By Scott Schaefer

Sharelle Claiborne has been an essential worker in the Deli of the Burien Fred Meyer for the last two years, slicing meats and providing assorted food items to dozens of customers per day for $17.50 per hour.

Last week, she tested positive for COVID-19, along with her Mom, a 55-year old immunocompromised two-time breast cancer survivor who works in the Home Department at the same store. Both she and her Mom have been quarantining at home together since.

UFCW 21, the union that represents over 46,000 workers retail and grocery workers, says that 10 employees at this store have tested positive, which it says that Fred Meyer has confirmed. Fred Meyer management did not respond to our multiple requests for further comment, but has posted this on its website:

“Fred Meyer’s most urgent priority during the COVID-19 pandemic has been to provide a safe environment for associates and customers with open stores, ecommerce solutions and an efficiently operating supply chain so that our communities have access to fresh, affordable food and essentials.”

Kroger says that they have installed protective plexiglass barriers, increased cleaning and disinfecting, encouraged physical distancing, required face masks, reduced customer capacity and more.

However, Claiborne told The B-Town Blog on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020 that she thinks there may now be up to 15 Burien employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, and that she no longer feels safe working at that store. Despite signage and state requirements, mask use is not fully enforced, she said.

She adds that the store also has a policy that workers cannot refuse service to someone.

“If I refuse to help someone I could lose my job,” she said. “That includes customers not wearing masks.”

We have been told by additional multiple employees that this store may not have a sufficient number of cleaners to sanitize the store anymore, that they don’t do sufficient, regular cart cleaning, count/enforce the current 25 percent store capacity, enforce mask wearing, or even have one-way, directed aisles like other stores have. When an employee is infected, store management informs others, but they don’t provide names, just departments. The most recent cases have reportedly been in deli, meat, home and grocery.

“I would like to see (professional) cleaning crews coming in, not just workers who were taught to spray sanitizer bottles and not wipe it down and walk away,” Claiborne said.

Claiborne also doesn’t think management cares enough about employees who are suffering from the recent outbreak at the store, and that she may lose her job for speaking out.

“For management to tell us that people got it (COVID-19) somewhere other than at the store is a bunch of crap to me,” she said. “I don’t trust them. I’m doing what I can to keep me and my family safe, and am worried to go back to work and deal with people who don’t care about me. It’s just profits over lives, and they don’t agree that we work hard, even though we run the store – not management – helping customers … and in the end, our lives don’t matter.”

UFCW 21 says that early in the COVID-19 pandemic, there appeared to be a willingness by grocery store chains to better prioritize safety with the looming pandemic and change the way of doing business.

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“Workers’ wages were raised by $2/hour which at least helped a little to make people working in the store feel a bit more appreciated,” union leaders said. “Increased staff was scheduled to handle the additional work of sanitization, cleaning carts, wiping down check-out stands as well as to allow for workers to rest, take more frequent breaks and wash hands more often. Even with those changes, serious problems persisted with dire consequences as members got worn out and some contracted COVID 19.”

The $2/hour raise was soon cut though, and UCFW 21 adds that the grocery chain has responded to their requests at the corporate level, but union leaders wants to see changes at the local level.

“The holiday season has always been hard for grocery store workers,” said Faye Guenther, President of UFCW 21, who lives in Burien. “And now we face the most hazardous winter in our nation’s history. Our grocery store workers and all essential workers are showing up. They show up in ice storms, they show up in snow storms, they show up when there’s fires, and they’ve shown up since day one of this pandemic, a pandemic that’s taken at least 290,000 lives.”

UFCW 21 says that, by early summer, even as social restrictions were eased and more people were shopping, it had become clear that as grocery store sales were increasing, as revenues and profits went up, and as stockholder dividend pay outs were made, the grocery store chains’ practices to protect workers and shoppers has “slipped backward”:

    • Workers’ pay was cut by $2/hour
    • Workers reported fewer staff to cover shifts
    • Mask requirement orders were not strictly enforced by management
    • Lax enforcement of standards to limit the number of shoppers in the store is resulting in crowded stores and insufficient social distancing
    • Reduced cleaning and other practices that would help clean and disinfect stores
    • Recently, the problems have only gotten worse.

Claiborne says she would not feel safe shopping at the Burien Fred Meyer.

“I work there, and I shopped there…but if I was to know about all these cases at this store I would not feel safe shopping there,” she said.