Grocery workers are demanding increases in safety precautions during the novel coronavirus outbreak, especially because they don’t have the option to quarantine to keep food and other supplies flowing to households.
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The local United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union chapter 324 in Buena Park, which represents 22,000 grocery store workers from the major stores, is lobbying Gov. Gavin Newsom and the grocery chains for more safety measures like mandatory handwashing breaks, sneeze guards at checkstands, store-provided gloves and masks, crowd control and security guards.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Rachel Rosen, a Stater Bros grocery clerk in Garden Grove.
“I never thought I’d see lines waiting to get into a grocery store.” said Rosen, a 15-year employee.
There’s also concerns about the crowded conditions many workers face — both from working closely with other employees and from the oversized crowds that have flooded the stores recently.
Rosen said she and her coworkers face increasing anxiety from the store crowds, combined with the rising cases of the virus.
As a single parent, she said she’s scared that she’ll get the virus and pass it along to her son.
“All of us have said the same thing, we’re not necessarily scared to get it, we just don’t want to give it to anyone else at home,” Rosen said. “It’s a weird feeling knowing you’re at work and just not really feeling safe … you just kind of feel uneasy.”
But, Rosen said, front-end staff at her Garden Grove store aren’t to blame, but the company for failing to act on the concerns. She said her manager tries to limit how many people enter the store to keep up with the CDC’s recommended 6-foot physical distancing guidelines to help curb the spread of the virus, but there’s only so much one person can do.
On Tuesday, Rosen said Stater Bros is allowing employees to wear masks and plexiglass sneeze guards will be installed starting Friday.
Albertsons deli clerk Ashley Stanley echoed Rosen’s concerns.
“In my situation, I have a good manager and he does do quite a bit for us. But not all stores have a manager who’s willing to let you stop what you’re doing to go wash your hands when there’s large crowds of customers, they’re more worried about making the money than they are about us,” Stanley said, who’s worked for Albertsons for 18 years.
Stanley said her manager at the store in Orange has also been trying to control the crowds to keep up the 6-foot physical distancing guidelines.
And she fears she’ll bring it home to her two small children, she said.
Despite not having a union contract, Northgate Market stepped up and provided masks and gloves to its employees, said Esperanza Camargo, who works at the Northgate near California State University, Fullerton. They also installed sneeze guards.
Camargo, through a translator said, the company allowed her to take paid time off for the past two weeks because she has diabetes and is concerned because she falls under the medically vulnerable group, according to public health guidelines.
She also said her manager offered to let her go home early Monday, her first day back. But Camargo stuck her whole shift out.
UFCW members, like Rosen and Stanely, are lobbying the grocery companies to help pay for childcare while they’re working since all the schools and afterschool programs are shut down.
Many people recently realized how essential grocery industry workers are, from the distribution warehouse loaders and truck drivers to the clerks and cashiers. Gov. Newsom’s stay home order — which closed entertainment and nightlife businesses — specifically excluded grocery stores and department stores and labeled the workers essential.
“This has turned into an essential job, so it’s no longer just a blue collar job,” Stanley said. “A lot of us are working long hours and we’re being exposed to hundreds of people every day and we have to make sure we protect ourselves, our families and the community. If one of us gets sick, we could really disrupt our community.”
Albertsons and Vons, owned by Safeway, began installing the plexi-glass sneeze guards at checkstands last week and gave their workers a $2 an hour raise during the pandemic, along with Stater Bros.
Although panic buying and large crowds have relaxed somewhat, the past few weeks have taken a toll on some workers, especially Food for Less and Ralphs employees, who got one-time checks for $300 for full-time clerks and $150 for part-timers.
“Do I think it’s worth it? No. a lot of these people are paying more in childcare … that is not enough money to help these families out right now. The costs that are coming in to all these union members is way more than that small check that they gave,” Stanley said.
Kroger owns Ralphs and Food for Less and the workers are unionized under UFCW. Union leaders have been fighting to fix the pay disparity.
None of the grocery store chains answered questions about employee concerns and some of their media lines have full voicemail boxes.
Raquel Baltazar, a Food for Less clerk in Santa Ana, said she’s disappointed by the company’s decision to issue one-time checks, instead of bumping up the hourly pay.
Baltazar, speaking through a translator, said she and her coworkers feel like they’re being treated differently because of pay disparity with union colleagues at the other stores. They’re doing the same work, she added, but for less pay.
Baltazar also said she and her coworkers want Kroger to allow stores to be closed a little longer so checkstands, cash registers, deli counters, shelves, freezer door handles and other areas can be thoroughly cleaned. The increased closing hours would also make restocking the shelves much easier, she said.
Ralphs grocery clerk Tony Campanello criticized the one-time checks for Ralphs and Food for Less employees.
“That’s a big, big slap in the face — if not a kick in the ass,” said Campanello, an over 40-year veteran in the grocery business. “For the part time employee, which is most of our staff, it’s $150 and I feel for them because most of them are working full time hours right now … $150 bucks compared to $2/hr is nothing.”
Campanello works night crew and throws the frozen load — industry slang for stocking the freezer shelves — for Ralphs in Long Beach, by the traffic circle.
He was walking into a big shipment Thursday night, he said.
“I’m going to walk into an order that’s four times what I normally get. So it’s going to be a long night tonight, 16 hours I’m guessing — even with help,” Campanello said.
Clerks who work the frozen aisle usually stock it alone, outside of holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The longtime clerk said the emotional hit is more dangerous than the physical toll over the past few weeks and he tries to remain positive and calm because “anxiety and panic is contagious” among peers.
“I do come home pretty beat, but I’m going to contribute that to the emotional effects,” Campanello said. “I come home probably more worried about [my coworkers] than myself.”
Safety concerns aren’t limited to Southland grocery stores. As of Monday, scores of workers were planning strikes at Amazon, Whole Foods and other grocery companies, including food delivery services, according to USA Today.
UFCW President Marc Perrone lamented the companies in a statement released Monday.
“Amazon, Instacart, and Whole Foods workers are sending a powerful message that it’s time to stop putting corporate profits ahead of the health and safety of the men and women who are critical to our food supply, and are on the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak,” Perrone said.
“It is shameful that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey are ignoring not only the concerns of workers, but the potential threat to public safety,” Perrone said.
A Whole Foods employee in Huntington Beach tested positive for the virus last Wednesday and the last day he worked in the Bella Terra location was March 19, according to the OC Register. And a Spouts employee tested positive for the virus.
UFCW local 324 President Andrea Zinder said it’s time for Sacramento to step in to help the situation faced by workers at all grocery chains.
“There’s definitely guidance coming out of Sacramento, but I think we need more. I think we need whatever power the government has — that needs to come into play,” Zinder said.
Zinder said she’s noticed it’s been particularly rough for Food for Less employees in stores that are usually geared for working class neighborhoods.
“The Food for Less stores in working class neighborhoods — there’s still little crowd control and there are times where the employees just feel like they are not able to take any of the safety protocols that are recommended because [business] is so constant,” Zinder said.
And the union is fighting to get Ralphs and Food for Less employees the $2 an hour pay increase during the pandemic that Vons and Albertsons employees got.
“We believe that the one-time checks are not adequate because the number of hours employees are working are extraordinary, so it doesn’t reflect what an hourly appreciation pay would be,” Zinder said.
All the employees interviewed are concerned about the existing cleaning measures in the grocery stores.
Campanello said they’re not sanitizing the equipment that stock clerks use to place orders.
“I don’t think they’re cleaning and sanitizing enough. I know that they are supposed to be — even in our computer room where we do our orders, they’re not sanitizing the mice, the keyboards or antyning,” Campanello said.
He added the freezer door handles raise concerns because scores of people use them throughout the day and Campanello only sees the porter clean them before the stores open.
Rosen echoed some of Campanello’s concerns about the milk box, which is industry slang for the milk, eggs, cheese and yogurt cooler.
She also said the storefront situation is more demanding than Thanksgiving, which is one of the busiest times for grocery stores.
“It’s like Thanksgiving times 10 and it’s constant. All last week was constant,” Rosen said. “I don’t even think I took lunch one day. There’s so much to do.”
Zinder said the constant stream of customers, along with round-the-clock stocking, make grocery stores vulnerable for a virus outbreak.
“If we’re going to flatten the curve, we need to look at grocery stores as the most vulnerable places,” Zinder said.
“It’s a very, very stressful environment. I would say our members, for the most part, have really stepped up to the plate. They’re there every single day and they’re maintaining a good outward attitude. but I’m sure inside they really feel like sitting ducks. Who knows who’s going to come down with it and when,” Zinder said.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio
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