As the number of coronavirus cases soars in Southern California, the supermarket industry is getting hit harder than ever, according to data obtained by the NBC4 I-Team.
The data shows there have been COVID-19 outbreaks at more than 137 Los Angeles area supermarkets in November and December, the largest number of cases since the pandemic began, according to the grocery workers union, which compiled the data and shared it with supermarket chains.
The data shows at least 854 supermarket workers in LA County alone have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two months.
"It's basically spiraling out of control," says Kathy Finn of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770. "We have so many cases, so many cases. More than at any other time in the pandemic."
There are now so many cases of COVID-19 among supermarket workers that LA County Public Health Department (DPH) officials say they are inundated with requests to investigate the outbreaks.
"We're no longer able to investigate every single outbreak," says DPH Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer.
Investigations by DPH sometimes prompt changes in store practices, which can slow the spread of the virus at markets.
Data obtained by the I-Team shows in the last two months, there have been outbreaks at 48 LA County Ralphs, 24 Vons, seven Albertsons and six Pavilions. There have also been recent outbreaks at three Trader Joe's and at two Whole Foods stores, according to DPH's website.
Some supermarket workers believe they got the virus at their stores.
"It's so busy in the stores and there's so many people, we were bound to get it," says Bertha Montes, a bakery worker at the Ralphs on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, who is battling COVID-19 that she thinks she got at work.
Montes says she unknowingly spread the virus to her husband, daughter and grandson, who all live with her.
"I felt so guilty," Montes told the I-Team.
The Albertsons company, which owns Vons, Pavilions, and Albertsons stores, told the I-Team in a statement that "our stores have taken many precautions" to prevent customers and employees from getting sick.
Those precautions include plexiglass sneeze guards at check out stands and placing social distancing signs throughout the store. Albertsons says it's also installing kiosks that will check employees temperatures when they clock in.
Scroll down to read Albertsons' full statement to the I-Team.
Ralphs did not respond to the I-Team's request for comment. But in past months, Ralphs has told NBC4 it too has taken precautions, such as plexiglass shields and frequently sanitizing stores.
Ralphs workers say they now get paid time off if they want to get tested for COVID-19, but their union thinks all grocery chains should go a step further and do regular on-site testing of employees, like TV and movie productions now do.
"There should be rapid testing of everyone on a regular basis, I mean once a week," says the UFCW's Kathy Finn.
Albertsons Full Statement:
Albertsons and Vons are doing everything we can to prioritize the health and safety of our associates, customers, and communities and to ensure our customers have access to the food, medications, and other essential goods they need at this critical time. We recently installed kiosks to conduct health screening and temperature checks to check for COVID symptoms before associates begin their shift.
We are also installing line queuing technology for customers at checkout to help customers maintain physical distancing and increase the efficiency at checkout (quicker checkout times).
In addition, our stores have taken many precautions, including:
- Installing Plexiglas sneeze guards at check stands.
- Placing social distancing posters and floor markers in the stores.
- Pausing self-service operations like soup bars, wing bars, and salad bars.
- Enhancing measures to clean and disinfect all departments, restrooms, and other high touchpoints of the store throughout the day.
- Making cart wipes and hand sanitizer stations available at key locations within the store for customers' convenience.
- Ensuring that store associates can wash their hands at least one time per hour and stay home if they feel sick.
- Reserving special times for seniors and other vulnerable shoppers who must leave home to obtain their groceries. We ask our non-senior and non-at-risk customers to avoid shopping at these times.
We cannot express enough gratitude for our associates' dedication and commitment during this unprecedented time, as they work to support their neighbors and provide essential service to our communities.