A worker collects grocery carts outside the King Soopers in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, on Nov. 24, 2020. The store was the site of a previous COVID-19 outbreak. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)
Kevin Smith is doing what he can to minimize the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to his wife, who was born with a congenital heart defect — staying apart at home, sleeping in separate rooms, taking frequent temperature checks and getting tested when he’s able.
“The last thing I’d want to do is bring COVID home to her,” Smith said. “It would be devastating if she caught it.”
But for Smith and his coworkers at King Soopers in Longmont, personal choices about whether to take these precautions are only part of the equation. They start every shift knowing that they’ll face customers who refuse to wear masks or follow social-distancing guidelines, and the inherent risks of being inside a crowded store for hours at a time. Lately, more and more coworkers are missing shifts due to a positive test or because they’re quarantining after a possible exposure.
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Colorado’s third wave of coronavirus infections has arrived just ahead of the holiday season, prompting urgent warnings from elected officials and public health experts about the risks of large Thanksgiving gatherings. But with the virus more prevalent than ever amid one of the busiest shopping weeks of the year, the risks are also especially acute for grocery and retail workers.
“We’ve got people that are working seven days a week, 10 hours a day,” said Smith, a meat and seafood manager at King Soopers, where he’s worked for 17 years. “We’ve got a lot of people that are really trying to support the customers in making sure that they have the best holiday.”
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which represents more than 17,000 workers at King Soopers and Safeway stores in Colorado and Wyoming, is urging customers to follow public health guidance while grocery shopping during the holidays — and calling on the companies to “do their part” by reinstating hazard pay and stricter safety measures.
“We don’t want anybody to get sick, employee or customer,” Smith, a union member, said. “The company can do more to make a better, safer environment for everybody.” Among the additional steps that UFCW Local 7 wants grocery companies to take are stricter enforcement of mask-wearing and store capacity limits, more frequent cleanings and better signage for customers.
“I can assure you that nothing is more important to us than the safety of our associates and customers,” Jessica Trowbridge, King Soopers’ corporate affairs manager, wrote in an email. “As such we have implemented more than 30 policy and procedure changes to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our associates and customers.”
Those measures include providing personal protective equipment to employees, plastic partitions at checkout, expanding no-contact payment and delivery systems, and more. Trowbridge said that while the company is not “physically counting customers as they enter the store,” store capacity is being monitored by “predictive technology.”
There are at least 19 active outbreaks at grocery stores in Colorado, including six at King Soopers locations, according to the latest data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. At least 359 King Soopers employees represented by UFCW Local 7 have contracted COVID-19 this year, the union says, and three of them have died.
“Given the rate of viral spread, it is obvious that grocery retail employers have grown lax in following and enforcing CDC guidelines, including amongst customers,” UFCW Local 7 President Kim Cordova said in a statement. “While grocers’ profits continue to expand exponentially as more Americans cook at home, so do the risks their workers face every day as a result of the virus.”
‘Hero pay’ expired in May
In the early days of the pandemic, grocery employees and other “essential workers” were hailed as heroes. Many received hazard pay and other bonuses from their employers for the risks they were shouldering by working on the front lines of the virus.
Most of it, workers say, was short-lived.
“It’s definitely felt like the veneer of people being polite and nice to service workers has worn off,” one Denver-area Whole Foods employee, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, told Newsline in an interview. “It doesn’t feel like the company’s taking care of me beyond what they absolutely have to for PR purposes.”
At King Soopers — a brand of Kroger, the country’s largest grocery chain — employees received an extra $2 per hour in “hero pay” for seven weeks, ending on May 17.
“That extra two dollars meant a lot,” Smith said. “It paid some extra bills. We’ve got quite a few employees whose spouses have lost jobs because of COVID. That extra pay really did mean a lot to everybody — and when they took it away, there really wasn’t an explanation why.”
Trowbridge said that since March, Kroger has invested more than $1 billion in hazard-pay bonuses and new safety measures to protect employees and customers, and has made $15 million available through the corporation’s charitable foundation “to provide financial assistance to associates who face hardship due to COVID-19.”
“In September, we thanked our frontline associates with a $100 store credit and 1,000 fuel points,” Trowbridge added. “On Thursday, November 19, we again provided our frontline associates with a $100 store credit and 1,000 fuel points.”
In a new report released this week by the Brookings Institution, researchers found that benefits provided by the country’s largest corporate retailers to their employees have been far outweighed by the “windfall profits” those companies have enjoyed due to shifting market trends. At 13 large retail companies analyzed in the study, including Kroger, profits surged an average of 39%, while stock prices rose 33%; even with hazard pay, however, employee compensation only rose by about 10%.
“At most of the biggest retail companies in America, the gap between the struggles and sacrifices of low-wage frontline workers and the wealth they create for their employers and shareholders is wider than ever,” the report’s authors concluded.
Smith and his fellow King Soopers employees can’t understand why Kroger would offer bonus pay in the spring but not now, when state health officials say that the virus is more widespread than at any point in the pandemic, and hospitalizations have exceeded their April peak.
“I really feel that we deserve it, working under the circumstances that we’re working under,” he said. “Especially at this time of the year, the extra pay could really help out everybody.”
With so many Coloradans continuing to ignore public health measures like the state’s mask mandate, frontline workers are also pleading with customers to be considerate and follow the rules as they go about their holiday grocery shopping.
“Please wear a mask,” Smith said. “Understand that we have loved ones at home that we’re concerned about. It’s for everybody’s safety.”
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