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In front of pictures of essential workers who died of COVID-19, Food 4 Less employees and protestors gathered outside the supermarket in LA’s Boyle Heights neighborhood last week to demand the company reinstitute hero pay and adopt better protections as cases spike across the state.

The request came as Gov. Gavin Newsom announced most of the state return to more restrictive measures amid an alarming rise in coronavirus cases. Last week, Los Angeles County reported 5,031 positive cases of COVID-19, the highest in a day since the summer.

Employees blame pandemic fatigue, noting how many people and businesses have started to lower their guard. Elizabeth Rodríguez, who worked at the Food 4 Less of Highland Park for almost 20 years, said months ago the store supervisors stopped limiting the number of people entering the store and removed the line sign outside to wait for the entry.

“This week they started doing the lines again but because they knew we were going to do this rally,” Rodríguez said, noting that she does not feel safe at work.

Workers turn in petition 

Rodriguez and other workers and activists walked inside the Food 4 Less in Boyle Heights to present a petition with their concerns to supervisors. The demands include reducing the number of people entering the stores, which can reduce spread especially with Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day around the coroner.

Workers said that while they put their lives at risk every day, Kroger, the parent company of Food 4 Less, reported a 15.8% increase in sales. During the month of April, workers received a raise known as hero pay but it only lasted one month.

The salary increase was due to working under dangerous conditions. However, even as the pandemic drags on, hero pay hasn’t come back.

 “Some of my colleagues are doing the work of two people, but (supervisors) don’t give them the full-time job. Many work only 34 or 36 hours,” Rodríguez said. That prevents them from qualifying for much-needed benefits such as health insurance.

Company: A priority on safety 

Vanessa Rosales, director of corporate affairs with Kroger, said the company prioritizes a safe environment for workers and customers. The company is dedicated to supporting associates who work the pandemic’s front line, serving customers when they need it most.

“Since March, we’ve invested over $1 billion to reward our associates … and safeguard our associates and customers,” Rosales said.

She added that the company continues to listen to workers’ concerns and would take additional steps to provide a safe workplace. This includes paid emergency leave and a $15 million Helping Hands fund, which provides financial support to associates experiencing hardship due to COVID-19, including childcare.

Workers demand return of hero pay

The workers’ contract with Food 4 Less will expire in March. The union is intensifying a “Fight 4 More” campaign pushing for better pay and protections, including hero pay, sufficient working hours, safer workplaces and opportunities for promotion. 

Kathy Finn, secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) Local 770, said more than 1,400 members have been infected with COVID-19.

“Many are still sick and struggling to recover, some have suffered permanent damage to their health,” Finn said. “There have been nine workers at this Food 4 Less in Boyle Heights who have been infected with COVID-19.”

Finn said that it is very sad to see the loss of young people due to the virus. At least five were members of Local 770 and many more immediate family members of the workers, including spouses, parents and children.

Workers emphasized that some Food 4 Less stores have not fully implemented basic protections in the workplace, such as ensuring that customers wear masks, providing staff enough time to disinfect workstations and shopping carts.

“Essential workers deserve better compensation, more protections and respect as they help feed our families and ensure that our communities continue to thrive,” said John Grant, president of UFCW 770.

Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter with La Opinión. This article is part of California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. She is based at La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles, where she has covered issues ranging...