Plexiglass "sneeze panels" like this one at a San Marcos Albertsons are being installed at chain and other unionized grocery stores.
An Albertsons in San Marcos with plexiglass panels to protect essential workers. Photo courtesy Todd Walters

For the past two years union workers at grocery stores throughout Southern California have been on the frontlines of the pandemic. Their work has been essential to their communities and country.

These union workers at Albertsons, Gelson’s, Pavilions, Ralphs, Stater Bros. and Vons proudly went to work, under difficult conditions, to put food on the tables of their families and to keep the supply chain moving forward.

The pandemic has not been easy on them. In the beginning there were shortages and a lot of fear and uncertainty. Workers worried about getting sick and bringing the disease home to their loved ones. They worried about their jobs and daycare when schools went from in-person to online teaching.

They were called heroes and were given “hazard,” “hero,” “bonus” and “appreciation” pay. But that extra $2.00 an hour was short lived as the companies took it away within the first few months of the pandemic. Yet, the pandemic persisted, and they still had to ­work and continue to wear masks.

The mask mandates created ill will between certain customers and workers. Though science has proven that masks are effective in limiting transmission, it became a political issue with many, and battle lines were drawn.

Angry customers refused to wear masks, creating uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous situations. Hate came into play with two separate instances in East County San Diego making national headlines, One male customer wore a white hood, and another wore a Nazi swastika on his mask. Though these are just two instances that made the news cycle, there were dozens of other anti-mask altercations that didn’t, including ones involving verbal abuse as well as physical attacks.

Within record time a vaccine was created and United Food and Commercial Workers locals across Southern California went into action to get our members vaccinated. We reached out to various government entities, and we set up vaccination clinics, providing the opportunity for all UFCW members to get vaccinated if they so chose.

We have members who are vaccinated and those that are not. We do not distinguish between them. They are workers and members of our union. Though we recognize the validity and efficacy of the vaccines, we are dedicated to serving our members regardless of their vaccine status.

Though the issue of being vaccinated, or choosing not to, created its own set of issues, we were able to maneuver accordingly to best serve our members. But then came Omicron.

Omicron was a pandemic changer. It seems like everybody got sick. Hundreds and hundreds of our members tested positive, creating health and staffing issues. Stores couldn’t staff departments properly, forcing some service delis to shorten hours.

Pharmacies were overloaded putting excess stress on our union pharmacists and pharmacy techs. And the companies have not been able to hire new workers fast enough to fill all the open positions, forcing many workers to work longer hours.

Our essential grocery members have served and sacrificed on behalf of their families, their companies, community, and country, many paying the ultimate sacrifice — including a 34-year-old single parent who died from COVID the last week of January — to provide and keep the supply chain moving forward. Though they won’t say it, they are American heroes. And they have served with distinction in the face of sickness and customer vitriol.

At 12 a.m. on March 6, the union contract for grocery members represented by UFCW Locals 8, 135, 324, 770, 1167, 1428 and 1442 will expire. There are close to 9,000 essential grocery store workers in San Diego County and over 50,000 more throughout the rest of Southern California that are members of UFCW. They deserve a new contract that reflects their service, sacrifice, and the value they bring to their company and country as essential workers.

Our members at Albertsons, Gelson’s, Pavilions, Ralphs, Stater Bros. and Vons appreciate their jobs and the benefits afforded to them in their union contract. They only want what they feel is their fair share for the work they have provided and continue to provide.

These workers are united and ready to do what is necessary to get an essential contract when the current one expires on March 6. On Feb. 28, at noon in the parking lot of Ralphs on Sports Arena Boulevard, UFCW Local 135 will have a rally to give the community the opportunity to provide solidarity to these essential workers. Please show your appreciation by standing with them just as they stood with our communities during the pandemic.

President Todd Walters, Secretary-Treasurer Grant Tom, and Recorder Maribel Mckinze are the elected leaders of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 135. UFCW Local 135 represents approximately 13,000 workers in San Diego and Imperial Counties.