Local grocery workers share their experiences working in the aisles during COVID-19

Photos and Story by Shanee Edwards

For grocery store workers across the country, checking out customers, stocking shelves with toilet paper and delivering your groceries have catapulted them to the front lines of the current pandemic. That can mean long stressful days dealing with impatient, jeopardous customers while implementing lots of changes quickly – often without any additional compensation.

In March, Instacart grocery delivery workers walked off the job to demand hand sanitizer and higher pay. Whole Foods workers organized a “sick-out” for hazard pay and paid sick leave. Trader Joe’s is in the midst of a labor fight. And on May 1, workers from Amazon, Instacart, Target, Walmart, FedEx and Whole Foods plan to take part in a national strike.

Meanwhile, grocery stores and local governments across the country have responded to the pandemic with new sanitation and public health protocols. This includes wiping down cash registers every 30 minutes, installing sneeze guards, encouraging customers to stay six feet apart and requiring workers to wear face coverings. Yet each interaction with a customer could put these essential workers at risk of being exposed to the coronavirus. Since last Wednesday, testing for COVID-19 in Los Angeles has been expanded to critical care workers, including grocery workers, whether they show symptoms or not.

Surprisingly, the mood of grocery workers we spoke with around West Los Angeles is generally optimistic. They take their jobs seriously and genuinely want to keep you safe, which is good to know as the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb across LA County.

While some workers do worry about their own health, those we spoke with expressed their relief to still be working, considering that 2.7 million Californians have filed for unemployment in the last month. However, every single worker had the same message for their customers: Please stay home. Here’s what else they had to say about their experiences.

Jose Ceja, Manager at Whole Foods, Playa Vista

Jose Ceja started working at the Whole Foods in West LA right after graduating from Venice High School — that was 14 years ago. Now, he’s the manager of the Whole Foods in Playa Vista. Since the Safer at Home order went into effect, he’s seen people behave in two extreme manners.

“Some people are overly courteous, thanking us and acknowledging our hard work. But sometimes, you do get those bad apples who are fussy and don’t want to wait in line or follow proper protocol for everybody’s safety,” he says.

When Ceja has to deal with people who don’t want to social distance properly, he says, “We try to make them understand that it’s not about them. It’s about other people.”

He says the first week of the crisis was the most difficult: “We were not prepared for the volume of people coming in here. It was chaotic. But now I feel like people are listening to the politicians and staying home. So we do have less people, but our delivery service [Amazon] Prime, has been backed up. We have a high volume of online orders.”

At the Playa Vista store, the temperatures of Amazon Prime delivery drivers are taken before allowing them to check out with your groceries. Overall, he says, “Everyone is in high spirits. We’re still working, so we’re grateful for that. We’re trying to stay pretty optimistic over here.”

Jose Torres, Team Member at Trader Joe’s, Marina del Rey

Jose Torres has been working at Trader Joe’s in the marina since the new store opened on Admiralty Way a year ago. Recently, though, he says workers have been going through some drastic changes beyond wearing masks and cleaning the registers every 30 minutes. “Once we close up the store at 7 p.m., there are about six or eight of us who are closers. We clean the whole store with our alcohol wipes and try to sanitize everything as best as possible,” says Torres.

Though he hasn’t worried too much about getting sick, he says, “I was more worried about the reactions I was seeing. Just to see everyone running around in the store that first week when the whole panic started happening. Everyone was shocked and scared – I took that home with me. I was kind of anxious.”

At first, he had a hard time grasping what was happening. “I didn’t process it until the second week, when we started making regulations. I thought, ‘Wow. Is this really happening?’ It was an intense week,” he says.

So far, Torres doesn’t know anyone who’s been infected with COVID-19 at the store or anywhere else: “I can tell everyone is trying to be as honest as possible in terms of the staff. We see each other as a family.”

His one piece of advice for getting those popular, hard-to-find items, is to call ahead and make a customer hold. “We weren’t doing it the first couple of weeks. Now, we’re leaning on that. We’ll hold the item as long as you need,” says Torres.

Al Holbrook, Temporary Worker at Gelson’s in Santa Monica

Considering live concerts are on hold possibly until 2021, blues and soul musician Al Holbrook decided to fill his empty tour schedule with a new job. Holbrook has been working at Gelson’s on Lincoln Boulevard for about a month, having been hired along with his girlfriend as a temporary worker. So far, he likes it. “We’re providing a solid service for the community – it feels great!,” he says.

Like all of us, Holbrook wants to go back to normal life as soon as possible and admits that he and his girlfriend try not to talk about work at home. “We have a swear jar for when we talk about work. I’ve messed up once, and so did she. There’s like a couple bucks in it right now,” he says with a laugh.

A song he wrote called “Amplify” sums up how he feels about life during the current pandemic. “The song is about amplifying the love and compassion. You see a lot of people coming through [the market] with compassion. That’s what we need,” he says.

But not everyone he’s interacted with offers up love: “Some people, well, they have their moments…” You can listen to “Amplify” at alholbrook.com.

Theresa Malis, Instacart, delivering from Ralphs in Culver City

When UCLA student Theresa Malis found herself with some free time after all her college classes moved online, she decided to pick up a job with Instacart. Though she’s not getting hazard pay, she says the tips have been good: “I think they feel – morally – like they should tip you more. I’ve been doing Postmates and DoorDash as well and nobody tips on those apps.”

Though she doesn’t worry about her own health, she does worry for the health of others: “We’re all supposed to be staying at home, but if other people can’t go out because they have health issues or are more susceptible, then I don’t mind being the person to get stuff for them.”

Malis says she’s going to continue with Instacart even after the pandemic subsides but understands there likely won’t be as much work. “Right now, you can [shop and drive for Instacart] all day,” she says, adding that she made over $800 her first week.

As a history major at UCLA, she says she thinks it’s pretty amazing to live through this “crazy” moment in time. “This has only ever happened in the 1920s with influenza, and that was the only thing that can compare. This is definitely going to change how we operate in society. People are going to realize they can do more stuff than they ever imagined online,” she says.

Amazon Fresh worker John D. says he’s not getting hazard pay from Amazon, but the tips do make him smile

John D., Amazon Fresh, delivering from Bristol Farms in Santa Monica

John D., (who didn’t want to reveal his last name in case Amazon Fresh didn’t want him talking about his job) says he enjoys delivering people’s groceries.
“I have a family, so I know how it is, especially with how crazy things are,”
he says.

Despite the craziness, he says everyone has been polite: “I understand why people order with us. Standing in a line [like the long line at Bristol Farms] is a pain. I have an autistic son, so it would be hard.”

John says he does worry about getting sick, but, “The area where I’m from, we have other things to worry about.” He currently lives in South Los Angeles but hopes to move out with his wife and son soon. He’s been working for Amazon Fresh for two months, turning to food delivery after losing his two valet parking gigs.

He’s not getting any hazard pay from Amazon, but says, “They do take care of me as far as compensation. People are helpful, too, with tips. The tips have been pretty generous, I can’t complain. I’m smiling behind this mask.”

Rolando Rodriguez, Cashier at Ralphs in Culver City

Rolando Rodriguez says the beginning of the Stay at Home order was the most hectic for Ralphs grocery store on Overland Avenue. “We lost a lot of paper towels, water and toilet paper the first week – we had to limit the amount of items for each person. After that we had to get people to calm down before they came in,” he says.

Rodriguez describes big groups of customers were trying to rush inside the store. He admits to feeling fearful at times: “I felt scared the week before Easter because we had a lot of people coming in trying to buy Easter stuff. It was the week the governor said not to go to the grocery store unless you need to. And everyone came, it was difficult.”

Though he’s not getting hazard pay, he’s getting “hero pay” which is $2 extra per hour and $3 extra on Sundays, in addition to a recent $250 bonus. But he really hopes people are only going to the grocery store when they absolutely need to. He says, “I’ve had nurses come up to me and say, ‘You are the first responders, before us.’”