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After coronavirus outbreak at Ralphs in Hollywood, chain will test all workers with symptoms

Ralphs grocery store
Carts block the entrance to the parking lot of Ralphs in Hollywood on Friday as store workers, UFCW 770 representatives and community members hold a rally.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Amid an outbreak at one of its stores in Southern California, the largest U.S. grocery chain has announced it will provide free coronavirus testing for all its frontline associates who have symptoms or medical needs that make them eligible for testing under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kroger, which operates multiple supermarket chains, including Kroger, Ralphs and Food 4 Less, said Monday it will begin offering the testing this month through its healthcare division, Kroger Health. The tests will be provided through a combination of self-administered kits and public drive-through sites, the company said.

“The resilience of the Kroger family is unparalleled, and we’re doing all we can to keep our team healthy and safe,” Colleen Lindholz, president of Kroger Health, said in a statement. “The widespread availability of diagnostic testing will now allow our associates to feel more empowered and knowledgeable about their health, creating safer stores and facilities.”

The company did not immediately respond to questions about how many employees are considered frontline associates and how many will be tested as a result of the announcement.

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Kroger also has supplied masks to all associates, stepped up cleanings, installed plexiglass partitions at checkout lanes and reduced customer capacity limits, according to the release.

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The announcement comes as an outbreak at a Ralphs in Hollywood marks the largest cluster of infections at a retail store recorded by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Of the Sunset Boulevard store’s 158 employees, 21 have tested positive for the virus, John Votava, spokesman for the grocery chain, said Monday. They’ve been self-quarantining since April 21, he said.

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The store was closed early for deep cleaning and sanitizing by a CDC-approved third party on April 15, 21 and 30, Votava said. The company has also instituted mandatory pre-shift temperature and symptom checks for employees at that location, he said.

“With regular visits from the Los Angeles County Health Department, we’ve affirmed that our processes continue to live up to our high safety standards in protecting our more than 20,000 associates and the millions of customers that visit our 188 stores each week,” Votava said in an email.

Rae Campos, 51, who has worked as a cashier at the Hollywood Ralphs for over a year, said she thinks the store should shut down for a full 24 hours.

“We would like for it to be sterilized and cleaned out so that we don’t have to be afraid anymore to go to work, because it’s a scary time,” she said.

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She said the store began doing temperature checks in mid-April but could not provide enough gloves or masks for employees to wear new ones each shift. She would often take her mask home and spray it with Lysol so she could use it the next day, she said.

Campos took a leave of absence on April 16, when between 15 and 17 of her coworkers had tested positive, she said. She lives with her mother and stepfather, who have compromised immune systems, and she worried she could bring the virus home.

“I love everybody in the store,” she said. “They’re like a family, and I really really hated going out, but they were not taking care of us.”

In addition to making sure that employees have enough supplies, she’d like to see the store do more to reduce crowding. She said that on one occasion, she had to direct security to close the doors because there were too many customers.

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Kroger has increased its investment in personal protective equipment, and employees at the Hollywood Ralphs are currently being supplied with a pair of gloves and a face covering for each shift, Votava said. The store also has limited its customer capacity to 25% of normal, allowing for one person for every 180 feet of store space, he said.

Ahead of the testing announcement, Campos and other employees protested Friday outside the Hollywood Ralphs in a May Day rally organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, which represents more than 20,000 grocery workers in Southern California. They called on the company to do more to protect associates by providing testing and instituting a response protocol for positive results.

John Grant, president of UFCW Local 770, said Monday in a statement that Kroger’s decision to test employees was “a significant victory” for the union but that the company had yet to provide specific details on how the strategy would work.

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“Without that information, we can’t properly assess their plan,” Grant said. “We are glad they are listening to workers and taking steps to protect everyone in the stores. We will continue to work to ensure that testing will be quick, accurate and cost-free for UFCW members.”

In addition to testing, the union is calling for a 24-hour closure for deep cleaning each time an employee tests positive, a protocol following a positive test that includes notifying affected workers and evaluating whom to quarantine, and a joint labor-management health and safety committee in each store.

“At Ralphs, our associates are like family,” Votava said. “We are in communication with our associates that have tested positive to assist in their needs.”


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