NBC4 I-Team

COVID Outbreaks Skyrocket at SoCal Supermarkets

In Los Angeles County, public health department data shows outbreaks at food facilities, like supermarkets are up exponentially since early November.

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It is one of the few places many of us still go during the pandemic—the grocery store. 

But beware: the number of COVID-19 outbreaks at Southern California supermarkets continues to skyrocket.  

The NBC4 I-Team has discovered 146 outbreaks last month alone at supermarkets in the the southern part of LA County and in Orange County, according to data obtained from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324.

Those numbers include outbreaks at 31 Ralphs stores in the region, 17 Vons, and 16 Albertsons.

In Los Angeles County, public health department data shows outbreaks at food facilities, like supermarkets are up exponentially since early November.

"Every time I go to work, I get scared about the risk," said Marisela Gonzalez, who works in produce at Albertsons in Tustin and contracted COVID.

Gonzalez says the other five members of her household got infected--including her 29-year old daughter--and she believes she passed the virus to them.

"I thought I was going to lose my daughter, but I couldn’t even go to the hospital with her because I was also sick," said Gonzalez.

Public health officials say many grocery store workers pick up the virus at work and spread it to their families. 

"These increases (in outbreaks) reflect a pattern of transmission, from work site to home, and back to work site," said LA County's director of Public Health, Dr. Barbara Ferrer.

Workers like Marisela Gonzalez believe the grocery chains should resume giving them hazard pay for working in a high-risk environment, like they did last March to June. Chains that own Albertsons and Vons have had double digit increases in profits the first half of the pandemic, according to a report from the non-profit Brookings Institution. 

"We believe that hazard pay should have never stopped.  The hazards are getting worse and worse and yet the hazard pay has stopped," said Andrea Zinder of UFCW Local 324.

Even with the hazards of working in a crowded supermarket, Marisela Gonzalez returned to work after taking two months off to recover from COVID.

"I have to work.  I have no choice.  I know it’s a big risk, but I have to go back to work."

The companies that own Albertsons, Vons, and Ralphs all say they've invested heavily in safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at their stores, including frequent disinfecting and monitoring stores to control crowd size and enforce mask requirements.

Full Statement from Albertsons:

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 are preparing and expanding our trained pharmacy teams to handle the unprecedented demand and administer the vaccine safely and efficiently to the communities we serve as it becomes available. To offer customers education, updates, and convenient scheduling solutions for COVID immunization, Albertsons Cos. launched a new website on each of its banners’ websites featuring FAQs and education on the eligibility criteria.

Throughout this pandemic, the health and safety of everyone who walks through our doors has been our top priority. We comply with local city and county health ordinances including staffing at the front door to monitor occupancy limits and compliance with face coverings as well as clean and sanitize shopping carts.  We require customers across all of our locations to wear face coverings when shopping with us, for their protection and for that of our associates. We appreciate everyone’s diligence, cooperation, and support as we all work together to get through these difficult times as safely as possible.

In addition, our stores have taken many precautions, including:

  • Installing kiosks to conduct health screening and temperature checks to check for COVID symptoms before associates begin their shift.
  • Installing customer line-queuing at checkout.
  • 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.

Full Statement from Kroger:

What steps has your company taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in supermarkets, to protect workers and customers?

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 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.  Here are just a few of our safety measures:

·         Supplying and requiring our associates to wear protective masks and requiring our customers to wear masks when shopping in our stores. We also provide face shields and gloves upon request.

·         Installed and continuing the use of plexiglass partitions and physical distancing floor decals to promote physical distancing at check lanes and other counters throughout our stores. 

  • Associates are reminded every 30 minutes to wash their hands and to disinfect work stations. In store audio reminders occur for the benefit of our associates and customers reminding them to wear a mask, wash hands and maintain physical distancing.
  • Continuing to enact our Emergency Leave Guidelines, allowing paid time off for associates diagnosed with COVID-19, placed under mandatory quarantine by their medical provider because of COVID-19 or practicing self-isolation for symptoms verified by an accredited health care professional. All eligible associates will receive their standard pay for up to two weeks (14 days).  
  • Hiring more than 5,000 new associates from hard hit industries to ensure we can meet public demand for safe shopping practices, like our Pickup service and to ensure proper sanitation in our stores.

·         Offering $15 million through the Helping Hands fund to provide financial assistance to associates who face hardship due to COVID-19. 

·         Providing access to mental health services and other benefits to support associates' holistic wellbeing during this stressful time. We also offer an associate hotline to ensure benefit questions are answered quickly. 

  • Offering free COVID-19 testing to associates based on symptoms and medical need. 
  • Continuing to provide comprehensive benefits packages, including world-class healthcare coverage and stable retirement benefits. 
  • We have received the COVID-19 vaccine at our stores in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and San Diego Counties and we have begun administering doses to our pharmacy teams and other Phase 1A health care professionals in those counties. Also, through our advocacy efforts, we have been able to get all grocery associates throughout California moved up to Phase 1B of the vaccine distribution, which is expected to commence soon.
  • The Los Angeles County Public Health list that you have referenced in previous stories currently shows no Ralphs locations under the category of Non-Residential Settings Meeting the Criteria of Three or More Laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 Cases.

Why aren't there specific monitors (employees or security guards) at entrances to all stores to keep a lower number of customers in the stores at one time, and to ensure customers are wearing masks?

Here’s why you won’t be seeing employees monitor our entrances, but to be clear we are monitoring capacity. Ralphs follows all state, county and city mandates that currently allow 35% capacity in grocery stores. All Ralphs stores are equipped with QueVision, our industry-leading technology system that uses sensors and predictive analytics, helping us to monitor and maintain safe traffic flow in and out of our stores. QueVision uses infrared technology to track the number of customers entering and exiting our doors allowing us to provide a safe, physically distanced shopping experience. When the technology tells our store leader that we are nearing our capacity limit, we will place an associate at the doors to monitor traffic until the rush subsides. Each store leader carries a device that lets them know what the current capacity is and alerts them if capacity limits are being approached.

Why isn't the company currently paying some kind of hourly bonus (hazard pay/hero pay) to supermarket workers, despite your company making record profits in 2020? Does your company have any plans to bring back that extra hourly pay or some form of hazard pay bonus?

As mentioned earlier, we have invested more than $1.3 billion since March to reward our associates and safeguard associates and customers. These investments include associate bonuses, wage premiums, store credits and fuel points, paid leave, testing, personal protective equipment and contributions to the company’s Helping Hands fund. 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. Did you know that the average compensation rate at Los Angeles County Ralphs locations is nearly $26 per hour with benefits like health care and retirement benefits factored in? Again, we would not operate stores that are hazardous to our associates and customers, which is why Ralphs has already made such a large investment in our associates and our communities in 2020, including donations to hunger relief organizations exceeding $6 million dollars plus donating another 6 million meals to local food banks that will assist the many thousands of Southern Californians that are currently experiencing job-loss, homelessness and hunger from the pandemic. Additionally, we just assisted NBC4’s Help 4 the Hungry campaign that raised more than half a million dollars for local food banks.

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