Following death of Market Basket employee, Seth Moulton presses Charlie Baker for more protections in grocery stores

"These employees face a difficult decision."

Waltham, MA 3/13/2020:  Long lines formed at the Market Basket in Waltham   as citizens prepare for Corona virus.  Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Long lines formed last month at the Market Basket in Waltham. –Suzanne Kreiter / The Boston Globe

Rep. Seth Moulton is calling for expanded statewide protections for grocery store workers during the coronavirus outbreak, following the death of a Market Basket employee in his home town.

“These employees face a difficult decision: leave their jobs to protect their own health and safety, or show up to work so that we all can eat,” Moulton wrote in a letter Wednesday to Gov. Charlie Baker.

The Salem Democrat urged Baker to temporarily grant emergency personnel status to food supply employees, which would give them priority access to in-demand coronavirus tests and protective gear, in the midst of “increased, but unavoidable, exposure to the public.”

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“This designation would provide them access to priority testing, personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves, as well other workplace protections necessary to keep them and the general public safe and healthy,” Moulton said.

The letter comes after Market Basket announced Tuesday that an employee at their Salem location died after contracting COVID-19. Vitalina Williams, a 59-year-old part-time cashier at Market Basket in Salem and a full-time employee at Walmart in Lynn, died last week after a weeklong battle with the disease, according to the Boston Herald.

Several local chains — including Market Basket, Shaw’s, Star Market, and Wegmans — have said since that they are providing employees with masks, in addition other social distancing and sanitation efforts.

It also mirrors a push by Sen. Ed Markey at the federal level for PPE to be made available for frontline workers — especially grocery store employees — who cannot avoid close contact with other people in the midst of the pandemic.

“Without the ability to conduct proper physical distancing and PPE, these workers face significant danger,” Markey wrote in a recent letter to the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Markey and Moulton have acknowledged the ongoing national (and global) shortage of test kits and medical supplies. And both Democrats have called on President Donald Trump to fully utilize the Defense Production Act to scale up protection of the equipment.

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Moulton said he recognized the shortage in his letter to Baker, who has expressed frustration with the scramble to procure more PPE for health care workers in Massachusetts. Still, Moulton said the state should ” prioritize food supply workers in PPE and testing distribution while continuing to get critical supplies to our healthcare workers and first responders.”

“All of these groups are essential in maintaining the health of our communities,” he wrote. “Grocery store workers are vital to ensuring that our constituents continue to have access to the products they need to feed and care for their families.”

Moulton said he appreciates the actions that the Baker administration had already taken to protect people at grocery stores, including occupancy limits announced Wednesday, in the hopes of limiting exposure to the coronavirus in one of the state’s remaining high-traffic public places. Baker also issued an order last month requiring stores to increase access to hand sanitizer and implement social distancing markers for the safety of customers and workers.

“This critical work does not go unnoticed and on behalf of the commonwealth I want to say thank you for all of the work you do every day during this crisis,” the governor said during a press conference Wednesday.

Baker even referred to grocery store employees as on the “front lines” of the outbreak and has given them priority access to the state’s emergency child care centers. Moulton wants him to go a step further.

“You’ve recognized the importance of these employees when your office extended child care to grocery store workers,” he wrote. “I encourage you to also expand their health protections.”

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