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Interview with United Food and Commercial Workers International Union President Marc Perrone; Coronavirus Situation Worsens in Japan; Interview with Taraji P. Henson. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired April 15, 2020 - 10:30   ET



MERIA CARSTARPHEN, SUPERINTENDENT, ATLANTA PUBLIC SCHOOLS: I don't feel like there's been enough professional learning for educators to be able to successfully do it.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: There are just so many parts to this. You're completely right. Thank you for what you and all the teachers there are doing. We appreciate it.

CARSTARPHEN: Thank you. We appreciate your time.

HARLOW: Superintendent Carstarphen, thanks and good luck -- Jim.

CARSTARPHEN: We appreciate you.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Yes, the teachers, doing so much here.

Well, another group doing a whole lot? Grocery store workers. They're essential during this pandemic. We've all been to the grocery, we've seen them at work. Dozens, sadly, have died from COVID-19. What is being done, then, to protect them?

I'm going to speak with the president of the union for grocery store workers. That's next.



SCIUTTO: This morning, one of the largest food workers' unions in the U.S. is pushing to label grocery employees as first responders. This, after at least 30 union members have now died from the coronavirus, thousands more directly impacted.

Joining me now to discuss, Marc Perrone, he's the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Mark, thanks so much for taking the time this morning. Tell us what this first responder designation would mean for grocery store workers? What protections would it give them?

MARC PERRONE, PRESIDENT, UNITED FOOD AND COMMERCIAL WORKERS INTERNATIONAL UNION: Well, first of all, it's going to give them access to testing and rapid response results to the test, and I think that's imperative if in fact we're going to slow the transmission of the disease down within those stores, as well as within our communities that we operate in.

In addition, it's going to give them access to get in the queue to receive personal protection equipment, which has been very difficult to do because at this point in time, all that personal protection equipment is being, you know, sent into areas like hospitals and-or EMT. Now, we solidly support that, we really do. However, when that protection equipment becomes available, we'd certainly like to see it in our stores.

And --


PERRONE: -- in some cases, some of the governors have already done that. And in some cities, they've already done it.

SCIUTTO: I want to ask you this because there's been some reporting -- and I've spoken to some people involved -- that when employees, grocery employees have tried to organize in the midst of this, try to get union representation to get more protections like the ones you're talking about, they've been pressured not to, including by companies such as Trader Joe's. Have you seen this on a broad basis and what's your reaction to that?

PERRONE: Well, we have seen it. We've had reports from Trader Joe employees as well as Sprouts employees; we've had contacts from people from Whole Foods, where they were not allowed -- when they started asking questions about personal protection equipment, they weren't given the same sort of freedoms that I think that our members had been given.

Of course, we've been advocating for our members. So, you know, I guess there can be some anonymity in our membership that they don't have to necessarily ask for it. They ask us, and we ultimately have the conversations with all the employers.

Now, I would tell you that our employers have been very good whether or not it's been Kroger, or whether or not it was Albertsons-Safeway or (INAUDIBLE), they've been very forthright about coming forward and trying to get the personal protection equipment.

In some cases, they lost the equipment: other countries like Italy. You know, because we are in a system, since there's no federal, you know, guidelines as to how they're going to control that supply, things have been doing to the highest bidders. We've heard some of the governors report.

So I think that's been a challenge. I think it's the same thing as it relates to the testing. You know, and we think that the CDC, honestly, could have done a better job on the front end. If the CDC had said, look, we think that people should fashion their own masks and people should wear them into the stores -- if I have one on and you have one on, then there's less of a likelihood that we're going to --


PERRONE: -- transmit, you know, the virus to each other.

And I think that was a big mistake. I think it sent the wrong signal. I understand why they did it --

SCIUTTO: Early -- early warnings across the board --


PERRONE: -- you know, they did it because --

SCIUTTO: -- would have made a big difference.

I want to ask before you go, hazard pay, is that something that you're looking for now for grocery workers, given the increased exposure they have?

PERRONE: Well, yes. And I think here's the real reason. If you talk to an investor or you talk to anybody in business and you ask them the following question: If risks go up, what is your expected rate of return? Your expected rate of return is to go up as well.

And so since our workers and all grocery workers -- whether or not they're union or they're not union -- are at a greater risk today than they were, say, eight months ago. And under those circumstances, do I think that they should receive hazard pay or appreciation pay or whatever kind of pay you want to call it? The answer is yes, I do. Because they're taking more risk, every single day.


SCIUTTO: Understood. Well, listen, we wish them the best of luck. When I go shopping, I'm always amazed at the work they do. And they are, they are exposed. Mark Perrone, thanks for your time.

PERRONE: Thank you, Jim.

HARLOW: Health experts in Japan are warning if immediate action is not taken, 400,000 people there could die from coronavirus. We'll have more on that, ahead, as well.



HARLOW: Health experts in Japan say more than 400,000 people there could die if the country does not do more to contain coronavirus.

SCIUTTO: They're calling on every citizen to do their part now to stop the outbreak as Japan sees a spike with more than 8,000 reported cases so far. CNN's Will Ripley joins us from Tokyo with more on those rising numbers.

And, Will, Japan was slow on this. Why are we just learning this now?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, because they're waking up to the fact -- as they start to test more people and uncover more cases -- that the situation in Japan is growing larger by the day. And this panel of experts -- some of the top epidemiologists in this country -- they do say that this is the worst-case scenario, based on a model of no social distancing whatsoever.

And we know that Japan is attempting social distancing, but they're having a real problem getting a lot of people to stay home because 80 percent of Japanese companies are not equipped to allow employees to telework. It's just not part of the culture here.

And so there are a lot of people still riding crowded subways and this warning, that 400,000 or more people could die without social distancing, is in many ways kind of one last warning from the government, their most dire warning yet, that if they don't do something, if people don't do something to change their habits right now, the coming months could be very bad for Japan.

SCIUTTO: So early on, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, he was accused of being more concerned with saving the Summer Olympics -- which of course have now been postponed to 2021 -- than saving lives. Did that late start hurt Japan?

RIPLEY: Japan was focusing, in the early weeks of this epidemic, on a theory of tracing clusters, an aggressive contact tracing, which also involved very minimal testing, which was deliberate on the part of the Japanese. Now, this was convenient for Abe's administration because they were trying to save the Olympics and the minimal testing allowed the official case count to stay very low for a very long time.

The problem, epidemiologists say, is that Japan now doesn't really have a sense of how many people are walking around, asymptomatic with the virus. And you need to have those numbers to shape public policy.

After the Olympics were postponed, all of a sudden, the government messaging has gotten much more serious. The problem was, a lot of people didn't get the message in time or now they're confused because they were told that things in Japan were pretty good for quite a long time. That's why we saw people out viewing the cherry blossoms. That's why a lot of people are still going about their daily lives, a lot of businesses remain open.

So the messaging didn't get to people in time. There is a sense of complacency on the streets here in Tokyo, but experts are telling me complacency starts at the top.

HARLOW: Yes. Hundred percent, Will. Thank you for that reporting, live for us in Tokyo this morning.


So we know the numbers. The coronavirus is infecting and killing African-Americans at an alarming and disproportionate rate. Well, now, Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson is launching a free service to help with the mental health impact of this pandemic on black communities. She's with us live, next, to talk about it.


HARLOW: Another tragedy of this pandemic, African-Americans are dying at higher rates than any other racial group in this country from coronavirus, not to mention the mental health impact of all of it.

Academy Award-nominated and Golden Globe-winning actress Taraji P. Henson has been an advocate for mental health treatment for a long time. Just last year, she made a plea to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.


TARAJI P. HENSON, ACTRESS: So I'm here to appeal to you because this is a national crisis. When I hear of kids going into bathrooms, cutting themselves? You're supposed to feel safe at school.

I am here, using my celebrity, using my voice to put a face to this because I also suffer from depression and anxiety. And if you're a human, living in today's world, I don't know how you're not suffering in any way.


HARLOW: Yes. Well, now, she's launching a free virtual therapy campaign for black communities dealing with this crisis. I'm so happy to say that now, we're joined by mental health advocate, Academy Award-nominated and Golden Globe-winning actress Taraji P. Henson.

Thank you for talking about this so personally and openly. Can you tell everyone what you're doing now through your foundation that was named after your father?

HENSON: Yes. We're offering up to five therapy sessions to those underserved communities who have been devastated, you know, by this pandemic. And the conditions that are culturally competent are listed in our online resource guide. And we begin registration today, so those who need help should go to And we really need (ph) everyone to step up and support this campaign, and you can do it by texting "nostigma" to 707070, or donate on our website.

Because, you know, we don't know how long this pandemic will last and we don't know the scars. But we do know that scars, these scars will last forever. They won't go away, people will be traumatized forever, families will be destroyed and ripped apart. You have generational families that have been living together under one roof.


I know a family, there's nine of them living in a three-bedroom apartment. So when you say "social distancing" -- we throw that out like everybody can do it -- where are they going to go, you know?

HARLOW: I mean, you're -- of course, of course. I mean, and that's a huge concern, you know? HENSON: Yes.

HARLOW: Look, let me ask you about what drove you to this. Because obviously, you've talked about your own personal struggles. And we see the disparity in the African-American community right now in terms of the higher death rate and infection rate from coronavirus, which I think is a national tragedy for this country. What caused you to want to launch this?

HENSON: I had to do something because I know people are suffering, and they're suffering in isolation. I am blessed enough to be able to be -- to pick up the phone and call my therapist and not think twice about how much it costs. But you have people out here who have to decide between a meal and their mental health.

Not only that, it is hard enough and most difficult for the black community to even speak up about mental illnesses or mental health because of the stigma around it in the community. So I felt important -- I felt like I had to do something in this moment in time to relieve the stress, the anxiety, to save some lives.

What was alarming to me are the numbers, and I'm going to read these to you. In Illinois, 43 percent of the people who have died from the disease and 28 percent of those who have tested positive were African- Americans, a group that only makes up 15 percent of the state's population. These are alarming numbers.

African-Americans who account for a third of positive tests in Michigan, represent 40 percent of the deaths in that state even though they make up only 14 percent of the populations. These are alarming.

In Louisiana, about 70 percent of the people who have died are black, though only a third of the state's population is non-black.

HARLOW: You --

HENSON: Those numbers, to me, are alarming. I can't just sit by and hear those numbers spewed out and not do something.

HARLOW: You took the words out of my mouth. I mean, literally, I had those same stats written in front of me, and Jim and I talk about it every day on the show, that we knew something like this was going to come because of the disparity on so many levels --


HARLOW: -- so many different levels, that African-Americans have been facing in this country for so long. It is a national crisis.

When you first saw those numbers, Taraji, what did you think?

HENSON: I just felt like I had to do something. I mean, I'm blessed and my father always said -- may he rest in peace, Vietnam vet and also had his issues with mental illnesses -- he, you know, always told me, Baby, if you are blessed, then you have to go out into the world and be a blessing. And so this is through God's gift that -- you know, the blessings that

he bestowed upon me, I'm just trying to do what I can as a human because we all need each other, we all need each other in this thing called life. And so here I am, trying to use my voice in the best way I can.

HARLOW: Can you finally talk about your message right now to anyone who's suffering in silence? Because in your congressional testimony, you talked about how the black community, many people often do suffer in silence and don't feel like they're allowed to talk about mental health suffering. What's your message to anyone watching right now, living that?

HENSON: My message to you right now is that if you ever second- guessed or had some reservations or were afraid to reach out or deal with mental illness or check on your mental health, now is the perfect time. Because we are in a situation where we can do it from home, the comforts of our own home. You can research, you can take your time because all we have right now is time.

And I suggest that in this time, you dig deep down within yourself, and just take care of your mental -- let this be the time where you try it out, you know? And it's for free, you know? So, I mean, no one should be -- no one should be suffering right now in silence. That breaks my heart, to know that so many people are.

And you should not be afraid to talk about your mental health. You shouldn't have to choose between a meal and your mental health, that breaks my heart.

HARLOW: Taraji, thank you for doing this, for putting your celebrity, your power, your money, your effort behind this. We're going to -- I'll post this on social media, on Instagram, on Twitter --


HARLOW: -- we'll put it up on the NEWSROOM site, people can go there for help. Thank you for what you're doing.

HENSON: Thank you so much. God bless you, and stay safe.

HARLOW: And to you.

Thanks to all of you for joining us today. I'm Poppy Harlow.


SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto. NEWSROOM continues with John King, right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Welcome, our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm John King in Washington. This is CNN's continuing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.