This story has been updated with a statement from Kroger.
On the eve of a high-volume weekend for supermarket sales, a Kroger warehouse employee in Memphis tested positive for COVID-19, Kroger confirmed Thursday.
The case is at least the third at the site, which supplies around 100 grocery stores in the Mid-South. The news follows by less than a week Kroger’s decision to end hazard pay for its front-line workers.
Barry Brown, the workers’ Teamsters liaison to the company, said he was alerted by Kroger management about the infected employee Thursday. Brown represents full-time workers at the warehouse, which currently moves approximately 240,000 cases of grocery and supplies per day.
The individual who tested positive had not been in the facility since May 5, said Kroger spokesperson Teresa Dickerson.
“The associate will continue to remain in quarantine and we wish them a speedy recovery,” she said, adding that two prior employees to test positive have made full recoveries.
According to a New England Journal of Medicine study on the coronavirus’ ability to linger on surfaces, COVID-19 can last on cardboard for 24 hours.
Kroger learned about the test result by email today, Dickerson said.
Brown, the workers’ Teamsters rep, said he is recommending testing to all workers.
The employee worked on the night shift, he said, in a space too small for social distancing. A former warehouse worker of 15 years, Brown added that he also learned the employee took lunch in a locker room that is rarely cleaned.
After the first case at the distribution center was disclosed in March, the company announced a new cleaning plan which Kroger said included the “routine sanitation” of all common areas.
Dickerson said safety is a top priority. “The Distribution Center continues to clean and sanitize daily,” she said. Dickerson did not address questions regarding the cleaning of the employee locker-room and whether operations will pause.
“Social distancing, that’s not happening,” said Brown who was last on-site May 19. “Everybody works together, everybody talks together. I know he or she was in contact with someone. Everybody close to each other, no matter what,” he said of warehouse operations.
“It’s the culture and it’s management,” said Brown, who thinks the company needs to mandate and enforce social distancing.
“I know I gotta protect my guys. But I’m trying to protect their lives right now,” Brown said.
Quotas and crowding
Less than a week before the latest disclosure, two current warehouse workers raised concerns about the re-introduction of a quota system they say further discourages social distancing and crowding they say has taken place with new hires.
“People’s lives in jeopardy,” said Maurice Wiggins, a 30-year-old father of two, forklift driver and union steward.
Wiggins said he thinks the company’s approach to stopping and starting quotas and hazard pay and bonuses doesn’t reflect the risk of exposure he says workers continue to face.
“They really think it’s a game. But now a guy tests positive. Now what? It’s not a game,” Wiggins said.
As of May 15, fewer than ten Kroger employees nationally have died due to the coronavirus, according to the company’s national spokesperson Kristal Howard. The company also said it did not know the official cause of a recent death of a Kroger worker in Murfreesboro and that there have been no fatal cases in the separate Delta Division, which is headquartered in Memphis, as of May 15.
On its decision to end hazard pay, Kroger highlighted 100,000 new hires and a $700 million investment in associate rewards, safety precautions and community testing it has made, in a statement that promised ongoing listening and responsiveness to workers’ needs.
“We are committed to the continued support of our associates’ safety and mental well-being,” the company said in a prior statement.
Under the quota system, workers are disciplined if they do not meet the time allotted to fulfill an order 95% of the time. Those times were devised before the pandemic, according to Brown, and do not allow extra time needed for workers to be in spaces smaller than six feet one at a time.
Disciplinary letters went out as recently as last night, he said.
Brown said he would rather see the enforcement of practices that will keep workers safe. In the meanwhile, it will be up to workers to do it themselves, he said.
“We have to hold ourselves accountable as well, to try the social distancing, even though we know the company want to give out progressive discipline letters for production or whatever. But this is our lives,” Brown said.
Sarah Macaraeg is an award-winning journalist who writes investigations, features and the occasional news story for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 901-529-2889 or on Twitter @seramak.
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