I’m grateful for our state’s commitment to ensuring timely distribution of the COVID vaccine for health care workers and older Mainers. I’m in a different category: a frontline essential worker.

Joseph Lupo

Joseph Lupo, an employee of the grocery chain Lidl, arranges carrots in the produce aisle at the chain’s Lake Grove, N.Y., store Feb. 4, after getting vaccinated against coronavirus earlier in the day. A grocery store employee in Maine says that Gov. Mills’ vaccine distribution policy needs to be revised to prioritize access to the vaccine by essential food workers. Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Last March, my co-workers and I showed up to our jobs at a local, cooperatively owned grocery store while customer demand and anxiety spiked. This was before safety measures were established – no personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, Plexiglas barriers, customer limits or social distancing. As people were publicly encouraged to stay at home, we directly interacted with customers, who were anxious to secure food and supplies.

On March 24, 2020, Gov. Mills ordered “non-essential businesses” to close and stated at a news conference: “I want to be clear. Essential businesses, and entities that people count on for basic necessities, like groceries, corner stores, pharmacies, etc., day cares, pet food stores, banks, may still stay open. And you, Maine people, will have access to food for your family, your pets, gas for your car, medical care and medication. But do not go to the store because it feels like a good thing to do. Go to the store only when you really need something. And first, call ahead and ask for curbside delivery. Stay away from other people. Just because a store is open, doesn’t mean it’s safe for you to go there. And it doesn’t mean you should take your whole family there. … It’s the time for only essential activities; for essential goods, services and products.”

For nearly a year, we’ve continued to show up as supply issues cleared our shelves, and we’ve extensively readjusted distribution and labor needs. We impose and enforce daily safety measures for customers and staff, updating techniques frequently to ensure the least amount of risk. We’ve gotten tested and quarantined when positive COVID results affected co-workers. At our relatively small store, we interact with hundreds of people per day, putting ourselves and our households at risk. While Mills guaranteed Mainers’ access to food, it was simply not possible for us as employees to “stay away from other people.”

We as grocery employees show up because we want to and because we have to. We continue to maintain commitment to the local food movement in sourcing from small Maine farms and businesses. We have remained flexible and resilient to survive as a business and continue as a reliable local food hub in the Portland area. We are also exhausted. We need relief and support, and we need COVID vaccines urgently.

However, just a few weeks ago, on Feb. 12, Mills redefined the term “essential worker” in Maine, declaring that all citizens are essential. In order to prioritize distribution of limited vaccine supply, Mills ostensibly aims to eliminate competition among Mainers regarding who is essential, and to make the vaccine rollout easier.

With the governor’s current lack of acknowledgment of essential food workers, by default, the grocery store worker risks becoming as devalued and taken for granted as food itself. Our entire food system is notoriously devalued: Cheap food begets cheap labor. What would happen if we hadn’t shown up all those months? What would happen if we hadn’t been as cautious with our safety measures? The pandemic has proven the food supply chain to be a delicate ecosystem that needs proactive attention.

Essential food workers, including farm owners, farm workers, meat-processing plant and grocery store employees, dedicate their lives to their work, often with little financial return, even in a normal year. The value of all essential food workers was never greater than in 2020. We showed up while others couldn’t.

As we continue to show up despite persistent risks, Maine and its governor need to show up for essential food workers by better prioritizing our access to vaccinations. I can only hope to be as lucky as the Easter Bunny, who was deemed an essential worker by Mills last year. Perhaps at this rate, the bunny will get a vaccine before I do.

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