MEXICO CITY, March 20 (Reuters) - Grocers including Walmart de Mexico are under pressure to pull from stores tens of thousands of elderly workers who pack bags at checkouts as concerns grow about their vulnerability to coronavirus in a period of panic buying across the country.
Some 35,000 elderly Mexicans, most between 60 and 74 years old, pack groceries at Walmart stores and other chains through a government-backed volunteer program, earning just tips.
The program, already criticized by labor activists, has come under renewed scrutiny as fears about coronavirus have prompted many Mexicans to self-isolate and work from home.
People 65 and older account for eight out of every 10 deaths from coronavirus in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In China, where the virus first took hold, about 80% of deaths have been among people 60 and older, said the CDC citing Chinese data.
In just three days, a petition on Change.org demanding the senior workers in Mexico be allowed home with compensation had gathered close to 69,000 signatures by Thursday.
Ofelia Camarillo, 66, plans to keep packing bags at a Superama, one of the chains owned by Walmart Inc, in Mexico City, she said, even as the number of coronavirus cases mounts and the possibility of contagion increases. She needs the money.
"I know it's a risk, but if I'm going to stay at home, what would I do?" Camarillo said, adding that the 450 pesos ($18) she can take home a day was her only income.
Walmart de Mexico said its decision to keep the bag packers in its stores was in line with recommendations from the government's National Institute for Elderly People (INAPAM), which oversees the worker program.
"The activities of the elderly adults as baggers in our stores is voluntary; that's to say, they're not our employees," a spokeswoman said.
At Superama, the company has put hand sanitizer at cashiers, supplied cleaning wipes for checkout counters, urged frequent hand washing and checks the temperatures of grocery baggers, several workers said.
Walmart also recommended surgical masks, said Guillermo Valdez, 65, who packs groceries at a Superama in upscale Polanco, but said none were available early this week.
Even so, Valdez, helping collect shopping carts outside the store, said he had few worries.
"I'm not scared of death. When it comes, it comes," he said.
Jesica Magdaleno, who launched the Change.org petition, said checkout area workers were increasingly at risk at Walmart stores - as well as Mexican chains Soriana, Chedraui and La Comer - given the influx of people stocking up on provisions.
"They belong to the population that is most vulnerable to the virus, and they are exposed to hundreds of people a day," she said. "It's very likely that supermarkets are bringing in more earnings than expected, so they can surely do something about it."
A Soriana spokeswoman said that beginning on Friday, the company would no longer use the elderly volunteers in consideration of their health, and instead ask shoppers to pack their own bags and leave donations for the volunteers, which the company would then match.
In line with the government's reluctance to issue pre-emptive measures to contain coronavirus that might damage the economy, INAPAM's director of state programs Ricardo Gallardo said workers should not be pulled from stores because they depend on tips as income.
INAPAM would not offer compensation if workers opted to stay home, he said.
Mexico, with 164 coronavirus cases and one death, has so far fared better than countries such as China and Italy grappling with thousands of deaths. However, critics question President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's resistance to travel bans or work shutdowns.
His toughest measures have been canceling large events and suspending classes as of next week.
Alejandra Ancheita, head of labor rights organization ProDESC, said Walmart was shirking responsibility by describing the baggers as volunteers under INAPAM's oversight.
"Companies like Walmart have the obligation to make sure work conditions for elderly grocery baggers don't put their health at risk," she said.
Before heading inside to pack more bags, Valdez joked that a traditional Mexican remedy would keep the virus at bay.
"I protect myself with alcohol. Tequila on Saturdays." ($1 = 24.4220 Mexican pesos) (Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)