By Ashley Orona
BOYLE HEIGHTS — Food 4 Less workers have launched a campaign Nov. 17 demanding better wages and safer working conditions as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
Grocery workers and their allies rallied outside of a Food 4 Less in Boyle Heights announcing their demands for a new union workers’ contract, after their current one expires next March. The workers, who are represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, are demanding that Food 4 Less ensure safety protections for workers, both in general and as COVID-19 cases spike while workers engage with larger crowds during the holiday season.
Food 4 Less workers are asking for hazard pay, sufficient work hours, greater workplace safety protections, respect on the job and opportunities for advancement ahead of contract negotiations beginning in January.
Grocery store workers are important figures in the battle against COVID-19, providing people with food, hygiene and other supplies, yet they are among one of the sectors most vulnerable to contracting the virus, according to the union.
“Our members are putting themselves, their lives, their health [and] the health of their families at risk everyday to go to work and you know they deserve a safe place to work,” said Kathy Finn, secretary and treasurer for UFCW Local 770. “The safety protocols have not been followed consistently, particularly at our Food 4 Less stores where the infection rate is higher than at any other of our grocery stores.”
Food 4 Less Corporate Affairs Director Vanessa Rosales said in a written statement that the company values its workers’ safety.
“Our most urgent priority throughout this pandemic has been to provide a safe environment for our associates and customers while meeting our societal obligation to provide open stores, ecommerce solutions and an efficiently operating supply chain so that our communities have access to fresh, affordable food and essentials.”
The campaign launch took place at the Boyle Heights Food 4 Less on 1st Street, one of the busiest Food 4 Less stores in Los Angeles, according to Finn. The majority of Food 4 Less workers are people of color that serve and live in communities of color like Boyle Heights and are not only afraid of becoming infected, but of passing the virus onto their families.
More than 2,000 UFCW 770 members have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic started, according to a counter on the union’s website. Many workers have been hospitalized, experienced long-term effects and have even died, Finn said.
Los Angeles County is in the middle of a coronavirus surge, with almost 14,000 positive cases reported Dec. 11. Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately affected throughout the pandemic, largely in part because many work in essential jobs that require them to leave home and engage with the public.
Despite a 15.8% increase in sales, Food 4 Less’ parent company, Kroger, eliminated hazard pay for workers in May, Finn said. Some Food 4 Less stores have also failed to fully enforce basic workplace protections to keep workers and customers safe, including basic crowd control, requiring customers to wear masks and providing adequate staff and time to properly clean work stations, carts and wash hands.
Rosales from Food 4 Less’ response did not address these issues directly, but reiterated that management values its employees.
“We are proud of our dedicated associates who are on the front lines, serving our customers when they need us most,” she said.
The union has been teaching workers to understand their rights and COVID-19 safety requirements. Still, even if they know their rights, workers are often afraid that managers will retaliate if they request to bring up the protocols. Enforcement agencies have been slow in responding to complaints.
“To some extent our members are afraid to insist on their own safety because they are worried that their manager is going to cut their hours or is going to yell at them,” Finn said. “They are fearful because this is their job, this is their income, this is how they support their families.”
Ashley Orona is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers the East Los Angeles area. She can be reached at Oronash@gmail.com.