Grocery Workers Say Stores Inconsistent in COVID-19 Safety Measures

Hundreds of grocery workers are getting sick, according to a local union, and this month is already looking worse than December

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Under the California regional lockdown, grocery stores are ordered to operate at no more than 35% capacity. But are they?

Grocery store employees across San Diego County contend that capacity and cleaning protocols are inconsistent, and now the union that represents them says hundreds of workers are testing positive for COVID-19.

NBC 7 Investigates went inside grocery stores all over the county and found that enforcement may look very different, depending on where you shop, even within the same chain.

“They’re doing a good job,” Food4Less Santee store shopper Roxann Markin said. “I feel very safe. They keep things clean. They’re fastidious about it.”

Shoppers NBC 7 spoke with were mixed on how well they felt stores were keeping pace with COVID-19 public health orders.

“I notice that they haven’t been counting,” Ralphs Chula Vista shopper Diane Shockley said. “You can just go in. And I noticed that they haven’t been cleaning the carts anymore. I don’t think they’ve even cleaned the carts today.”

At Ralphs downtown, NBC 7 didn’t see anyone counting customers to control capacity or enforcing a social distancing line, though there was a worker wiping down baskets.

A Ralphs spokesman said all baskets and all carts are sanitized, and body-heat sensor technology monitors capacity.

NBC 7 didn’t see anyone wiping down anything at Ralphs in Mission Valley -- a spray bottle was left near the entrance, which shoppers didn’t appear to notice or use.

At Trader Joe’s in Point Loma, NBC 7 observed a social distancing line outside the store, where shoppers waited for an employee to give the green light. Sanitization didn't appear to be optional, either: Workers wiped down all carts and baskets.

It was a similar story not far away at Sprouts, where shoppers waited in line to go inside and a worker was spotted keeping track of who walked in and out.

Down south in Chula Vista, Food 4 Less had a worker outside enforcing a social distancing line, and there was a sanitization station outside the door, which most shoppers seemed to ignore. NBC7 Investigates didn’t see any workers cleaning baskets or carts.

There was a totally different situation at the Food 4 Less in National City, where NBC 7 didn’t see anyone counting shoppers, despite a visibly more-crowded store. Unlike Chula Vista, though, a worker was spotted spraying down a line of carts outside.

A Food 4 Less spokeswoman did not answer NBC 7's questions about discrepancies between store locations, only saying that the company has spent millions on benefits for employees and safety measures. She did not address specific questions about those safety measures.

“It’s scary,” said Todd Walters, president of the local United Food And Commercial Workers union, which represents more than 13,000 workers at Ralphs, Food4Less, Albertsons, Vons, Stater Bros, Gelsons, Lucky’s and Keils in San Diego and Imperial Counties.

“It’s terrifying,” Walters said. “In my face, every day, I’m watching these numbers exponentially grow. I had 23 reports of COVID at work sites yesterday -- 23. That’s not OK!”

In November, Walters said, 82 grocery workers tested positive. Last month, that figure jumped to 404 – five times the number of sick workers the previous month.

As of 3 p.m. on Jan. 8, Walters said, 120 workers have already tested positive at 84 worksites - 120 workers in less than 8 days.

“Oh,” Food 4 Less shopper Nancy Graves said. “That’s not good.”

Graves pays attention to social distancing lines and crowds at stores, which is why she says she doesn’t go to the Food4Less by her house in El Cajon.

“It’s a lot closer, but I chose to come here because I feel safer here,” Graves said. “They’re doing what they’re supposed to do.”

Other shoppers said they didn't care.

“It’s not going to stop me from coming here,” Mary Lynn Marroquin said. “I’m just going to keep coming.”

In fact, Marroquin said she avoids stores with lines outside, and doesn’t think sanitizing carts is a big deal.

“When you go into a store, you’re touching the cash register,” Marroquin said. “This and this, you’re touching so many things other people are touching. To me, that’s not an issue.”

NBC 7 interviewed Marroquin outside the Food 4 Less in Santee, where, Walters said, nine workers tested positive for COVID-19 last month alone.

Whether the store you shop at follows COVID-19 rules or not, Walters said hundreds of the men and women who work inside these stores are getting COVID-19.

“These grocery workers are part of our community,” Walters said. “They go home, their kids play with your kids. They go to the same churches and schools that everybody else does. If they get sick, other people are going to get sick.”

Walters said the union is now averaging 20 new COVID-19 positive cases among grocery workers a day, on pace to hit 600 COVID-positive grocery store workers this month alone.

On Monday, NBC 7 Investigates saw one of the monitors inside the Ralphs in Mission Valley indicate the store reached capacity and workers needed to start controlling the number of shoppers going in and out.

A spokesman said Ralphs is looking into what happened:

"We only throttle customers at the doors when the technology tells our store leader that we are nearing our capacity limit. Also, our store leaders now carry a device that lets them know what the current capacity is and alerts them if capacity limits are being approached."

"With regard to the monitors, the yellow numbers are for our cashiers and store leaders so they know how many registers we have open, how many we’ll need to open in 15 minutes and our queuing metrics. This helps to manage staffing at the registers and to move customers through quickly. As for capacity, when capacity is good, there is a green dot with a checkmark. When the store is getting full, there is a yellow triangle with an exclamation point. If we reach capacity, there is a red dot with an X. Our courtesy clerks wipe down each cart upon retrieving them from the parking lot and returning them to the corral. We also provide sanitizing wipes for customers to use as a precaution when they receive their cart. The cleaning materials you saw was likely the cleaning materials used by the courtesy clerks upon returning carts to the corral.

Food 4 Less also sent a statement to NBC 7:

"Our most urgent priority throughout this pandemic has been to provide a safe environment for our associates and customers while meeting our societal obligation to provide open stores and access to fresh, affordable food.  We would not operate stores that are hazardous to our associates and customers, which is why we’ve invested $1.3 billion to both reward associates (including Appreciation Pay, Hero Bonus and Thank You Pay) and to implement dozens of safety measures. We began implementing these safety measures early in the pandemic and since that time have only strengthened our vigilance and resolve."

"We also continue to support our associates through benefits like paid emergency leave and our $15 million Helping Hands fund that provides financial support to associates experiencing certain hardships due to COVID-19."

"In addition to COVID-19-related appreciation and safety measures, we continue investing in permanent wage increases for our frontline associates. Over the period of 2018 to 2020, we will have invested an incremental $800 million in associate wage increases across our family of companies. As a result of this continuing investment, we have increased the average compensation rate to nearly $24 per hour at Food 4 Less with benefits like health care and retirement benefits factored in."

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