With dozens of grocery store workers around the U.S. having died of COVID-19, some Kroger employees say the nation's largest supermarket chain isn't doing enough to keep them safe. Their top concern: The retailer doesn't require shoppers at all stores to cover their faces, exposing front-line workers to infection.
Fred Velasquez, a checker at a Kroger-owned King Scoopers in Pueblo, Colorado, said the vast majority of the hundreds of customers who visit the store every day do not wear a face mask. The coronavirus is "not going anywhere — there hasn't been a miracle breakthrough, so we're still going to have that risk at work," he said.
Of the 3 million grocery workers nationwide, at least 68 have died and more than 10,000 have been exposed or tested positive for the virus, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers. That grim tally includes two deaths among Kroger employees in Colorado, the labor union's records shows, while 62 of the food store's workers in the state have tested positive.
Carol Foster, a 70-year-old who has worked at a Kroger's King Scoopers in Greenwood Village, Colorado, since early 2015, said she fears returning to work at the end of the month after being on disability leave with a shoulder injury since February.
"I'm scared to death once I go back to work, everything is opening up now," said Foster, who suffers from asthma and makes $14.80 an hour. "People bring in their kids, even when they are sick."
Foster hastens to add that she's always enjoyed interacting with customers and colleagues, but wishes Kroger would require customers to wear masks.
Kroger recently added another 100,000-plus employees to its workforce of more than 460,000 amid a nationwide crush of supermarket shopping and restocking at 2,758 stores that operate under a variety of retail banners in 35 states. The company denied its workers are at risk, saying they do not have higher rates of infection than the public at large.
"In Colorado, we employ 24,000 associates and the company's case rate is below that of the surrounding communities where we operate, and significantly below the national case rate," a Kroger spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch. "In individual hotspot locations with higher rates of illness, we're responding with additional safety measures, including associate testing."
Although Kroger requires that customers wear a mask in communities where facial coverings are mandated, such as in Los Angeles and Chicago, the practice is optional for shoppers at its stores in areas where masks aren't obligatory. At Velasquez's store, signs at the entrance encourage social distancing, hand washing and other precautions, but masks are not mentioned.Grocery store workers playing vital role during coronavirus pandemic
The supermarket chain encourages the use of masks on its website and in emails to its customers, the Kroger spokesperson noted. "In places like Los Angeles and Dallas where masks have been mandated, we air an in-store radio spot that specifically calls it out," the spokesperson said.
Another company stance that's riling workers: Kroger on Sunday ended what it called "hero pay," a pay bonus of $2 an hour that it offered to tens of thousands of workers starting in April. On Friday, the company said it instead would dole out a total $130 million in bonuses, with full-time workers getting $400 for and part-timers receiving $200.
Taking a different safety tack, Costco Wholesale earlier this month strengthened its mask mandate to include shoppers and employees in all of 787 warehouses, including 547 in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
"We know some [Costco] members may find this inconvenient or objectionable, but under the circumstances we believe the added safety is worth any inconvenience. This is not simply a matter of personal choice; a face covering protects not just the wearer, but others, too," Costco President and CEO Craig Jelinek said in a statement to warehouse members.
For front-line grocery workers, the fear of infection often extends to more vulnerable family members.
"I'm very worried, because it's not something to mess around with," said Velasquez, whose household includes his 80-year-old grandmother. "She's worried every day."
Christine Smith, a cashier at a Kroger-owned Ralphs in Ventura, California, worries about bringing home the virus to an elderly member of her household, her fiancé's 97-year-old ex-father-in-law.
"His heart is starting to fail him, and we don't want him to go from COVID-19 — we want him to go from natural causes," Smith said. "We live with him. It keeps him out of a [nursing] home."
While masks are required across much of California, their use is not mandated in grocery stores and other public settings in Ventura County, roughly an hour north of Los Angeles. At the Ralphs where Smith has been a cashier for nearly 15 years, customers who are not wearing a face covering are offered one at the door. But many refuse to accept a mask, or just hold it in their hands while shopping, said Smith, who earns about $22 an hour.How to grocery shop safely during the coronavirus pandemic
"How does that protect us? Without us, people aren't going to eat," said Smith, 50, who estimates that nearly half of shoppers who come into her store do not cover their faces. "People are thinking this is over — it's not. I'm scared every time I clock in."
Smith and Velasquez also describe long lines of customers who don't always keep their distance from others, with many shoppers becoming irate when asked to follow guidelines and store markings.
"I can't tell you how many times I've been yelled at and cussed at just because of the masks, because there are lines, because you have to stand six feet apart," Smith said.
Velasquez recalls one older customer explaining to him why he would not wear a mask, saying "I'm 80-something-years old — if the good lord is going to take me, I'm ready."