A spokesperson for Kroger, the grocery giant that operates King Soopers and City Market stores in Colorado, recently insisted to Westword that the company is doing all it can to provide a safe environment for employees and customers, despite ten COVID-19 outbreaks identified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — by far the most associated with a single retailer in the state to date.
But according to Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, a union that represents more than 21,000 grocery workers at King Soopers, City Market, Albertsons and Safeway stores in Colorado, the situation is even more serious than the CDPHE's stats suggest. Based on information provided by members to UFCW Local 7, she says, workers for at least 21 King Soopers or City Market stores have come down with the novel coronavirus.
The CDPHE considers a facility an outbreak after two or more COVID-19 cases among residents, staffers or the like are confirmed within a fourteen-day period, or two or more cases of respiratory illness with an onset of symptoms within a fourteen-day period are paired with at least one additional COVID-19 diagnosis. But even at stores not officially designated as outbreaks, Cordova fears that the situation could further deteriorate as time goes on.
Kroger "has made statements that they want to pivot back to normal," Cordova says, and as a result, she claims, "they're starting to scale back on their safety interventions."
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Cordova doesn't give perfect marks to any of the retailers whose employees UFCW Local 7 represents. But she notes that Safeway installed plexiglass shields at checkout stands before King Soopers stores did, as well as directional floor markers to create one-way aisles — an approach now being used by some but definitely not all Kroger stores in Denver metro. Likewise, King Soopers was still defending its policy to make mask usage among employees optional on April 17, the same day Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order making facial coverings for grocery workers dealing with the public mandatory.
Seven King Soopers stores in metro Denver have been identified as outbreaks, including the iconic Ninth and Corona location, where the CDPHE counted thirteen positive COVID-19 cases among employees and two deaths. Cordova acknowledges that while this store was closed for a few hours to allow deep cleaning, the others on the outbreak list remained open, despite union complaints.
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In addition, Cordova charges Kroger with no longer limiting store capacity to 50 percent of normal — one person for every 120 square feet of store space. Instead of stationing an employee at the entrance and admitting customers on a one-in, one-out basis when stores are starting to get crowded, as was happening at King Soopers stores in April, "they're using these monitors called Que Vision," she points out. "They remind me of the lottery signs, and when they're over capacity, they turn from green to red — and if you go to stores in downtown Denver, they're red a lot of the time."
To Cordova, another sign that Kroger is putting profits over safety is the May end of so-called "hero" pay — a bump of $2 per hour for grocery workers because of the risks they took on the COVID-19 front lines. The decision to eliminate the bonus occurred around the same time that Kroger revealed its CEO, Rodney McMullen, had received a 21 percent compensation increase in 2019, bringing his pay to $14.5 million.
UFCW Local 7 attempted to draw attention to what Cordova sees as Kroger's safety deficiencies by staging a June 14 memorial for the three Colorado employees who have died from the virus to date; it's doing likewise on June 28 to honor the six Local 7 members at the JBS meat plant in Greeley to have succumbed to COVID-19 thus far.
"We don't want to lose any more workers," Cordova stresses. "This is a systemic problem, but they're trying to go back to normal. We've asked Kroger higher-ups to come out and declare the national emergency of the pandemic is over, and they won't do that. But they've pivoted back even though almost every single day we get multiple reports of positive cases."