While Awaiting Vaccination, Grocery Workers Continue Facing Health And Economic Risks
People 65 and older began qualifying for the COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 8 under the state's phase system. Grocery workers younger than 65 began qualifying in early March.
Maricela Guzman doesn't know how her 78-year-old grandmother got COVID-19.
Guzman’s grandmother rarely left the house, but she tested positive for the coronavirus when she arrived at the Fort Collins hospital in early December. She spent the rest of the month, including the holidays, in an intensive care unit. And then, in early January, she passed away.
The loss is too hard for Guzman to talk about. She was staying home from her job at King Soopers on worker’s compensation in the weeks before her grandmother got sick. But some of the five other family members in her multi-generational household were coming in and out for work and school.
Guzman long feared bringing the virus home from the grocery store.
“Just a lot of people, a lot of ignorant people, I guess, not wanting to wear masks,” she said. Technically, King Soopers requires masks in its Colorado stores, but Guzman said that is not enforced in her experience.
Distribution of the coronavirus vaccine has been slower than many had hoped, leaving at risk people who have to leave home for work every day. This is particularly true for Colorado’s grocery workers, who've gotten sick with hundreds of recorded cases of COVID-19 in 2020 and continue catching the virus.
At the current speed of vaccination, grocery employees will likely start getting their doses in March. In the meantime, some are turning to their union for help as they worry about their health and financial security.
Guzman was also worried because her managers weren’t telling staff when some of their coworkers got sick, and a short staff meant cleaning wasn’t happening as often as King Soopers corporate said it would be.
Jessica Trowbridge, spokesperson for King Soopers, said she couldn’t speak to the situation at Guzman’s store specifically, but told KUNC the company requires managers to be transparent with staff about cases.
She also said processes are in place to ensure customers wear masks, cleaning is done at more regular intervals and store capacity is limited. But she declined to provide details, including whether mask-refusing customers would be asked to leave.
The virus isn’t the only health risk Guzman faced. She got injured on the job while helping out a fellow employee, tearing muscles in her right leg. Still, during the months it took for her injury claim to get approved, she kept clocking in despite fearing COVID-19 and being in a lot of pain.
Guzman is one of her family’s primary breadwinners, so, she said, there wasn’t much of a choice. And when she was off work to get and recover from surgery, Guzman’s sister (who has asthma) had to start working a retail job to make up for the reduced income.
This predicament is not unique: 19% of respondents in an August Colorado Health Foundation poll said they were required to go to work despite health concerns. That rate gets larger among respondents in lower-income brackets.
“So these workers on the grocery side, they're exposed daily and they have no control over their environment, nor are they aware if a customer's healthy or sick,” said Kim Cordova, president of the United Food And Commercial Workers Union.
Trowbridge, the King Soopers spokesperson, said the outbreaks may have more to do with the infection spikes in the communities surrounding the stores.
“This exposure could have happened at our store or from an offsite exposure,” she said. “Our total COVID-19 incident rate continues to track below the rate in the surrounding communities where we operate and we are continuing to implement our safety procedures.”
Public health and labor experts say these essential jobs put workers in the difficult position of choosing to protect either their health or their economic security.
King Soopers claims it is taking a lot of action to ensure workers are safe in both realms, but Cordova doesn’t believe that’s true, citing stories from workers like Guzman and other steps the companies aren’t taking, like daily testing for asymptomatic employees.
“If (King Soopers is) trying to say it's community spread, well, the community is in their stores, shopping,” she said. “And workers don't have access to the highest level of personal protective equipment. They don't have control over their environment. And so they are being exposed.”
King Soopers, like other grocery chains, offers two weeks of pay for those who test positive for the virus or show symptoms, but only if the diagnosis is confirmed by a medical professional.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, these big grocers came out, put up billboards and went on TV calling them heroes,” Cordova said.
Grocers also offered regular pay bonuses to employees as hazard pay or “hero bonuses” in recognition of the difficulty of working during a pandemic. King Soopers’ "Hero Bonus" offered an extra $2 an hour, but that didn’t last past June.
“Then they took their hero pay away from them and then relaxed on safety interventions,” she said.
“We have invested more than $1.3 billion to reward, support and safeguard our associates through things like Appreciation Pay, Thank You Pay, Hero bonuses,” spokesperson Trowbridge said in response to the union’s demand for hero pay’s return. “We've additionally given in-store credits and fuel points.”
The other bonuses she mentions were one-time payments that add up to nearly $700 per full-time worker in the months after Hero Pay ended. It’s not nearly as much per week as the Hero Pay was. This is why Cordova, who got her start in the union as a grocery employee, said those bonuses aren't enough.
“Sales have gone through the ceiling while workers are still working on the front line,” she said. Sales at Kroger (which owns King Soopers) grew 11.3% during the third quarter of 2020 compared to that same time period in 2019. Total sales were $29.7 billion, according to the company. “And so, they should have Hazard (Hero) pay.”
The union called its workers to action in December, to demand a return of that extra pay at King Soopers and other stores. They pointed projectors at the side of store buildings to display messages like “All I Want For Christmas Is My Hazard Pay.”
Bert Cutshall has been at King Soopers for all but about two decades of 69 years on this earth. He started as a bagger in his teens, moved up to management and then, to give himself some relief in his old age, back down to a checker at a store near his home in Lakewood.
“I've never looked elsewhere for another job,” Cutshall said. “I've been here for King Soopers for my whole entire lifetime. And, you know, a good company to work for, basically.”
At his doctor’s insistence, the company allowed him to take sick leave and vacation days to stay out of the store as the pandemic began.
“Patient is (at) high risk for complications from COVID-19,” Cutshall's doctor wrote, citing Cutshall’s age and problems with his lungs and heart, including sleep apnea and irregular heartbeat. “He must have social isolation.”
The doctor underlined the word “must.” Cutshall is grateful that the company 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 till the present time, I'd just been collecting the medical part of the benefit,” he said. The benefit he mentioned is a $300 per month disability pay he applied for when his vacation days dried up.
He’s also grateful that the company allowed him to at least keep his health insurance through the disability benefit, especially because his wife isn’t quite old enough to qualify for Medicaid yet.
“They're not paying for the money part that I pay in every week through my medical coverage, through the King Soopers and the union,” he said, referring to the disability premium workers regularly pay into as part of their health care coverage.
29 other union grocery workers have been denied disability pay by the board that is made up of financial trustees from the union and King Soopers or Safeway, according to UFCW Local 7.
With help from the union’s legal team, Cutshall and five of those workers (who face similar risks from COVID due to age or pre-existing conditions) are in legal arbitration over the chains' trustees denying their claims.
“(The workers in arbitration) literally are facing risk (of) dying at work or becoming very, very ill and frankly $300 is barely enough to even survive on. It's an absolute shame,” UFCW 7 president Cordova said.
Cutshall was getting around $23 per hour while working at King Soopers, meaning he would be making significantly more than the disability benefit if he could safely work, even just part-time.
He’s scared of having to work because he’s been doing all he can to avoid the virus and he fears that would be impossible between those highly trafficked aisles. It’s been “disappointing” for the lifelong employee to see the company he’s been so loyal to not care about him, he said.
“I just need to pay my bills,” he said. “We had an emergency last week where we had to replace our whole sewer out front and that costs $15,000 and that took all of our savings.”
He’s not the only of the five employees in arbitration who feel like their backs are up against a wall financially, according to the union.
“I was living on my $600 pension, Social Security and my savings,” 78-year-old Phillip Tucker said. “Well, when my wife passed away, my savings was pretty well depleted.”
She passed away in 2019. So Tucker, who has been working for the company for two decades, threw himself into his work to keep his mind occupied.
He’s been out on his doctor’s recommendation since March as well. The 70 to 79 age group makes up about a quarter of the state’s Coronavirus deaths, only beaten out by the 80-plus age group. Tucker's paid time off ended in June 2020, earlier than Cutshall’s.
“My grandson lives with me and he pays half the rent and I paid half the rent,” he said, referring to the apartment they share. “But when my pay stopped, he started paying all the rent. And I feel bad about that. I mean, I want to carry my load as far as rent is concerned.”
Still, both are looking forward to getting vaccinated and back to work. They just don’t know when they’ll get it.
“I do miss my customers and I do miss my fellow workers,” Cutshall said. “And even though I've been with King Soopers a long time, I enjoy my job. I really, really do.”