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L.A.-area Ralphs and Food 4 Less stores fined for coronavirus violations

Suhauna Hussain
·4 mins read
Kroger, owner of Ralphs and other chains, announced a hiring spree Friday.
Cal/OSHA cited four Ralphs stores and one Food 4 Less for failing to protect workers from exposure to coronavirus because they did not update safety plans to properly address hazards. (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

A state agency responsible for protecting the health and safety of workers hit five grocery stores in Los Angeles and Culver City with coronavirus-related citations, it announced Wednesday.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, found that a Ralphs in Culver City as well as one in Sherman Oaks each failed to report a worker's death from COVID-19. A Food 4 Less store allowed too many customers inside, preventing workers from maintaining a recommended six feet of physical distance and putting them at risk for serious illness, the agency said.

In total, four Ralphs stores and one Food 4 Less received citations Sept. 24 for failing to protect workers from exposure to the coronavirus because they did not update their workplace safety plans to properly address hazards, according to a statement by California's Department of Industrial Relations.

A Ralphs in Studio City did not install plexiglass barriers between employees and customers in the cheese department. A West Hollywood Ralphs failed to install similar barriers at eight registers. Several locations failed to provide training for their employees on how the virus spreads, how to identify signs and symptoms, and measures to avoid infection.

All five grocery stores cited are owned and operated by Kroger. Cal/OSHA has proposed a total of $104,380 in penalties. The citations were based on inspections conducted over the course of several months beginning in May.

“Grocery retail workers are on the front lines and face a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19,” Cal/OSHA Chief Doug Parker said in a statement. “Employers in this industry must investigate possible causes of employee illness and put in place the necessary measures to protect their staff.”

Kroger disputed the violations, saying they constitute a "misrepresentation of the facts." The Cincinnati company plans to appeal Cal/OSHA's decision.

"Many of the citations date back to the early onset of the coronavirus pandemic, before Cal/OSHA even provided guidelines for worker safety," Kroger spokeswoman Vanessa Rosales said in an email. "To be clear, the safety of our associates and customers is our top priority. Since March, we have proactively invested more than $1 billion to both reward our associates and to safeguard them and our customers through the implementation of dozens of safety measures. The company’s total COVID-19 incident rate continues to track meaningfully below the rate in the surrounding communities where we operate."

In May grocery workers filed complaints through UFCW Local 770, according to a statement by the union. The union said Jackie Mayoral, a worker at a Ralphs on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, was infected with the coronavirus in April and pushed for more safety measures inside the store.

More than 20 of the 158 employees at that location tested positive for the coronavirus. After the outbreak, Kroger said it would offer testing for its frontline workers.

Rachel Campos, an employee at the store, said she became concerned about store conditions back in April. The store was crowded and the company wasn't providing workers with personal protective equipment such as masks or enough cleaning materials to wipe down shopping carts and other surfaces, she said.

In mid-April Campos, 52, called local public health authorities to report the issues but said she was told the department could not do anything immediately to address her concerns. Campos stopped going to work that month and hasn't returned because she's worried about her elderly parents' safety.

"I’m actually really glad [Ralphs was] cited. Maybe this will make them understand that this is serious — this is very important," Campos said.

UFCW Local 770 representative Kathy Finn said workers have described Ralphs and Food 4 Less stores as notably lax in enforcing coronavirus safety measures, among grocers that are unionized in the region.

Stores with deaths or large outbreaks get pegged as hotbeds of infections, but nonunion stores that may have even fewer safety measures in place might be flying under the radar because there is less information available and employees are less likely to speak up because they fear for their jobs, Finn said.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors recently passed a motion to consider creating public health councils composed of workers who would report noncompliance. Such councils might provide a more prompt and secure way for employees to get their concerns addressed, Finn said.

Grocers aren't the only companies receiving coronavirus-related citations. In early September, Cal/OSHA saddled an L.A. company with its largest fine to date for coronavirus health violations, announcing more than $200,000 in penalties each for frozen food manufacturer Overhill Farms and its temporary employment agency.

The agency issued its first fines for coronavirus safety violations Aug. 25.

For the record:
1:02 PM, Oct. 08, 2020: An earlier version of this story stated that Cal/OSHA issued the first citations for COVID-19-related violations Sept. 4. The first citations were issued on Aug. 25.


This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.