‘We’re baffled’: Grocers troubled by committee recommendations not including grocery workers for next tier of vaccinations

SDMAC’s current recommendations include people 70+, educators, first responders, prisoners; not public transit, manufacturing or grocery workers

MADISON, Wis. – As the State begins moving toward Phase 1B of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, grocers worry their workers are being left behind.

This week, police and firefighters became the first group eligible under Tier 1B to receive vaccines. State health officials are still finalizing which additional groups will join them. Public comment closed Tuesday on the State Disaster and Medical Advisory Committee’s recommendations to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. SDMAC’s vaccine subcommittee included people 70 and older, congregate groups including those who are incarcerated, first responders and educators in its 1B recommendations.

The State has the final say, and grocers including Roundy’s Supermarkets, which owns Pick ‘n Saves, are appealing to Governor Tony Evers to include grocery store workers in the next round of vaccine eligibility.

“I just don’t think there’s a public venue where more people meet than the grocery store,” said James Hyland, vice president of public affairs for Roundy’s. “Our people were called heroes for many months.”

Hyland said the state’s biggest grocer brings 1.2 million people into its Wisconsin stores per week.

“This is not great for morale for people. They’ve been working long, hard hours. They’ve been working for months under the strain of risk,” he said. “We’ve had hundreds of people who opted out of shifts because they don’t want to be exposed to the virus.”

Following health care workers part of Tier 1A, many grocers expected their employees to be included in Tier 1B after reviewing federal guidelines on vaccine distribution.

“(Grocery store workers) have been essential since March,” Wisconsin Grocers Association President Brandon Scholz said. “(Grocers are) incredulous. They are shocked. Since March, they have done everything they’re supposed to do and more.”

Scholz said those efforts have made a difference, but despite all the health precautions, it’s impossible to completely block the public-facing workers against COVID-19.

“Yes, people got sick,” he said. “Yes, people were hospitalized.”

He and grocers including Roundy’s Supermarkets have sent letters to the State asking that Wisconsin’s about 60,000 grocery workers be part of Tier 1B — not just for the safety of the workers’ themselves.

“Employers are concerned about this, and consumers should be concerned,” Scholz said. “If you’re a shopper … you really have to be concerned about this.”

“We try to protect not only our people but our customers, as well,” Hyland said. “The sooner we can get the vaccine, the less transmission of the virus will occur.”

SDMAC’s vaccine subcommittee meets again Tuesday at 7 a.m.