Legislative Column

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Before I was elected to office, I owned and operated Cunningham’s Fresh Foods in Marshfield. Those years running a supermarket left me with an appreciation for what it takes to care for customers, keep a store clean and offer the variety of wholesome foods and everyday essentials that consumers demand. In hindsight, those challenges were easy, especially with the great employees I was blessed with. I can hardly imagine what running a retail store is like in the age of COVID-19.

At a time when public health officials caution us to stay home, keep our distance from other people and avoid touching common surfaces, grocery and retail workers spend their entire days doing exactly the opposite. From the moment they clock in to the time they go home to their families at night, they interact with hundreds of people and handle money that has passed from unwashed hand to unwashed hand.

We talk a lot about health care workers and first responders and make sure to thank them for the sacrifices they make. Those accolades are certainly well-deserved. We can’t say enough about those who serve on the front lines caring for the sick and answering the call when a neighbor is in need. They are truly heroes. But, there are many more heroes in the war against the COVID-19 virus. Some of these heroes do jobs that we would usually consider routine and ordinary, if the times weren’t so extraordinary.

I believe the man stocking bread at the supermarket is a hero, as is the woman who rings up our purchase. So is the truck driver who delivers produce to the back dock. The workers processing chicken at the plant in the next county are doing their part in this struggle, as well. They all tempt exposure to COVID-19 so the rest of us can stock up on groceries and hunker down at home. In my opinion, they are literally risking their lives so we can eat.

The CDC tells us that the coronavirus is unlikely to spread through food – our groceries are safe – but the close person-to-person contact required in the food industry exposes workers to increased risk of infection. The governor called attention to this danger when he declared a statewide stay-at-home order. His declaration, issued on April 13, specifically names grocery stores as essential businesses, but sets occupancy limits on retail stores and encourages consumers to practice social distancing while shopping.

Many stores have limited entry or asked their customers to leave the kids at home and shop alone. Others have set aside hours of operation specifically for consumers who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. They’ve expanded online ordering and curbside pick-up options. They’ve provided hand sanitizer and increased their attention to cleanliness, disinfecting shopping carts, touch screens and counter surfaces after every customer. Some have even installed cough guards around cash registers.

Consumers are doing their part, too. We now see shoppers wearing masks and giving fellow-patrons a wide berth. The initial mad rush to hoard toilet paper and essential staples has eased, while consumers are becoming more conscious of limiting trips to the store and only getting out in public when necessary. I believe those are all important and positive steps as we begin to take personal responsibility for slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Grocery store employees are just a few of the countless workers who are soldiering on during this time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Mail carriers, delivery drivers, truckers, trash haulers, child care providers, farmers, tradesmen and so many others are keeping the wheels of society turning while the rest of us take a time out. Let’s all be conscious of the sacrifices these people are making so we can have the products and services we need to isolate ourselves at home. Next time you’re at a store or receive a package, give these brave folks a nod (but don’t shake their hand) and tell them you appreciate their efforts.

HELP FOR THOSE WHO CAN’T WORK

If you’re one of the tens of thousands of Missouri workers who’ve lost a job due to the coronavirus pandemic, you can apply for unemployment insurance through the Missouri Department of Labor’s Division of Employment Security. With so many people out of work, the division is handling an unprecedented number of claims. For this reason, it’s best to avoid calling on the phone, if possible. To learn more about unemployment insurance or apply online, visit www.labor.mo.gov. The process is easy and there are videos and tutorials online to guide you.

My office has been getting a lot of inquiries about two new programs created by the coronavirus relief bill recently passed by Congress. One of these programs adds $600 of federal money to whatever benefit out-of-work Missourians would normally receive. These payments are automatic, so recipients don’t need to do anything extra. If you’re getting unemployment insurance but haven’t seen the extra money yet, you will soon. A second program will provide assistance to self-employed individuals, independent contractors and “gig” workers who don’t normally qualify for unemployment insurance. Self-employed individuals who aren’t able to work due to COVID-19 should go ahead and apply at www.uinteract.labor.mo.gov.  Until the program is activated, applications may be rejected as “not an insured worker.” Not to worry, as the division’s staff will follow up later. Applicants will be required to provide proof of past income and business activity.

Out of an abundance of caution, Senate offices remain closed. Although we will not be available for visitors, you may contact us by email or phone. Please don’t hesitate to contact my Capitol office at 573-751-1882.