This article was published by Capital & Main.
“Uncomfortable. Busy. Crazy. Unstable.” That’s how Latoya Murray describes working at a Los Angeles grocery store these days. Murray has been a security guard at the Ralphs on Western and Wilshire for the last year. Apart from the high stress and a few health safety fixes, she said her job hasn’t changed much since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“We have one exit and one entrance. We have to sanitize everything. That’s the only thing that’s different. The doors and the line,” she said. Otherwise, she’s expected to go on with her job.
Grocery and pharmacy store employees are among those “essential workers” still at work while most Californians have been ordered to stay at home.
“They’re asking them to come in to serve the community, which they’re doing heroically, with determination, amidst a frustrated, angry, anxious, frightened public,” said John Grant, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 union, which represents 31,000 retail employees in Southern California. (Disclosure: The UFCW is a financial supporter of Capital & Main.)
Given the risks these workers face, local UFCW union leaders across the Golden State are calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to designate grocery and pharmacy store employees as “emergency personnel” and establish stronger statewide protections for their safety and that of the communities they serve.
Some states, like Vermont, Michigan and Minnesota, recently reclassified their grocery store employees as emergency responders, making them eligible for paid childcare services while schools are shuttered during the health crisis.
Classifying California’s grocery and pharmacy workers in this way would not only provide them with paid childcare, but also entitle them to testing and heightened protective measures like masks when they become available, said Andrea Zinder, the president of the UFCW Western States Council and Local 324, which represents more than 20,000 workers in Orange and southern Los Angeles Counties.
Zinder said that at the start of the shelter in place order, “It was pretty bad in the stores.” There was little crowd control, which meant that masses of people were gathering without practicing the social distancing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There was very little personal protection and opportunity to wash hands. Sanitizer was in short supply,” Zinder said. The union has requested worker access to personal protective equipment like masks and gloves, breaks every 30 minutes to wash their hands and improved crowd control measures.
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Many of the largest grocery and pharmacy chains across the state, and the country, are rolling out increased protective measures.
Two major grocery chains with locations across California — Kroger (which includes Ralphs and Food 4 Less) and Albertsons (which includes its namesake market, Vons and Pavilions) — are installing plexiglass partitions known as “sneeze guards” at the checkout lines of all their stores. They’ve also reduced store hours to make time for deep cleaning, among other changes.
Pharmacy stores like CVS and Rite Aid are also taking sanitation precautions and distributing protective gear. Employees of these companies regularly interact with sick customers, and pharmacists represented by Zinder’s union said they are still required to administer vaccinations, which puts them in close contact with potentially infected people.
Grant and Zinder said that these company measures aren’t enough without statewide mandates that ensure protections are adequate and consistent from store to store and county to county.
“The place where the most people in any urban or rural area congregate is in a market. Markets are what’s holding the communities together. Markets are what is going to sustain and enable us to live in self-quarantine,” Grant said. “And yet there are no standardized protections to reduce the risk of being infected by this extremely contagious disease.”
Rosalba Aguilar, who has worked for the Ralphs store in Koreatown as a bagger for the last three years, said that not much has changed for her. Employees have been told to wear gloves, wash their hands, wipe down the checkout stands and carts and stay home if they’re sick. But the pay and hours remain the same.
“Other companies, they raised the high-risk pay. Not here,” Aguilar said.
Ralphs’ parent company Kroger has announced it will provide a one-time bonus to all grocery, supply chain, manufacturing and customer service workers. The bonus will be $300 for full time or $150 for part time employees. CVS Health and Walgreens are also paying similar one-time bonuses to their employees.
Some companies like Albertsons are instead temporarily raising hourly rates, giving an extra $2 per hour in what they call “appreciation pay.”
With demand for grocery and pharmacy services booming amid the pandemic, many of these businesses are adding staff, placing more people in these vulnerable, but necessary, positions.
“The companies have been going on hiring sprees, and there are a lot of laid-off workers to pull from unfortunately,” Zinder said, which increases the urgency of setting statewide safety standards.
The Los Angeles City Council today passed an ordinance allowing grocery, pharmacy and food delivery employees to have their schedule change requests approved if they need time to care for their children or sick family members, and requiring employers to offer additional hours to current workers before hiring someone new.
LA City Attorney Michael Feuer, who drafted the ordinance, said that the local government cannot make changes to health and safety standards otherwise regulated by state law, unless Governor Newsom issues an emergency order.
“The pressure right now has to be on Governor Newsom,” Zinder said. “We need all the protection we can get for them as soon as possible, for them and the communities.”
Photo credit: Amy Ta