In a Dec. 20 letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Secretary Marty Walsh and Assistant Secretary Douglas Walsh, National Grocers Association President/CEO Greg Ferrara asked the two men to consider an exemption from the recently reinstated “aggressive compliance deadline for the COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS).”
That date has been juggled a bit. A nationwide stay on the ETS that was issued on Dec. 16 was subsequently lifted the next day, and the ETS compliance mandate remains in effect. Oral arguments will be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 7, and businesses have been advised to prepare for compliance.
According to a story posted on Forbes.com on Dec. 20, “The federal mandate is slated to start on Jan. 10. OSHA won’t issue any citations to employers who don’t comply with the mandate before then and won’t issue citations for non-compliance with the testing requirement before Feb. 9.
In his letter to OSHA, Ferrara cited what he called a “confluence” of events that include a shortage of employees and issues within the supply chain. He wrote, “On behalf of the nation’s independent retail supermarkets, the wholesalers that service them, and the over one million American workers who are on the frontlines feeding and serving their communities, I am writing to relay major concerns from our industry given OSHA’s decision to reinstate an aggressive compliance deadline for the COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS).
“Our nation’s independent grocers are currently facing unprecedented staffing challenges amidst the Christmas holiday rush and consumer response to increasing COVID-19 case numbers. In a recent NGA survey, we found that the vast majority of respondents are experiencing staffing shortfalls. Some are operating as low as 50 percent of a normal workforce. At the same time, independent grocers are seeing increasing numbers of customers and sales volumes above the normal holiday rush. As COVID-19 cases increase upward, consumers are responding by pivoting away from foodservice and increasing grocery trips.”
Ferrara continued, “This confluence of events is happening as the industry continues to respond to supply chain challenges. The same NGA survey found that our members are seeing sharply declining fill rates of products ordered. Every respondent reported lower service rates that ranged from 50 to 80 percent of total orders filled.
“We fear an untenable situation should OSHA restore the vaccine and testing mandate on grocers at this time. Our members are reporting that many employees intend to quit if required to submit to vaccines or weekly tests. Even if employees opt for weekly testing, grocers are reporting they cannot currently procure enough tests to satisfy the number of employees that require testing. Simply put, we expect significant disruptions to the industry’s ability to supply a hungry American public with needed food and consumer goods should the mandate go forward as planned.”
The NGA, Ferrara said, supports the ETS and also vaccinations. He wrote, “While the ETS is well-intentioned and increasing vaccination rates will be crucial to ending the pandemic, added pressure on the strained food supply chain and labor force could impede our vital role in the economy of keeping grocery shelves stocked for American consumers.
“NGA members continue to support programs and policies that encourage workers to get vaccinated. We commit to redoubling these efforts as the Nation experiences increasing rates of infection and the emergence of contagious new variants that threaten public health. We stand as partners to the federal government in its effort to get the country vaccinated. However, we differ in our approach by favoring incentives rather than punitive mandates that threaten a fragile situation for our nation’s food supply chain.”
In summary, the Association president/CEO asked that the “essential workforce” in his industry be considered for an exemption to the mandate.
“As the agency determines how to respond to the recent 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that lifted the stay on enforcement of the ETS, we ask that you re-consider an exemption for the essential workforce in the food industry so we can keep hungry Americans fed without disruption. Absent an exemption, we urge the Administration to delay the mandate and partner with NGA and the food industry to increase vaccination rates through voluntary efforts. We would appreciate any opportunity to meet with you and OSHA leadership ahead of a decision to discuss these urgent concerns.”