An Albertsons store in Southern California. Photo via local.albertsons.com

An Escondido Albertsons worker tested positive for COVID-19 this week, the grocery chain said Saturday, and the local grocery union president said about a dozen union members have contracted the virus throughout Southern California.

“The associate has not worked at our Escondido store since March 24,” said a statement conveyed by Melissa Hill, a spokeswoman for Albertsons, based in Boise, Idaho.

The store at 1570 W. Valley Parkway “has been through multiple cycles of our enhanced cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting process since that day,” the chain said. “In an abundance of caution, last night, we conducted a thorough cleaning and disinfection with guidance from third-party sanitation experts.”

Plexiglass “sneeze panels” like this one at a San Marcos Albertsons are being installed at chain and other unionized grocery stores. Photo via Todd Walters

The chain said the store would remain open, and staff continue to follow an enhanced cleaning and disinfection process in every department.

“We have  reaffirmed with all associates that they need to wash hands and disinfect check stands every hour and to practice social distancing,” the chain said. “We have also reminded them that if they develop a fever and symptoms of respiratory illness, such as a cough or shortness of breath, stay home, and call their healthcare provider right away.”

Todd Walters, president of Mission Valley-based United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135, said nobody knows how the employee caught the virus — whether from another worker or a customer.

“I would side with the grocery store worker,” he said Saturday in a phone interview. “They’re in the line of fire. Nobody truly knows who” gave the worker the illness without a cure.

Albertsons said the health and safety of “everyone who walks through” their doors is a top priority and its thoughts “are with the associate who tested positive, and we hope for a full recovery.”

“That associate is now receiving medical care,” said the chain, not specifying gender or age. “Following CDC guidelines, our Crisis Response Team may recommend that additional members of the store team self-quarantine. These employees will be eligible to receive up to 14 days of quarantine pay.”

Walters, the Local 135 leader, said he learned during an afternoon conference call with other Southern California UFCW locals that about a dozen union members have COVID-19 in the region.

He said the number of positive tests was zero on Wednesday but was four on Thursday — all at different sites. They now including a union drugstore worker and a marijuana dispensary employee in San Diego County.

“It’s here,” Walters said. “We think this is going to just mushroom in the next week.”

His San Diego and Imperial counties union, which began the year with 12,500 members, has been thinned to 11,800 via layoffs and furloughs, including 600 at Viejas Casinos and about 40 at Central Meats in the Sigsbee Row neighborhood of San Diego.

Walters wanted the public to know that the supply chain is back.

“There’s no reason to hoard,” he said. “We’ve got products coming in, getting them back on the shelves. So if you don’t need to shop, don’t shop.”

He also urged shoppers to respect store employees — letting them restock shelves and move along before swooping in to grab an item.

“They need to give these people some space,” he said. “Give them their six feet. If you’re down the aisle and need to get something, let them get out of your way.”

The public also should realize that not every store restocks shelves overnight. Some, called
curfew stores, are in neighborhoods where deliveries aren’t allowed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“Some of the people are lining up in front of grocery stores” at 7 or 8 a.m. “They’re not necessarily getting any extra picking on anybody.” (They may have gotten deliveries the previous afternoon.)

For his union members, he stressed that they take advantage of recently negotiated workplace rules, including the ability to wash their hands every half-hour and clean their stations.

“We’ve spent time these last two weeks negotiating these things for them,” Walters said. “And they need to use it. It’s important.”

Restocking — called “throw the load” in industry parlance — might include 70 pallets of product, he said. “But if they’re out of something during the day, they’ll pull it off the load and get it on the shelf.”

He said he’s split his Local 135 leadership team and insurance staff between its San Marcos and Mission Valley offices, and they have plenty of space “to spread out.” (Employees have to work from the union offices because insurance terminals can’t be used at home.)

Walters took part in Saturday morning’s food giveaway at SDCCU Stadium, where the first 1,000 cars took on bags of groceries in the San Diego Food Bank event for low-income San Diegans.

“I think that’s the thing that’s going to save us — that spirit,” he said.

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