Several employees at Safeway’s distribution center in Tracy have tested positive for the coronavirus, The Chronicle has learned. One worker died this week.
Pedro Zuniga, a longtime employee who worked at the distribution center, died this week of COVID-19, marking the second death of a grocery store worker in Northern California during the pandemic. The deaths highlight the growing plight of food workers, who are seeking additional protections.
“We were saddened to learn that an associate at our Tracy Distribution Center has passed away due to complications related to COVID-19,” Safeway said. “Our hearts are heavy, and our thoughts are with that associate’s family. This is difficult for the entire Safeway team.”
Several other employees have tested positive at the center, according to Local 439, a chapter of the Teamsters that represents truckers and warehouse workers there. It is unclear how many workers are affected.
The distribution center is the largest of its kind in the region, a cavernous supply hub that employs up to 2,000 workers, according to the city of Tracy. The center serves Safeway stores from Bakersfield all the way up to the Oregon border, and parts of Nevada.
Deemed essential services, most grocers have kept stores and warehouses open, with workers risking exposure to the coronavirus as they make sure shelves are stocked. Across the country, at least 30 grocery workers have died, according to the United Food and Commerical Workers, which represents 1.3 million grocery store workers. Industry-wide numbers could be higher.
Though distribution center workers don’t interact with customers like store workers do, an outbreak at a key facility could severely affect Safeway’s operations. Some customers on social media have complained about empty shelves and scarce produce.
Wendy Gutshall, a spokeswoman for Safeway, said in an email that the produce warehouse at the distribution center was running short on staff “for a variety of reasons” and required streamlining of its operations. She did not answer additional questions about the outbreak or the state of Safeway store supplies.
Zuniga’s family started a GoFundMe campaign Wednesday to help with funeral expenses and had raised more than $23,000 by noon Thursday. Safeway said it is trying to help the family.
Safeway said it is expanding safety precautions at the distribution center, including thermal temperature readings before workers enter the facility. They’re also asking workers to stay home if they have symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory disease the coronavirus causes, or have family members with symptoms.
A San Jose FoodMaxx was shut down for cleaning last month after an employee died from COVID-19. UFCW President Marc Perrone said this week that the union knows of at least 3,000 workers nationwide who are home sick after being exposed to the coronavirus.
Five thousand workers recently responded to a recent UFCW survey, with 96% of the members saying they were concerned about being exposed to the virus at work. Some stores lack personal protective equipment, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still hasn’t mandated that food workers wear masks. The union also has reached out to the CDC and sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, who is overseeing some aspects of the White House pandemic response, urging the administration to supply protective equipment to grocery workers.
“This is about life or death,” Perrone said. “Workers are being exposed, and they are dying.”
On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California’s food workers would get an additional two weeks of paid leave benefiting workers who had contracted or were exposed to the virus, or have been ordered to isolate or quarantine themselves at home.
“I think about the people that grow our food, pick our food, pack our food, deliver our food, cook, serve and sell our food. That’s the food chain in the state of California. That sector by definition is essential,” Newsom said in his address.
Safeway has posted signs at store entrances and in back rooms that ask everyone to screen themselves for symptoms prior to shopping or clocking in. It has increased cleaning and disinfecting efforts. Masks are now being provided for all workers, adding to measures already in place, like Plexiglas sneeze guards at check stands and cart wipes and hand sanitizer.
An earlier version of this story misstated the parent union of Local 439. It is a chapter of the Teamsters.
In its stores, Safeway has marked 6-foot intervals for checkout lines and instituted special hours for seniors and other vulnerable individuals to shop.
Safeway set out last month to hire 2,000 workers among its 165 Bay Area locations. Andrew Whelan, a spokesman for Albertsons, Safeway’s parent company, said the company had hired more than 5,000 new workers in the past several weeks in Northern California.
UFCW Local 5 president John Nunes, whose chapter represents grocery workers in the Bay Area and surrounding regions, said many store workers interact with 200 to 400 customers a day.
“It’s similar to Russian roulette,” he said. “Any customer that you service could be the one with a bullet in the chamber.”