The Sacramento Bee
More than 2.5 million people have been infected with coronavirus in California, the latest epicenter of an unceasing pandemic. In Southern California, a person dies of COVID-19 roughly every 8 minutes in Los Angeles County where overrun county hospitals are considering rationing medical care after an after-holiday surge in new cases.
John Grant’s voice breaks as he talks about it.
“It’s overwhelming to us. The stories leave all of us weeping,” Grant said. “We’ve never had to make calls to workers who survived their husband’s death or their wife’s.”
Grant is president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, the union that represents thousands of Los Angeles-area grocery employees, hundreds of whom have been infected and sickened by the virus in a string of workplace outbreaks in recent weeks.
While most acute amid a broader surge of COVID-19 in Southern California, infection rates at supermarkets and warehouse stores have ratcheted up anxiety for grocery employees who are working in the teeth of California’s runaway pandemic.
In Los Angeles County, more than 300 workers at eight Costco locations had confirmed COVID-19 cases and 219 Target employees at 12 of its stores had confirmed diagnoses, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
Closer to home, West Sacramento-based Raley’s confirmed 342 cases in December among its network of 126 stores that stretch from Yreka to Gilroy and into western Nevada. The cases included more than 140 reports in the four-county Sacramento area, according to information on its website.
In the first six days of the New Year, 32 of the chain’s employees have tested positive for the virus, including 14 in its stores and facilities in the four-county Sacramento region, the website showed.
The stores are open “after undergoing multiple cycles of rigorous cleaning,” Raley’s officials said in a statement that accompanies the monthly case tallies.
Raley’s regularly releases notices online of employees’ confirmed COVID-19 cases and when they last worked at its Raley’s, Bel Air, Food Source, Raley’s O-N-E Market and Nob Hill Foods locations, as well as its Sacramento distribution center and its West Sacramento bakery and support centers.
“We are firm believers in transparency and feel strongly that customers and team members should know when a store has been impacted,” officials said in the statement.
The numbers of confirmed infections in other grocery chains have been harder to come by, as companies such as Safeway and Save Mart have declined to publicly share such figures.
Sacramento County health officials are hard-pressed to provide specific numbers, as well.
Yet the numbers of cases that are known have added urgency to calls to protect employees in an essential sector that remains open amid state stay-home orders. In the hardest-hit area, one remedy could soon be at hand.
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will vote later this month on a “hero pay” measure considered last week that would mandate an additional $5 an hour for grocery and other essential employees working in the unincorporated county.
Northern California workers faring better
Union leader Grant’s Northern California counterparts are closely watching the mounting caseloads and the pay proposal. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 represents more than 20,000 grocery workers from the Monterey Peninsula through the Bay Area and wine country on to the Oregon state line.
Infection rates in Local 5’s territory are lower than in Los Angeles, but hundreds of workers have contracted the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, said James Araby, a director of the Bay Area-based unit.
“Well over 1,000 of our members have tested positive for COVID-19 out of 22,000 — that’s 5%,” Araby said. “We’re trying to work this out. We’re doing all we can to protect them.”
That includes the death of a Turlock man who worked at a Safeway distribution center in Tracy in April after nearly four dozen workers were infected.
Araby said that means advocating for grocery workers to get early access to COVID-19 vaccines and calling on local officials to pass hazard pay mandates for employees like the one before supervisors in Los Angeles County.
Araby says five Bay Area cities — Antioch, Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose — “have or will be introducing motions” to pay workers an additional $5 an hour. Araby said union officials want to see a pay bump extended until jurisdictions fall back into the yellow COVID tier.
“We’re going to push that,” he said.
Jacques Loveall, who heads the Sacramento-based United Food and Commercial Workers Local 8, said in a statement that his organization was “deeply concerned for the safety of our members.”
“Our members must receive the pay and respect they deserve as they continue risking their health and their lives so Californians can purchase food and supplies for their families,” Loveall’s statement read.
Where exactly workers become infected or who triggers the outbreaks isn’t clear, said Sacramento County public health officials. Grocery stores are common and frequently used locations. Pinpointing transmission is difficult, especially when cases are so widespread.
On Friday, 22 people died of COVID-19 in Sacramento County, raising the death toll to 977, according to Sacramento County Department of Health data. The county now has nearly 72,000 cases including the 779 confirmed.
Creating safe conditions, boosting pay
The Food and Drug Administration says there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread through food from grocery stores, even if it has come into contact with a worker infected with the virus. But grocery workers and their customers are in an enclosed space where the virus can spread.
Grocery employees and other essential workers cannot stay home to shield themselves from the virus because of the nature of their job. And the pay that helps put food on the table — Grant estimates 65% to 70% of his Los Angeles-area members are part-time workers. They then return to friends, families and yet more chances for exposure and infection.
Grant said union officials have been working with local governments, employers and state officials in Sacramento to set up protocols to reduce the risk of infection at markets and stores.
Before the recent outbreaks, grocery workers staged protests at Southern California Food 4 Less locations after a December outbreak that led to 23 confirmed cases at a location in the high desert city of Palmdale. The workers had called on Food 4 Less and parent Kroger, the Cincinnati-based supermarket giant, to reinstate the “hero pay” paid to its workers in the spring and enforce preventative measures in its stores.
Food 4 Less officials said the supermarket chain has spent more than $1 billion “to reward our associates and safeguard associates and customers,” since March, according to information on its website. The money went to bonuses and paid leave, store credits and personal protective equipment among other perks, officials said.
Raley’s: ‘We feel prepared’
In Northern California, supermarket chains including West Sacramento-based Raley’s had plotted their contingency plans to get through the long winter including offering flexible leave for employees, cross-training workers and boosting holiday hires.
“We feel prepared. We learned a lot the first go around and have some contingency plans in place,” Raley’s spokeswoman Chelsea Minor said via email in December amid a second wave of increasing COVID cases. “We continue to be impressed with our team members and their dedication to serving their communities — our team members continue to show up for work,” Minor said adding that Raley’s also has “ensured that team members know they have options and remind them to stay home when they are not feeling well.”
Stater Bros. extended its $2-an-hour bonus pay for its workers into January and a bill carried by desert Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) would put grocery workers closer to the front of the line for vaccinations and rapid tests to detect the virus.
For their part, consumers should plan shopping trips carefully, Sacramento County public health officers say.
That includes having a list of items, choosing times that are less busy such as off hours or weekdays and always wearing a mask in public spaces. Contactless shopping such as store or curbside pickup or delivery is the safest option.
But grocery workers’ anxieties remain high as the pandemic continues its march, Grant said.
“We’ve engaged with psychotherapists — us, and now, our membership,” Grant continued. He said workers are suffering “direct and vicarious trauma” living and working amid the contagion.
“The subject matter is COVID,” Grant said. “It’s their lives.”