For Some Grocery Store Employees, Going to Work in a ‘Petri Dish’ is Terrifying

Story by Larry Altman

Mary Mueller-Reiche had a panic attack when she went to work last month.

“It’s so literally terrifying,” said Mueller-Reiche, a 33-year-old Ralphs cashier. “I had physical reactions due to these unsafe conditions – full on hyper-ventilations, crying, balling, being unable to calm down for almost two hours.”

That day, March 28, Mueller-Reiche found her Mid-City store filled with customers, despite the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home order. Her boss had decided to no longer limit the number of people in the store at periods through the day.

“So many of us are scared,” said Mueller-Reiche, who has worked for the Kroger company for 13 years in Ohio and now California. “We are working in a petri dish. This disease is invisible we don’t know where it’s going to come from.”

Mueller-Reiche, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 770, expressed her fears of working inside a busy supermarket as Los Angeles County health department officials pleaded with the public to stay home this week, avoiding even the supermarket. Health officials consider this week pivotal in trying to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles County health officials reported another 550 confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to 6,910. The death toll rose by 22 for a total of 169.

In Orange County, the number of COVID-19 cases increased by 49 on Tuesday to 931. Another person died, bringing the total to 15.

Despite Los Angeles County health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer’s caution to stay home, people were still out in abundance. The Costco store parking lot in Torrance appeared to be 85 percent filled. A nearby Vons store also was busy.

“Everybody needs to understand it’s still not 100 percent safe to be there for even the shortest period of time,” Mueller-Reiche said. “It must be necessary. Please, on behalf of everybody, we beg you please to stay home.”

For many like Mueller-Reiche who work in supermarkets, trying to adhere to 6-feet social distancing rules aren’t easy. Masks weren’t readily available for store workers until the last few days and it remains difficult to fill shelves with meat and produce, and bag groceries without coming in close contact with customers.

Ralphs spokesman John Votava said the company was unable to obtain masks for its employees at its 188 Southern California stores until the last few days.

“Over the weekend, we did ship out masks to all of our stores to provide to all of our employees,” Votava said. “They have been difficult to come by…While we are first responders for our community, we need to make sure that health care gets the priority as far as masks are concerned.”

Ralphs employees were not immediately required to use them, but some counties, including San Diego, began making it mandatory for all residents to wear face coverings. Tuesday evening, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti agreed, issuing an executive order for employees and customers at many non-medical essential businesses, including grocery stores, to wear face coverings beginning Friday.

During a telephone town hall meeting with State Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, last week, Brad Street, Safeway’s president for its stores in Northern California, said that masks were hard to acquire, but the company was working hard to get them to their employees.

In Torrance, a Costco employee collecting shopping carts in the parking lot said he received his first mask from his employer when he arrived for work Tuesday.

Until then, he had worn a mask he used while riding his motorcycle.

“It made me feel safe,” he said.

Masks otherwise had been sold out everywhere, even at his own Costco. Tuesday, he was glad to put one on.

“That’s a good thing,” he said.

Like Safeway and Albertsons, Ralphs in Southern California installed plastic partitions to separate cashiers from customers, but they don’t extend past the pin pad and don’t protect the grocery bagger. Mueller-Reiche said she was more concerned that nothing separates her from the customer standing at the register behind her.

Some stores have opened every other aisle. All stores have added templates to show customers where to stand with their grocery carts to create social distancing. Ralphs workers are also required to wash their hands and clean their stations every 30 minutes. Spokesmen for Ralphs and Safeway, which is affiliated with Albertsons, said the stores are considering making aisles one-way.

Votava said Ralphs also has instituted limits on how many people can enter a store. The parent company Kroger announced Monday that it is reducing customer capacity by 50 percent. Normally, Kroger requires one person per 60-feet in a store. That will now be one person for every 120-square-feet.

“Ralphs might take it even further,” Votava said. “We will then have our store leaders and a designated security guard monitor doors, letting people in based on the numbers.”

Ralphs uses technology to keep track of how many people enter the store.

On Tuesday, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union joined the Albertsons Companies – which employs more than 250,000 grocery workers at Vons, Pavilions, Albertsons, Safeway and other supermarkets across the country – in an effort to lobby lawmakers to give supermarket workers the temporary designation as “extended first responders” or “emergency personnel” to make sure they get priorities for testing and access to masks and gloves.

Votava said Ralphs already supported that effort for weeks.

Union workers and grocery companies also are pressuring California Gov. Gavin Newsom to take executive action to designate grocery and pharmacy workers as “emergency frontline personnel,” eligible for personal protective equipment, free COVID-19 testing, sick pay and other benefits.

Votava said Ralphs fortunately has not had any reports of employees testing positive for COVID-19 or dying.

But, across the country, there have been some reports of grocery store workers falling victim. NBC News reported Tuesday that four grocery store workers, including two at a Walmart near Chicago died after contracting the coronavirus.

“I think, more than anything, I want them to control the crowds,” Mueller-Reiche said. “I think that is the most overall concerning issue…There are too many people and we cannot maintain a safe distance.”

“It would be nice for the company to provide us with PPE, but, honestly, I want them to limit the crowds more than anything.”