mask enforcement

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Tops plaza

When a Tops customer is spotted in a store without a mask, the company gives him or her a disposable covering along with a copy of the state's coronavirus mandate requiring people to wear masks in public.

"We have found this approach to be very successful as many customers simply have forgotten their mask at home or in their vehicle," said Kathy Sautter, a Tops spokesperson.

But that is not always the end of it.

"The problem is when the customer still refuses to wear that mask, they are allowed to continue to shop in the store," said Frank DeRiso, president of UFCW Local One.

The union has filed a grievance that aims to protect Tops workers from that kind of customer. Tops Markets workers will demand mask enforcement and better pay at a rally at its Elmwood Avenue store at 4 p.m. Thursday.

"We want the policy to be no mask, no service. Period," he said.

But that's easier said than done. 

Getting customers to wear masks is a problem restaurants and stores are struggling with across the state and across the country, as the issue becomes politicized and both sides of the debate grow heated.

"Like most other retailers, we do not want our associates getting into a confrontation with a shopper who elects not to wear a mask for reasons other than a medical exemption," Sautter said.

But it doesn't have to get that far, DeRiso said.

"If customers were stopped at the door by management like at other stores, there wouldn’t be a problem at all," he said.

Wegmans, Tops' biggest competitor, does have an employee at the door checking masks. It also doesn't ask people to leave if they will not one.

That's because New York State's mask mandate does not require someone to wear a face covering if it would inhibit or otherwise impair an individual's health.

"We cannot question what that health or medical condition is or may be," said Michele Mehaffy, a Wegmans spokesperson.

Guidance on the state's executive order requiring face coverings in public says essential business operators and "enforcement authorities" are "prohibited" from requesting documentation from anyone who declines to wear a face covering for medical reasons.

In addition to stricter mask enforcement, unionized workers at Tops Markets are calling for higher pay. 

Both Tops and Wegmans temporarily increased employee pay during the beginning of the pandemic, when panicked shoppers were crowding stores and clearing shelves. Both grocers have reinstated pre-Covid wages.

Tops said it is grateful for workers' "extraordinary efforts," and has paid out more than $10 million in temporary bonus pay and cash awards. 

"The purpose of this temporary extra pay was to recognize our associates for their hard work during an unprecedented surge in demand and customer traffic, all while Tops was implementing new practices and protocols to help ensure a safe shopping and working experience," Sautter said.

But now, everyone is getting used to the new procedures, and traffic levels are returning to normal. The company has also had to pay $5 million for protective equipment and extra sanitation, she said.

But DeRiso, the union president, said Tops can do better.

The union claims 238 of its members in the food and health care industries across the country have died from Covid-19 in less than four months. DeRiso says workers deserve hero pay for taking on that kind of risk, especially when grocers are making record profits.

"Ending the hero pay has nothing to do with not having the , it is all about adding to their bottom lines," DeRiso said.

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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