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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

Five Workers Win COVID-Related Disability Pay From King Soopers, Safeway As Vaccinations Pick Up

The front of a King Soopers grocery store, lit up at night, with shoppers walking in and out of the entrance.
Adam Rayes / KUNC
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Around 1,500 grocery workers have gotten COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to Colorado outbreak data. Six have died.

Six Colorado grocery workers have been fighting a legal battle with King Soopers and Safeway over disability pay. An arbitrator sided with all but one of them last week, according to one of the workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Local 7.

All six workers were at high risk for contracting severe COVID-19 illness due to age or preexisting conditions, per UFCW 7. As a result, they had to stay home and draw from paid time off and, in some cases, personal savings or family support to make ends meet.

The union claims trustees representing the grocery chains denied requests for a $300 monthly disability pay, which the workers paid into regularly through their benefits packages. So the union's legal team went into arbitration with the chains over the six workers' denials. Four of the workers were from King Soopers and two were from Safeway.

“We had to go to arbitration and they had to wait months and months and months for this decision,” UFCW 7 President Kim Cordova said. “So I think it’s a shameful display of lack of concern for workers for their employer to treat them like that but I am very happy that we were successful in other cases.”

The arbitrator’s decision gives the workers access to disability pay going forward and provides backpay for the months that their claims were denied. Safeway declined KUNC's request for comment on the arbitration. King Soopers has yet to respond.

The worker whose claim was denied was older but did not have pre-existing conditions like the others, according to UFCW 7. The arbitrator decided that age alone wasn’t enough to qualify them for disability pay.

Lakewood resident Bert Cutshall was one of the workers who gained disability pay through the arbitration. He has been at King Soopers for all but about two decades of his 69 years on this earth.

At his doctor’s insistence, the company allowed Cutshall — who had several pre-existing conditions in his heart and lungs — to take sick leave and vacation days he built up over his decades with the grocer to stay out of the store as the pandemic began.

Cutshall is grateful King Soopers allowed him to take the paid time off for as long as it did. But his vacation days were all spent by August.

“From August 'til (January), I'd just been collecting the medical part of the benefit,” he said back in January, referring to the health insurance the disability benefit can also provide. “I just need to pay my bills.”

In total, around 30 Colorado grocery workers represented by UFCW 7 were denied disability pay, according to the union. Cordova hopes this result sets a precedent for those workers.

Grocery workers younger than 65 just began qualifying to get the coronavirus vaccine on March 5 under Colorado's phase system. A spokesperson for Safeway said the company’s plan “is to have vaccinated the majority of our employees by the weekend or early next week” through pharmacies located inside the stores.

In February, Kroger (which owns King Soopers) announced a $100 incentive for workers who get fully inoculated. They also announced an extra bonus for all associates of $100 in-store credit and an extra 1,000 fuel points.

The state opened up vaccinations for people 65 and older in Colorado before grocery workers on Feb. 8. But for weeks, Cutshall struggled to get himself an appointment despite signing up with multiple health providers.

On Feb. 26, he finally got his first dose of the vaccine. A King Soopers executive whom Cutshall worked with in the past helped get him an appointment at one of their stores, he said. He expects to be fully inoculated by the last two weeks of March.

He's then planning to go in to work for two weeks before retiring on his 401k, which he did have to pull from to meet financial needs during the last few months.

He looks forward to ending his tenure with the grocer “on his own terms,” Cutshall said, and he's happy for the opportunity to say goodbye to his coworkers and customers.

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