Orange County grocery store workers at major supermarket chains like Ralphs and Albertsons – who served on the frontlines of the pandemic – will decide next week if they want to go on strike after the local workers union filed unfair labor practice charges against the companies. 

Both supermarket chains have failed to reach a contract agreement with workers before the current contract expired on March 6 and as employees demand better pay and safety conditions.

In 2003, workers at Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons went on strike for nearly six months over health insurance and other benefits. 

Workers at Ralphs are asking for a $5 increase over the next three years — a roughly $1.67 per hour raise annually.

Instead, they are being offered $1.80 over three years, an annual 60-cent increase to their hourly pay – an amount workers say doesn’t make a dent in their cost of living needs.

Ralphs parent company – Kroger – doubled its profits during the pandemic to $4 billion, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union representing grocery employees.

Andrea Zinder, president UFCW Local 324, called it “a real insulting offer” in an interview at a rally outside a Ralphs in Long Beach on Tuesday.

“It does not reflect what workers have been through. It does not reflect the fact that Ralphs has made tremendous profits,” Zinder said.

Andrea Zinder, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324, speaks to workers at the March 15 rally in Long Beach were workers called for better pay and safety conditions. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

But a Ralphs spokesman said the company is doing what it can to accommodate employee needs.

“As we continue to operate in a challenging labor market, we are dedicated to attracting and retaining the right talent across the organization to be able to continue delivering for our customers. We are investing more than ever before in our associates by expanding our industry-leading benefits, including continuing education and tuition reimbursement, training and development, health, and wellness, as well as continued investment in wages,” the official said in a Tuesday email statement. 

UFCW Local 324, which represents roughly 23,000 grocery and other retail workers in Orange County and parts of Los Angeles County, is one of seven branches that have filed unfair labor practice charges against Ralphs and Albertsons including Vons and Pavilions for allegedly undermining negotiations.

Zinder said that a vote on authorizing the strike over unfair labor practices will take place next week and that Ralphs has tried to intimidate workers and spied on employees to stop them from engaging in union activities.

“As you can see from the energy here, workers are ready to strike if necessary. They don’t want to strike … But they also don’t want to be insulted anymore. They don’t want to be forgotten. They don’t want to be just disposable.” – Andrea Zinder, president of UFCW Local 324

Meanwhile, Ralphs pushed back against the claims in an online update arguing they have followed the law and have “negotiated in good faith during the bargaining process.”

They also claimed the union is using unfair labor practices as a trick to get people to go on strike and called on workers to vote against the strike.

“It really isn’t about your wages, health care or pension – it’s about what the union ‘alleges’ the company has done.This is all to confuse and manipulate you into going out on strike. More importantly, the union is jeopardizing your wages and benefits, if there is a strike,” reads the update.

In a subsequent update, the company argued the union’s wage increase demand is unrealistic.

“We need to balance our investments in you so we can maintain a sustainable business, reflecting good, stable jobs, and keeping groceries affordable for our customers,” the update reads.

But grocery workers don’t think a $5 pay increase over three years is unrealistic.

At the rally, workers paraded in a circle around the front of the Ralphs on Pacific Coast Highway near Naples Island while holding signs and demanding a fair contract with compensation that reflects the efforts they made serving residents during the pandemic. 

Workers want fair wages, better safety for both workers and customers in terms of COVID protocols and store security, along with a staffing increase after the shortages they faced during the pandemic.

“All we’re asking for from this company is just our fair share,” said Pi0 Figueroa, a Ralphs food clerk who works in Laguna Beach. 

Figueroa called the offer of a 60 cent annual raise for three years for a total of $1.80  “laughable” and a “slap to the face” after the risks they’ve taken and the hard work they’ve put in.

“There’s no reason why us grocery workers should be struggling to put food on our families’ tables, should be struggling to pay rent, should be struggling to pay any type of car payments, our standard of living should be improving.”

Pio Figueroa, a Ralphs food clerk who works in Laguna Beach. 

A report published earlier this year by Economic Roundtable –  nonprofit research organization based in Los Angeles – found that over three-fourths of Kroger employees say they are food insecure.

The report, commissioned by branches of UFCW, also found that close to two thirds of workers do not earn enough to pay for basic expenses and 14% of employees are currently homeless or have been in the past year.

“There’s a lot of employees who are food insecure. Every single day they come to work and they feed the community yet they can’t put nutritious food on the table for their children,” Zinder said.

Hailed as heroes and essential workers by local elected officials during the pandemic, grocery store workers have risked their lives to provide food, water, cleaning supplies and hygienic products to county residents.

The employees also had to fight to get basic pandemic precautions in early 2020 – when COVID-19 was first hitting California. 

[Read: Grocery Workers Plea for Virus Safety Measures as Clerks Deal With Crowded Stores]

Workers have been yelled at, spit on and insulted for enforcing COVID safety protocols like mask rules at stores by customers, according to numerous employee and union representatives interviewed by Voice of OC throughout the pandemic.

Christine Martinez, a Pharmacy Technician at Ralphs in Placentia, said in an interview at the rally that she experienced the abuse firsthand.

“We had people call us names. We had things thrown at us and a few times we felt like our life was at risk, because they were very upset. And they would come in with no mask and actually spit on us. They had COVID and they would spit on us.”

-Christine Martinez, Pharmacy Technician

Martinez, who has worked for the company for 10 years, said Ralphs never took steps to keep incidents like this from happening.

It was not just abuse. 

Some workers even died from the virus as was reported by the Voice of OC last year.

Economic Roundtable, in another report in April 2020, found that retail and grocery store workers were at the highest risk of catching COVID.

“Most Retail Trade (76 percent), Food Service (71 percent) and Social Assistance (66 percent) workers are within an arms-length of other people when they do their jobs, creating significant risks of COVID-19 infection,” reads the April 2020 report, which wasn’t commissioned by grocery unions.

In response to the pandemic’s impacts on these workers, some OC cities including Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and Irvine passed laws mandating grocery chains pay workers extra compensation known as “Hero Pay” or “Hazard Pay.”

Industry groups representing grocery chains pushed back on those laws in court.

[Read: Year of Coronavirus Has Grocery Chains, Workers Facing Off Over Hero Pay]

Zinder said despite the difficulties and risks workers have faced during the pandemic, they still showed up to work because they knew it was the right thing to do.

“They knew the community that they worked in deserved to have groceries, and needed groceries. They came to work, notwithstanding the tremendous fear,” she said.

Grocery Store workers hold signs outside a Ralphs supermarket in Long Beach calling for a fair contract at a protest on March 14, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Zinder said the impacts of the pandemic will remain with workers for a long time.

“The emotional toll this pandemic has taken on frontline workers is very, very long term,” she said.

“A lot of people have to be able to just go on and live with the fact that they either got sick or that they got family members sick, that they came to work and didn’t get appreciated.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

This story was updated to clarify the annual pay increases grocery workers are asking for.

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