By The Washington Post · Nicole Dungca, Jenn Abelson, Abha Bhattarai, Meryl Kornfield · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, HEALTH
Local health officials grew alarmed as employees and their relatives reported sick co-workers. Shoppers called to complain about crowded conditions.
"We have had consistent problems with Walmart," wrote Ruth Jones, Quincy's health commissioner, in an April 28 email to the Massachusetts attorney general's office. "They have a cluster of Covid cases among employees and have not been cooperative in giving us contact information or in following proper quarantine and isolation guidelines."
The next day, at another Walmart in Worcester, Massachusetts, a local public health director ordered a shutdown after obtaining an internal company list showing nearly two dozen employees had tested positive.
Health officials in the two cities pressed the nation's largest grocer to test all of its employees at the two stores for coronavirus. The screenings, which began within days in the store parking lots, helped confirm a wider problem: 119 of the workers were infected, according to health officials.
Despite the pandemic, grocery stores generally are not required to publicly disclose cases of coronavirus involving employees or report them to the local health departments. As states now move to reopen, many grocers are being criticized by health officials, lawmakers and store employees for not being more open with the public and their own workers about outbreaks within their stores.
The Washington Post interviewed about 40 current and former employees at more than 30 supermarkets who alleged that the companies had not disclosed cases of infected or dead workers, retaliated against employees who raised safety concerns and used faulty equipment to implement coronavirus mitigation measures.
The $800 billion grocery industry - dominated by a handful of major players, including Walmart, Kroger and Albertsons - employs more than three million people in what are typically low-paying positions with little job security.
Amid the pandemic, the country's nearly 40,000 grocery stores have been classified by officials as essential businesses that must remain open, putting the stores at the front lines of the crisis. Grocery stores, one place most consumers cannot avoid during the pandemic, have reported double-digit growth in sales in recent months.
At least 100 grocery workers nationwide have died from the virus since late March, and at least 5,500 others have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a Post review of data from the nation's largest grocery workers union, other workers' rights coalitions and media reports.
Many local health officials told The Post they have been left in the dark as clusters of cases have emerged in supermarkets coast to coast.
"We really need to have better communication. There's got to be something moving forward ... that changes the current process," said Karyn Clark, Worcester's public health director. Clark said a nurse had to call the local Walmart several times before the company shared its internal list of infected employees.
In interviews, supermarket chains defended their efforts to protect workers and the public, saying they have required masks for employees, encouraged social distancing and rewarded workers with hazard pay and bonuses. Some grocers said they have collaborated with health departments across the country to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
"Our associates are playing a critical role in helping people have access to fresh food, medicine and critical supplies during this crisis, and their safety is our highest priority," said Lorenzo Lopez, a Walmart spokesman. "In areas experiencing community-wide outbreaks like Quincy and Worcester, our associates also felt the impact as members of those communities. We work closely with public health and medical experts and follow their guidance in implementing safety and health measures for our associates and customers."
Supermarket chains said they are being transparent about outbreaks while protecting the privacy of affected workers, which is governed by a patchwork of laws and regulatory measures.
All of the grocers contacted by The Post - Walmart, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods Market, Target, Kroger, BJ's Wholesale Club and Lidl - declined to provide the number of workers who tested positive for the coronavirus or died from it. Combined, those employers account for roughly 11,300 stores and 2.4 million employees nationwide.
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 900,000 workers at major chains, including Kroger, Safeway and Giant, has called on the companies to be more forthcoming to protect workers and customers in an industry that has remained a lifeline for households after states shut down most nonessential businesses for the pandemic.
Over the past five weeks, the union said the number of its grocery workers who have been infected or exposed to the virus jumped from 1,557 to 10,453.
"While some companies are doing the right thing and keeping shoppers and employees informed, there are still some keeping consumers in the dark and trying to sweep this information under the rug," union president Marc Perrone said.
Many grocery workers told The Post that despite social distancing measures, they often share break rooms, bathrooms and devices for clocking in and out of their shifts. One sick employee, public health experts said, can potentially expose hundreds of colleagues and shoppers each day.
Local government health officials, whose job is to track and notify the public of disease outbreaks, said they have been hamstrung by many supermarkets responding slowly to their pleas for information about employees who are infected with the coronavirus or may have been exposed to it.
In Quincy, the health department first contacted the local Walmart on April 11 to inform the store of an employee it learned had tested positive for the coronavirus. Jones, the health director, said they asked the company repeatedly for the names and contact information for employees who worked closely with the infected employee so they could identify and inform other workers who may have been exposed.
In the meantime, the health department kept learning of new cases among store employees and the number of potentially exposed employees mushroomed.
After receiving no information for nearly two weeks, Jones escalated her request to the Walmart corporate office.
Finally, on April 28, Walmart provided contact information for employees at the Quincy store who had been exposed to the virus, Jones said. Five days later, 69-year-old Yok Yen Lee, the greeter at the store, died from covid-19, her family said.
Under pressure from the health department, Walmart then closed the store for a week, cleaned it and offered testing to every worker. In all, 34 employees at that location tested positive. In Worcester, more than 80 employees were infected, health officials said.
Troubled by Walmart's response in Quincy and Worcester, lawmakers sent a letter on May 7 to Doug McMillon, the company's president and chief executive.
"Across the country, more than 20 Walmart employees have died from COVID-19, and employees have had to take the critical work of contact tracing into their own hands to try and remain safe," the delegation, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wrote in the letter.
In a May 19 response to lawmakers, Bruce C. Harris, a Walmart vice president of federal government affairs, wrote that managers are required to meet with associates to let them know about each positive case, and that they are monitoring the number of employees taking leave.
"We are managing thousands of different, and sometimes conflicting, emergency orders and directives," Harris wrote.
In Los Angeles, a Ralph's supermarket employee, Jackie Mayoral, said managers instructed workers not to talk about sick colleagues around customers and that managers also refused to disclose how many employees were infected. It was only through the union that Mayoral learned more than 20 of her colleagues at the supermarket, owned by Kroger, had tested positive for the virus.
"Me and my co-workers are a family, and we should be able to talk about the things that are going to be able to affect us and possibly kill us," said Mayoral, who was diagnosed with covid-19 in April and believes she contracted the virus at the supermarket, the only place she regularly visits outside of her home. She has since recovered.
Asked about the directives to avoid speaking about cases, Kristal Howard, a Kroger spokeswoman, said the company's guidance "is always to communicate with integrity - openly and transparently - while protecting the privacy of any affected associate."
Employment attorneys said companies must balance protecting employee privacy with keeping workplaces safe.
"We're dealing with overlapping laws, gaps in laws and differing guidance from different levels of government," said Kirk Nahra, an attorney at the law firm WilmerHale who specializes in privacy, data and health-care issues. "Companies are not supposed to disclose your name, but can they tell other employees in the meat department that someone who worked there Tuesday tested positive? Sure."
Industry experts said the pandemic has left some supermarket chains struggling with what information should be shared with regulators or the public about sick and exposed employees.
Grocery companies are facing unprecedented challenges when an employee falls ill or dies, according to Hilary Thesmar, chief food and product safety officer for the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group for grocery stores and wholesalers.
"Companies are having to weigh a lot of factors: When did the employee test positive? When were they last at work?" she said.
But Oscar Alleyne, chief of programs and services at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said that retailers need to be more transparent with public health officials in order to protect these high-risk essential workers and the public.
"You're only as good as the data you have," Alleyne said.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees workplace safety, issued guidance in April that coronavirus cases were reportable to the agency under certain circumstances. But the agency said it generally wouldn't enforce the rules except for employers in the health-care industry, emergency response organizations and correctional institutions.
New workplace safety guidance from OSHA that goes into effect Tuesday asks most industries to report coronavirus cases that meet certain criteria. But employment experts say it's murky and allows employers to decide whether the cases are work-related.
In the absence of data, UFCW has compiled daily reports on infected employees from its local chapters. Employees at chains, including Walmart and Whole Foods, have started their own grassroots efforts to tally illnesses and deaths at their stores, using social media and published reports to confirm tips. (Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, which owns Whole Foods, owns The Washington Post.)
During the outbreak, Whole Foods, which has about 500 stores in the United States, began sending voice mail and text messages to employees to notify them of coronavirus cases in their stores. But some officials are pushing for more disclosure. On May 11, attorneys general from 12 states and the District of Columbia wrote to Whole Foods and Amazon, admonishing the companies for failing to alert health officials and the public about infections and deaths of their workers.
The attorneys general said they learned from media reports of multiple infections among workers at a Whole Foods in the District and of two employee deaths in Portland, Oregon, and Swampscott, Massachusetts.
By not sharing a breakdown of coronavirus cases, the retailers may be breaching consumer protection laws, which "require businesses to provide truthful information and disclose material information to consumers," the letter said.
Whole Foods has not responded to the letter, but a company spokeswoman said the chain is balancing the essential services it provides with ensuring the "health, safety and privacy" of their workers.
Grocery chains have publicly touted face masks, social distancing requirements, rigorous cleaning and temperature checks as proof that they are keeping workers and customers as safe as possible.
Two grocery chains have used faulty or ineffective equipment, according to documents and interviews.
The Kroger-owned Quality Food Centers chain uses infrared sensors to count the number of shoppers in its stores as a way to limit customers and facilitate social distancing. But the technology routinely provided false tallies, according to internal company documents obtained by The Post.
"Once a person is inside for 30 minutes, the system assumes that individual is an associate and stops counting that person," QFC President Chris Albi said in a Q&A with employees of the chain, which has 62 stores in Washington and Oregon.
A Kroger spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions about any problems with the system but said management regularly verifies the capacity limits within the store.
At BJ's Wholesale Club in Baltimore, a manager said the thermometers were not calibrated properly and the temperature readings of employees consistently reported 96 or 97 degrees. The manager said a supervisor also brushed off concerns about the lack of social distancing by employees who examined customers' receipts as they left the warehouse.
"It is appalling conduct and a policy that is putting us all in danger," said the manager, who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation. "I would quit in protest, but I worry that without me, it's one more person in a leadership role who is not taking this seriously."
A BJ's spokeswoman said since the coronavirus outbreak, the company has "taken aggressive actions and implemented extensive safety and sanitation measures across all our facilities; and we always encourage our team members to provide feedback and voice concerns."
Even when employees have reported feeling sick, some said that their managers have insisted that they continue to work because of staffing shortages.
Gladys Cortes, who worked at the Best Market supermarket in Islip, New York, told her manager in late March that she wasn't feeling well and had a bad cough, but her boss wouldn't allow her to leave early and said she needed to be back the next day, according to Noemi Salavarria, a former colleague who said she talked with Cortes when she was hospitalized days later with covid-19. Two other workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation, said they had heard Cortes talking in the store about how she felt sick and needed a break.
Cortes, a single mother of a young child, died on April 9 of complications from covid-19.
"If they would have let her go home, she could still be alive," Salavarria said. "She didn't deserve this."
After Cortes died, management sent out a letter to employees that noted "the passing of one of our colleagues." It made no mention of her name or how she had died.
LatinoJustice, a nonprofit legal defense fund, documented concerns about Cortes and employees at other supermarkets in an April 30 letter to the chief executive of Lidl US, a chain that owns Best Market and has about 100 stores in the U.S.
After receiving no response, LatinoJustice said it filed a complaint on May 12 with the New York state attorney general.
William Harwood, a Lidl spokesman, said the company had "no reports indicating that she was sick while working. Our policy is clear that employees who are sick should stay home."
Marian Meszaros, a 63-year-old employee at the Best Market supermarket in Long Island's Franklin Square in New York, said she believes a manager waited more than a week to inform her in late April that her co-worker in the cramped meat department had tested positive for the coronavirus.
She said the human resources manager offered her five days of paid leave, saying that it was sufficient time off because she had been exposed over a week ago and wasn't showing symptoms. Meszaros said she believes the manager delayed informing her because the store had been so short-staffed, and she worried she could still get sick and infect her co-workers.
"I have nightmares about this," Meszaros said. "No one in the store feels safe."
The supermarket chain in March had announced a new pandemic-related policy that provides 14 days of paid leave to workers who test positive for the coronavirus, as well as paid leave for colleagues who came into close contact with them.
Harwood said the Islip store immediately contacted Meszaros when it learned of the infected employee, and she was given five days off because it had been nine days since they had been in contact at the supermarket. The human resources team called Meszaros to ensure she had no symptoms prior to returning to work, Harwood said.
"We are taking significant steps to protect the health and safety of our team members during this public health emergency," Harwood said.
As infections have spread within supermarkets, employees at two national chains said that stores retaliated against them for speaking up about safety or discussing sick colleagues.
When a Target manager informed Michael Branss in late April that a co-worker in Palatine, Illinois, had tested positive for the coronavirus, Branss said the manager also told him not to talk about the case.
A longtime employee, Branss worked in the back of the store where employees were in close proximity as they unloaded incoming merchandise.
Frustrated by the lack of information about the department where the infected employee had worked, Branss said he called several colleagues and advised them to bring their own masks because the store didn't always have enough. After noticing a missing co-worker, he and fellow employees discussed whether they had been exposed.
A few hours later, Branss said he was called into the human resources office and reprimanded for talking about the sick employee. He was told the store was concerned about following federal privacy laws.
Fearing retaliation, he said he denied talking about the case. About 2 1/2 weeks later, Branss said Target fired him for refusing to answer questions for the store's investigation of potential privacy violations.
"I didn't do anything wrong. These are my friends, and I want them to be safe and healthy," he said. "They punished me for trying to gather information to make a personal safety plan for myself."
A Target spokeswoman, Danielle Schumann, said Branss was terminated "for conduct reasons unrelated to these claims" but provided no details.
In a Target store in Riverdale, New Jersey, employee Mary Jo Kalchthaler said workers are informed of their colleagues' illnesses and deaths but are told not to discuss the cases publicly.
"Every store that I know of has had cases of covid-19, but they don't want to spook people," said Kalchthaler, who took a leave of absence in early May because she felt unsafe at work. "There are still people who think Target, Walmart and other food stores are magical kingdoms where everything is sterile and nobody has ever gotten sick, and that's what they want people to keep thinking."
Target did not respond to questions about allegations that employees were told not to discuss coronavirus cases. But Schumann said, "while being transparent, we're also careful to keep team member privacy from being compromised."
Some workers alleged they have been disciplined simply for raising safety concerns.
In early March, Kris King took two weeks off from his job at a Trader Joe's in Louisville after coming down with a cough, fever and sore throat.
King said he created a private Facebook group for his colleagues to discuss frustrations with the store's handling of the pandemic and to come up with recommendations to keep them safe. After he returned to work, a manager on March 21 confronted King about the Facebook messages and repeatedly encouraged him to quit, according to a lawsuit King has since filed against Trader Joe's.
"He said, 'If you don't feel safe here, we can end this right now,' " King recalled in an interview.
A week later, King was terminated. Trader Joe's cited multiple reasons, including the creation of the Facebook group, according to King.
"The safety of the people I work with is the most important thing and that workers in this situation are able to be heard and have a voice," said King, a 37-year-old with four children. "And that's really just not happening."
Trader Joe's, which has 505 outlets nationwide and employs 50,000 people, has denied in court his claims, including that the supermarket "was not following appropriate safety measures" at the store.
"We have made it clear that Mr. King's employment at Trader Joe's did not end because of desire to set up a social media page or because he expressed concerns," said Kenya Friend-Daniel, a Trader Joe's spokeswoman. "I have been clear that ... for privacy reasons I am not at liberty to say more."
Jon Tenholder, a Trader Joe's employee at the same Louisville store, received a written disciplinary warning on May 10, roughly two weeks after Tenholder spoke with customers about the Kentucky governor's order that only one person per household at a time be permitted inside a grocery store.
Management accused Tenholder of making customers uncomfortable by saying they shouldn't be shopping together. Tenholder refused to sign the incident report and described it in a written rebuttal as "retaliation" for asserting that employees "deserve to be the central voice of our safety."
Friend-Daniel disputed Tenholder's account but declined to comment further citing privacy laws.
"We don't retaliate against people for sharing concerns or for trivial reasons," Friend-Daniel said.
Walmart, the nation's largest private employer, has touted its response to the pandemic from the start, including a policy that allowed its 1.5 million U.S. employees to take up to two weeks off if they were exposed to the coronavirus, and waived attendance policies for workers who felt uncomfortable or unable to work.
Shortly after the policy was announced on March 10, Kyle Quiros and his wife, Rebekkah, took jobs as temporary workers at a Walmart in Medina, Ohio. By mid-April, Kyle, who was born with one kidney and has other health problems, had a fever and was vomiting frequently. He said he tested negative for the coronavirus, but a physician recommended he stay home for two weeks.
Rebekkah also fell ill. When she returned to work, she said a supervisor informed her that she was being let go because she had called in sick too many times. A few days later, Kyle came back to work but was sent home because he had a temperature of about 100 degrees. He soon received a call saying his employment was over, despite several weeks left on his contract.
"It was unfair. I was fired because I was sick, even though they have a policy saying you wouldn't get fired," he said.
Lopez, the Walmart spokesman, said Rebekkah Quiros was terminated "for performance reasons unrelated to any request for time off due to the pandemic." He said he "had not been provided with enough information to substantiate" allegations made by Kyle Quiros.
Other Walmart employees also told The Post that workers fear calling in sick because they did not want to jeopardize their jobs.
"These claims are not consistent with the experiences of the more than 235,000 people recently employed by Walmart or the countless other associates that have been able to utilize our emergency leave policy to stay home and keep their jobs protected," Lopez said.
But in Quincy, days before Lee, the Walmart greeter, was rushed to the hospital on April 20, she told family and friends that she was worried she could lose her job because she was sick and needed time off, said her daughter, Elaine Eklund.
After Lee died, Walmart officials put out a statement saying the company was "mourning alongside their family." Since then, messages have streamed in from colleagues and longtime shoppers remembering the grandmother of two.
"I worried about her the last time I saw her in the store," one stranger said in a handwritten letter.