By Todd Walters
In San Diego and throughout California, COVID-19 cases are rapidly increasing, putting our state’s frontline workers more at risk than ever before.
These essential, frontline workers continue to show up for our communities in the face of this growing danger with more than 20,000 COVID-19 deaths statewide and over 1,100 in San Diego County. More of our friends, neighbors, and family are getting exposed or sick every day. Among the frontline workers who face the gravest of risks are grocery, pharmacy, and food workers who often interact with thousands of customers daily.
Throughout this crisis, our access to food has been essential, and it is made possible because of the serious risks these workers are willing to take to keep our grocery, pharmacy, and retail stores stocked and open. As the risks from COVID-19 spike to historic levels, it is time for the CEOs of every major chain in California — companies like Ralphs, Food4Less, Albertsons, Vons, CVS, and Rite Aid — to step up to strengthen safety protections and guarantee hazard pay for all of these frontline workers — union and non-union alike.
As the union for more than 13,000 workers in pharmacies, grocery stores, and many other essential businesses across San Diego county, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135 is calling for immediate action from these companies and their CEOs. Despite the growing danger from COVID-19, many of the CEOs of the largest chains seem more interested in protecting their shareholders than essential frontline workers and the community they serve.
The fact is that many companies like Ralphs and CVS ended hazard pay months ago, seemingly ignoring that this pandemic was not over, and the risks had not gone away. The brutal truth is that grocery workers continue to get sick and die from COVID-19. A new Harvard University study found that 1 in 5 grocery workers had COVID-19, with most workers showing no symptoms. Additionally, a new report confirms there have already been over 130 grocery worker deaths and thousands of grocery, pharmacy and retail workers infected or exposed to the virus.
Here in San Diego County, hundreds of our union’s members have been infected and one has died. Our members and other workers continue to carry the crippling fear of not only becoming infected, but also the real possibility that they will bring the virus home. Based on our most recent 2020 survey of America’s grocery and retail workers, the number one concern they cite is not only their fear of catching COVID-19 but exposing a loved one.
Positive COVID-19 cases among our membership have gone up exponentially the last couple of months, with November being the worst to date. And December is already shaping up to be even worse. From customers not wearing face coverings to management not limiting store occupancy to co-workers getting sick in large numbers, these essential workers face an uphill battle to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. Though there have been signs of hope at the store level with some managers being more proactive than others, it’s at the corporate level where many problems begin.
A truly concerning development is that even as this pandemic rages on and the risks workers face grow, America’s food and retail companies, including Kroger, parent company of Ralphs and Food4Less, continues to authorize billions in stock buybacks for their wealthy shareholders. What makes this so outrageous is that these same companies continue to ignore the danger their own employees are facing on the frontlines of this pandemic and are refusing to restore hazard pay as the danger persists.
Even worse, across the country we are seeing safety measures ignored with no enforcement of mask wearing, social distancing, or other essential protections. These ignored safety measures protect not only frontline workers, but our communities as well.
With the risks of this pandemic on the rise, we are urging every grocery store and pharmacy in California to guarantee free COVID-19 testing and PPE for their workers, provide paid sick leave to all sick or exposed workers, immediately reinstate hazard pay or implement it if never given, and freeze all stock buybacks until this pandemic is under control. In addition, these companies must stop refusing to disclose how many of their workers have been exposed to COVID-19. Our community, and these workers, deserve to know the truth.
The time has come for companies like Ralphs, Food4Less, Albertsons, Vons, CVS, Rite Aid and all of the others to do more and stop ignoring the pandemic nightmare we are all living through. The simple truth is this: We will only get through this crisis together, and that begins with every one of our grocery and retail companies putting the safety of workers, customers, and all our families first, not the returns of shareholders.
Todd Walters is president of UFCW Local 135, the union that represents 13,000 workers in various fields, including essential workers at grocery stores and pharmacies throughout San Diego County.