Plexiglass "sneeze panels" like this one at a San Marcos Albertsons are being installed at chain and other unionized grocery stores.
Plexiglass “sneeze panels” are up at grocery stores. But that’s not enough, workers say. Photo via Todd Walters

Nobody has started a GoFundMe account for them. But they’re as vulnerable to coronavirus from maskless shoppers as the Starbucks barista in Clairemont who denied service to one — and got $100,000 in cash after a viral video.

Figueroa, Gill and a male checker at Vons who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation are said to be among thousands of UFCW Local 135 members angered by what they see as their employers’ lack of gratitude and failure to keep them safe.

Letter from Region 8 UFCW presidents to Kroger executives. Same letter was sent to Albertsons/Vons. (PDF)
Letter from Region 8 UFCW presidents to Kroger executives. Same letter was sent to Albertsons/Vons. (PDF)

A week ago, Local 135 President Todd Walters joined 11 other union leaders from California, Hawaii, Arizona and Nevada in signing letters to the labor relations vice presidents of Kroger (owner of Ralphs) and Vons/Albertsons.

The two-page letter channels workers’ pain, asking for resumption of what the grocers once called “hero pay” but the unions label pandemic or hazard pay — an extra $2 an hour. Such bumps ended quietly in May and June.

“This is no time for employers to turn its back on the very people who’ve gotten them through this pandemic thus far,” the letter said.

Leaders of Region 8, which says it represents 200,000 workers, also asked that the grocery chains assign a manager to enforce mask use among customers at the entrance of the stores “so this responsibility is not placed on employees.”

“You’ve got people coming in the store that want to make a political statement by not wearing a face covering, and they’re daring you to say something,” Walters said in a phone interview. “If you want to protest, go outside on the street and do it. … It’s your right. But leave the members alone.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers union also wants managers assigned to enforce social distancing, one-way aisles and other protective measures, and notify employees immediately when a positive case is reported — and allow them to quarantine without penalty.

“Stores should also be closed for 24 hours to deep clean before reopening. Employees at these locations should receive free on-site testing,” the letter said.

Kroger and Albertsons didn’t respond to requests for comment. (They haven’t replied to the unions either.)

A UFCW Local 135 source provided a copy of what it called an email sent to Rite Aid members: “It is not our goal to engage customers that are not wearing face coverings, nor do we intend to enforce or escalate through any engagement,” it said.

An email that UFCW Local 135 said was sent to some workers at different Rite Aids. (PDF)
An email that UFCW Local 135 said was sent to some workers at different Rite Aids. (PDF)

For customers who react negatively, “you should not enforce, and you should not ask anyone to leave the store.”

A memo said to be posted at Rite Aid registers says: “We can kindly ask customers to wear a mask (do not enforce or create a customer complaint).”

A spokesman for Pennsylvania-based Rite Aid said he would look into the matter and get back to Times of San Diego on Monday.

On Wednesday, Walters of the Mission Valley-based Local 135 told Times of San Diego that his local had 42 confirmed coronavirus cases, some in the ICU, and two deaths among direct family members.

“We are sure that the true number is much larger,” he said. “Our members had trouble getting tested prior to June and many were told to stay home and quarantine.”

Cincinnati-based Kroger, the Ralphs owner, is rolling out home COVID-19 test kits in 13 states (including Arizona) but not yet in California.

Walters said North County stores have “got slammed really hard” the past two weeks. “Onesies and twosies, some involving roommates,” he said. “The good thing is the members are getting tested when they need to.”

He said UFCW members can be tested either by their own health insurer or the county — free in both cases.

The county made a declaration that his members were essential and they could be tested without symptoms, he said.

“Prior to that, they could not get tested unless they had some symptoms,” Walters said. “Imagine the mental stress that our members face. The have to go home and decide whether to hug their children or their spouse after having someone cough or sneeze around them on a daily basis. They do a vital service to the community and deserve to be compensated for that.”

Figueroa, 53, has worked at Albertsons for 23 years (but 33 in the industry).

“It saddens me that they removed our hero pay,” the baker said via email. “It frustrates me that these corporations have made so much money and … we’re no longer rewarded for working our bottoms [off]. It’s killing our morale.”

Said Gill, 50, a Ralphs employee for four years: “It would be nice if Kroger could show us it appreciated its employees by keeping the so-called ‘Heroes Pay’ but they mass-hired, cut hours and threaten discipline if we violate social distancing.”

She’s upset that it’s seemingly OK for customers to pull off their mask once in the store or not even wear one at all coming in.

“It’s really all about the money for Kroger executives and shareholders,” Gill said via email.

The Vons checker, who said he’s worked in the industry since 1999, said: “We are left on our own to enforce the mask rule with the customers, with us basically acting as the bouncers getting into altercations, fights and arguments … multiple times a day in every store.”

He said confrontation videos seen online are a “pretty accurate snapshot of the stuff we’re dealing with and there’s nobody to protect us. Even just improved signage at the front of the store stating clearly that there is a zero tolerance policy for no masks would help us out a ton.”

He called the $2-an-hour hazard pay a slap in the face “when you break it down on your weekly paycheck is really basically nothing.”

Instead, Vons employees were recently given a $4-an-hour one-time bonus for the average amount of weekly hours worked. “And that again, after taxes, was basically nothing,” he said.

But unenforced mask rules really stick in the workers’ craw.

“Our Ralphs should refuse service to anyone not wearing it. PERIOD,” Gill said. “We are in the mask for up to 8 hours, and it is getting more difficult as the days drag on to work in it.”

Said Figueroa: “We have to put up with a lot at work — nasty customers and most recently people with no face masks, people that come in to steal. Angry fed-up COVID-era customers. We are feeling the stress. We’re going through a lot.”

The male Vons worker told of workers being spaced out every other checkstand but when it gets busy supervisors and managers “will start throwing people into checkstands and will be literally working with a customer standing right on top of us and all they will say to us that ‘it’s busy.’”

He said checkers respond by asking: Why does that matter amid the safety protocols we are supposed to be following?

“But they don’t seem to care,” he said. “That happens often, especially around the last two holidays like this past 4th [of July].”

Fortunately, not all chains are so cavalier.

“Kroger’s been the worst,” Walters said — the least enforced. “Rite Aid second.” Albertsons/Vons “mostly doing a pretty good job,” depends on the store site and managers. “Gelson’s has been off-the-charts great. Stater Bros. has been a little bit fishy, but they’re starting to pick it up now.”

Walters noted that as of last week, CAL-OSHA has started doing COVID inspections on site. One was at a North County store.

He said he sent texts to union stewards that they have a right to walk with state inspectors — encouraging them to point things out.

Highlighted document is posted on registers facing Rite Aid cashiers at the Adams Avenue store in Normal Heights, say UFCW Local 135 sources.
Highlighted document is posted on registers facing Rite Aid cashiers at the Adams Avenue store in Normal Heights, say UFCW Local 135 sources.

“You know the store manager isn’t going to walk the OSHA inspector (to problem areas),” Walters said. The state Office of Emergency Services said targeted inspections began in the wake of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders to that effect, with the county helping choose which stores get inspected.

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services, said about 200 state inspectors fanned out to enforce the health rules last Friday. They include inspectors from Alcoholic Beverage Control (checking restaurants and bars), Board of Barbering and Cosmetology (checking salons) and the Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

“We will be going directly to those who thumb their nose at public health and safety,” Ferguson said in a statement. “State government will be out in force … to make sure all California businesses and service providers are doing their part to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Walters, who spent three hours on a Region 8 conference call Wednesday, said that
when the outbreak started, stores were doing six to eight times their normal business.

“Getting that $2 an hour wasn’t a difficult as … it could be,” he said. “Stores are doing a … huge amount of additional sales. Yet the virus has picked back up. This is the worst it’s ever been.”

If the grocery giants don’t yield to UFCW on pay and protection, it may come down to the union winning community and political support for help.

Although a car-caravan-style protest is possible — as was done in Virginia and West Virginia — don’t expect picketing outside your local unionized grocery store.

“If we run out into the community and … start having picket lines and protests to get that $2 back, I don’t think that’s going to look too good in the community for people who don’t have jobs,” he said.

So the UFCW is considering a publicity campaign that seeks to win pay raises at union and nonunion stores alike.

“We’re trying to get all of the companies to pay. And that way there’s a level playing field. … Those workers deserve it, too,” he said. “We’re going to use community pressure … some political pressure. … That will be the next step.”

For now, Walters is hurting for his members.

“We’ve had members disciplined [after getting into verbal] altercations,” he said. “It really kind of angers me…. What kills me is that our members are sitting here — all they want to do is sell groceries.”

Updated at 3:07 p.m. July 10, 2020