Since mid-April, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has identified COVID-19 outbreaks at ten stores owned by grocery giant Kroger, including seven King Soopers branches in the metro area. Chief among them is the store at Ninth and Corona, which is arguably the most iconic supermarket in the Mile High City, as well as the one that suffered the most from effects of the novel coronavirus. The CDPHE's now-resolved investigation into the location counts thirteen positive staff cases and the deaths of two workers, Randy Narvaez and James McKay.
A King Soopers rep says that safety for employees and customers alike is the company's top priority, and insists that it's doing everything possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But an employee at the store during the worst of the outbreak found the experience both frightening and frustrating.
Like many Denver residents, the employee, whom we're not identifying by request, had lost regular freelance gigs when the pandemic struck and decided to apply at King Soopers in March, when grocery stores were among the few businesses hiring, as a way of stepping up for the community. But by mid-June, the employee was fed up and quit — despite the lack of a new gig or any safety net.
"Worst part of all of this is I could have just chilled and gotten unemployment pay like all my colleagues did the whole time," the employee notes via email. "But taking this job disqualified me from being able to get the pandemic act benefits ($600/week), so I got double-screwed just for trying to help."
The employee applied for the night crew at the Ninth and Corona store "specifically with the idea that I would hopefully be less exposed to the virus in a contained situation. ... I started training at the end of March, when everyone was still figuring everything out, and went to a separate corporate location to do on-boarding paperwork and training videos where they even insisted on wearing masks with four people in a large classroom all spaced out to set an example."
Facial coverings were much rarer at the store, the employee continues: "When I first started, maybe 20 percent of the night shift crew was wearing masks — that's from midnight to when the store opened, which at the time was, I think, 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. I don't remember because it quickly reverted back to the current 5 a.m. open, which is ridiculously unsafe in my opinion — having the store closed for only 5 hours with the amount of product we had to work before opening and how thin the crew ended up being stretched. Even when we would start bringing pallets of products out to the back of the store to start breaking down at around 11 p.m., customers were somehow insistent on walking all the way down the aisles to where we were at the back, sometimes stepping closely around us and practically brushing shoulders to get by us when the store was otherwise empty. These interactions were easily avoidable, and customers were not always wearing masks correctly."
From midnight to 7 a.m. or so, "often almost no one had a mask on. I personally didn't have one yet at the beginning of April, as they weren't very readily available and I had ordered ones that were delayed in shipping. They had a box of disposable masks that no one distributed until right before the store opened (often because they didn't know where they were). But being a part of the initial wave of new hires at the beginning of April, work was handled well and was not too strenuous."
Shortly thereafter, however, "rumors of staff members getting the virus started, and they started saying employees were supposed to wear masks during the entirety of their shifts. I would say a large majority of the night crew was still on the fence about the virus as a real threat to them. Some still didn't bother wearing a mask," and even those who did often put it on "incorrectly, only covering their mouths, wearing under their chins, etc. That applies to the foremen as well. I would still say only about 20-30 percent of the crew consistently, religiously wore masks correctly all shift from the day I walked in until people started dying — and even still, not everyone always did until the day I left."
Another complication mentioned by the employee: Workers hired in late March and early April "were brought aside to be told that we wouldn't be guaranteed many hours because of how many people they hired, and that if we stayed we would have our hours cut. All were encouraged to transfer to other locations, and fliers were posted in the employee areas upstairs telling people where to transfer and who to call to do so. I decided to stay because I liked the people I had been working with well enough, had just gotten accustomed to the work there and the location was a perfect walking distance for me and I didn't want to drive to commute."
By late April, the employee recalls, "a significant portion of the crew had mysteriously disappeared. I would assume they either quit, got the virus or transferred because of their push to spread people out. There were again rumors when one of the managers got everyone together for a vague 'meeting' to tell people to be on their best behavior because someone from corporate was coming down soon. The manager answered no specific questions about people getting the virus, and everyone was completely in the dark about if it was a serious concern or not. Because of this, many crew members had been blowing off guidelines, again not wearing masks or wearing them on their chins while stepping over/pushing by people in tight spaces."
Also around this time, supervisors "started taking people's temperatures randomly. At first, they asked everyone to go up to the offices to get in line to do it, but after about a week, it was hit or miss if it happened at all, as managers would misplace the thermometer and/or forget about it. I could tell at this point the virus was becoming a significant factor whether they told us anything about it or not. So I had to take it upon myself to find masks at the start of shifts, because there were weeks where the managers couldn't find them or didn't enforce this. I would literally spend the first five-ten minutes of my shift hunting all over the store for the one box of disposable masks. Sometimes it was upstairs in the office supply room, sometimes in another office in a cabinet, sometimes stuffed in a corner or drawer behind the customer service counter. I definitely felt completely on my own as far as making sure I was protected in any way."
Meanwhile, the decrease in hours reversed itself in a big way. "I started being asked to do overtime, because now they didn't have adequate staffing and they wanted everything to look pretty for when corporate came down," the employee says. "They had started overworking people and that meant staying later after the store opened, when customers were largely ignoring social distancing and one-way aisles while loitering and hovering over our shoulders to spend over half an hour to find a specific box of cereal or kind of cheese. It's also worth mentioning that since this was the Cap Hill location, I would regularly see homeless people without masks shopping in the mornings, getting in our faces to ask for things, as well as medical personnel from nearby hospitals who were wearing scrubs and probably had just gotten off of overnight shifts."
May "was when everything went off the rails," the employee continues. "In early May, Randy Narvaez died. He was well known and loved by many of the employees, and they brought in an outside company to do testing, though it wasn't required at all for everyone. Again, we were kept in the dark by management as far as who had just died, what had happened, how it happened, etc. There were just enough people who knew Randy and had worked with him for decades that the word spread around, and I honestly learned more about it from local news and press articles than my own managers."
Such reports revealed that United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 "had called for the store to be shut down and deep-cleaned and for everyone to be tested. To my knowledge, this never happened," the employee says. "There were nightly janitors that cleaned the floors and bathrooms, but that's all I ever saw as far as cleaning goes, and the testing was only offered on a specific day that not everyone did because it was off schedule for many people. Though I had been doing significant overtime and needed sleep, I went in on my day off to get tested anyway, though nothing would have kept me from ignoring it. I personally came back negative" even though longer shifts meant "my exposure to customers increased significantly. But they did start trying to take people's temperatures at the start of shifts at this point and keeping the thermometer at the front of the store for the first time, which was the only real conscious change they made with Randy's death."
Staffing shortages became even more severe after Narvaez died, the employee remembers, "and anyone left was suddenly stuck with three times the work and now doing overtime every week. After the testing wave, almost all the managers also disappeared. Our main foreman self-quarantined for two weeks, I think," and a substitute soon disappeared, too, leaving the freezer-section clerk to cover. The clerk told the employee he was putting in more than eighty hours per week.
As for the rumor mill, it kept churning: "I again heard rumors that some people who had previously tested negative tested positive the day after from a different test, basically confirming that I was brushing shoulders with people who definitely were carriers. The way we broke down loads of products, there really was no way to 'socially distance' — at least no way that was attempted to be enforced. People brushed by each other heaving stacks of heavy objects off the pallets and stacked them onto carts in a communal effort every night between 11 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., and almost every time, there were customers there between 11-12 that insisted on brushing by us, and nothing kept them from doing so. Definitely a significant problem with the entire system was that no one, not one manager in my entire time being there, ever enforced any of these guidelines. ... Not once did I ever see someone reprimanded or corrected for not wearing or incorrectly wearing masks, probably because 80 percent of the time the foremen didn't wear them or wore them on their chins, too."
With so many staffers gone, likely because of quarantines, "it became a zoo in the mornings" during May, the employee reveals. "Supposedly a manager is supposed to keep an eye on how many people are in the store in a joint effort with security at the door to make sure not too many people are in the store at one time. But since I had started having to stay later into the mornings doing overtime, that was clearly not the case. I would have to shrink into corners, wait minutes at a time or take crazy loopy routes around aisles to avoid people while trying to get back to my cart. We had a lot more to stock later into the mornings, since we were understaffed to be able to get it done before the store opened. I don't know what the policy was with making sure people wore masks at the door, but I saw customers that walked around with no masks. One in particular had a mask scrunched up between his mouth and nose like a mustache to where it covered neither, while loitering and pacing up and down the pasta aisle (brushing by over half a dozen people while two of us were also there with carts stocking things) for at least twenty minutes because he didn't believe us when we said we didn't have the 'ready-made marsala sauce' he wanted."
Workers had "no guidance in dealing with people like that," the employee adds. "They were within their rights as far as we knew or were concerned. All the Kroger company training told us was to wait on hands and knees for the customers and no one was ever told what to do with reckless people during the coronavirus times."
By then, "starting to get really fatigued," the employee considered quitting because "it became perfectly clear that management not only didn't care about our health, but also didn't value the work we were doing and didn't even care whether we got paid or not." After one particularly grueling twelve-hour shift, "I gave up and just walked out and left. I never knew if I got paid for that day or not, but I wasn't going to spend any more time in a cram-packed store that was an outbreak site banging my head against a wall."
Safety protocols were slipping, too, the employee feels. "I had temperatures taken only by personally, consciously going out of my way to ASK to have them taken at the start and ends of shifts if I could. The responsibility was again on the crew and not management to abide by any of the guidelines. Then James McKay, another co-worker, died, and again I only found out who exactly died from articles and press. Even when managers were asked about it, crew members were told 'one of the older people that already had conditions' was the victim."
The stress ratcheted up even further when protests in downtown Denver broke out following the death of George Floyd. The employee "could literally see the tear gas from Colfax behind the store and had no idea when going in for my shift if the place would be on fire or mid-looting by the time I got there. This was the first time they started closing the doors and turning on the alarm, which I guess had never been a thing before during night-shift hours."
During the employee's final stretch on the job, "I was asked to switch with a crew member who had bad knees and do the bottled water aisles, which by and large was the hardest work that no one ever wanted to do — heaving pallets worth of boxes with four-gallon jugs of water/tea, packages of quart bottles of juice, packs of 12-36 bottles of water and Gatorade, etc. I didn't mind it so much until I had to do it for two weeks straight all night, every night, since there was never any consistency or communication with managers in knowing who did which aisles on what days. Eventually it got to a point that I...was so sore that I couldn't get out of bed one night before a shift and my back felt like it was about to be thrown out (it had been before and took months of recovery, so I knew what it felt like). I knew that this wasn't sustainable physically and that my only chance of keeping it up would be to ask to have my hours cut back to a reasonable amount." But the response to the employee's request was a bump to full-time hours, which, with the expected overtime, would have translated to between fifty and sixty hours per week.
That did it. "I quit. ... I did nothing but solid consistent work for them, was perfectly punctual and dressed professionally for every shift, followed every guideline I could, and was ignored, taken advantage of and treated as an expendable resource," the employee says. "All I wanted to do was help, not put my health at serious risk and endanger other people. It was made evident that they weren't concerned for our health and didn't value the sacrifices we made to keep the place afloat."
The unfortunate lesson this employee learned while working at the Ninth and Corona King Soopers: "Don't try to help. It won't be appreciated, you might get people killed, you'll probably be infected."