Working-Class Voices: First Person Accounts of Life and Work

Always Essential: Grocery Store Work in a Pandemic

Editor’s Note
For this article, New Labor Forum’s “Working-Class Voices” columnist Kressent Pottenger interviewed Norma Leiva, a warehouse manager at Food 4 Less in Panorama City, Los Angeles. She is a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770 and has been an active union member for thirty-three years.


I am a warehouse manager at Food 4 Less in the Panorama City neighborhood of Los Angeles. I have been a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers for thirty-three years. I started working in the grocery business at Alpha Beta back in 1988 when I was a teenager. I came from a single mom. Both my sister and I started working at a very young age. My sister got this job at Alpha Beta with good benefits and good pay. She got me in there when I turned eighteen. I was getting good pay so I stopped going to college. You’re getting good money, and you think it’s  going to be that way for the rest of your life. As the years have gone by, the pay hasn’t stayed the same. I started as a utility clerk. That’s what they call a clerk’s helper. I started pushing carts and moved up. I went from a cashier to a deli clerk filling the milk, cheese, and all that. Later I got promoted to the night crew chief. Back in the 1990s Boy’s Market bought Alpha Beta which later became Aviva. I stayed there working as a night crew chief. They decided to dissolve Aviva. Then I got laid off. They said we could apply to Food 4 Less. We would have to take a pay cut. I was making $14.99 an hour. I took a pay cut of almost $3 to $12 an hour to come to Food 4 less.

I’ve worked at Food 4 Less since 1992. As a warehouse manager, I’m responsible for all the food vendors, and anything that comes into the store. That includes keeping the warehouse clean and organized. I make sure everything is in place, the workers take all the loads out, and it gets placed on the shelf. In a grocery store, there are produce, meat, dairy and deli clerks, service deli, and bakery clerks. The service deli manager, frozen clerk, night crew, and night crew manager are also union jobs. Back in the day, you just started and didn’t get training. You got thrown in the job. Now you have a day or so of paid training where somebody sticks around and tells you what’s going on. But it’s often different than what you do on the actual job. When I see these new hires, they look lost because there is so much going on. We have customers who have shopped in our stores for years. You see kids grow up, and those kids have kids. I’ve been in the grocery business for so long some of those kids are working in our store now. Somebody said to me once, “If you need something you tell your customers, and they’ll bring it to you.” That’s the kind of the relationship we’ve built. We love our customers.

I was getting good pay so I stopped going to college. You’re getting good money, and you think it’s going to be that way for the rest of your life.

The grocery business never had regular nine-to-five schedules. It is according to the needs of the store. That is one of the big things we were fighting for: having the schedule a week ahead. People who have been there a long time have managed to get a regular schedule based on what they do. Receivers have the same schedule because you don’t get deliveries on certain days. Or if you are a night crew guy, you’re throwing loads at night so that will be your regular schedule. That does not mean you’ll have the same nights off. It changes week to week. It’s easier to schedule workers for four-hour shifts, and ask them to stay if they need them instead of scheduling it. If they don’t need them to work, they just go home. People need to be able to make appointments for their children and plan a week ahead. During Covid-19, stores especially do not want to give a regular schedule. People are not showing up to work because either they are infected or need to quarantine.

The stores employ about seventy to eighty people. Unless you are a bookkeeper or management, you are on your feet the whole time. Our contract mandates a ten-minute break every two hours. If you work six hours, you get a fifteen-minute break or a lunch break. Nowadays, the grocery business isn’t what it used to be. As the wages have declined, there is a lot of turnaround. People come in and out. The wages are not what they were when I started. We have two contracts: a grandfather and a newcomer’s contract. The grandfather contract has better wages than the newcomers. The main concerns are the lack of pay for the newcomers and the kind of abuse we get. We have what is called a combo program. They hire and train people to be cashiers, and still do the floor work. Floor work is getting the bags, cleaning up on the floor, sweeping, putting the merchandise back on the aisles, assisting the cashiers, and getting carts. Cashiers get slightly higher wages. They have a combo program where they use the newcomers who are supposed to be a clerk’s helper. They take hours away from the cashiers, give them to the combos, and are not reporting it. They are only supposed to use 20 percent of the combos, and they abuse that policy by using them for more than 20 percent of that shift.

Back in the day, it was a lot of work, but less demanding. Now they want a certain number of cases to be thrown. It used to be six cases an hour, now they want almost one hundred cases an hour. That is the biggest demand: to accomplish job tasks in less time, and with a lot of pressure on us. I remember the minimum wage being $3 something an hour, and we were making $14 an hour back in the 1980s. Now the minimum wage is $15 an hour. We’re making $19 an hour, and that’s top pay. Being top pay that’s lots of years in there.

We’ve always been essential workers. I worked during the (Rodney King) riots back in the 1990s at a store in Hollywood that was the main center of the riots. I remember people coming in and buying all these things because they knew the store was closing. I worked at the epicenter of the North Ridge earthquake. That store split in half. We were there, and then we opened to help people get water. We were doing everything manually so people could get whatever essentials they needed. I guess we do make some sacrifices. I was working while my family was worried about me. During those earthquakes and the riots, the store asked if we could voluntarily stay so people would not come in. We felt like we needed to. Back then I was young I didn’t have a family. We do sacrifice a lot for the job that we do. It’s kind of hurtful that they do not see how much we invested our lives into our jobs. That they can’t be grateful enough. I am sorry I am getting emotional right now. We have given a lot to the company, and yes, they do pay us. But I know I have, and a lot of co-workers have gone beyond what is paid for. It is kind of emotional when you think about it. They do not value our work.

When I started hearing all of this about people getting infected with Covid-19, I began bringing my own PPE [personal protective equipment]. Nobody was giving us safety equipment. I have my mother-in-law that lives with me, and she is almost seventy. I cannot risk her life. I have a husband who has high blood pressure, I get bronchitis, and I just could not risk it. I have a grandbaby. As soon as I heard people were getting infected, I bought gloves and a face mask. It took a good three months before we got PPE. Then management tried to restrict us from changing our gloves because they said we were going to run out. But these are our lives. In November, we had many outbreaks in our store. The store director, co-manager, and half the store were out with Covid-19 in November and December. They kept on getting infected. I had a truck driver who died. One of the truck drivers that delivers three times a week. I was devastated. This is somebody I saw three times a week for the past two or three years.

We’ve always been essential workers. I worked during the (Rodney King) riots back in the 1990s at a store in Hollywood that was the main center of the riots . . . I worked at the epicenter of the North Ridge earthquake. That store split in half . . . and we opened to help people get water.

Some stores were saying that we were going to scare the customers from coming in if we wore masks. Once it was mandated, some of the customers did not want to wear masks. It took the employees to tell them because management was not doing it. One of my coworkers worked in a store where a homeless man came in, and spit at her. At the end of the week, she ended up with Covid-19. She asked management to help her, and no one responded. It was so chaotic. People were physically fighting for water. We had to break up fights because people were being animals. We got floor stickers to indicate six feet apart in May. Customers would tell us there’s nothing wrong. The government is lying. But we did have customers who took care of themselves and protected us. In June, management started putting up plexiglass. There were flyers saying we had to stay six feet apart. Management would not tell us when workers were infected due to the HIPPA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] law. You didn’t know if you had contact with them or not. That was another unknown we had to deal with. Taking temperatures on a regular basis did not happen until the end of November when everybody was already sick.

It took a good three months before we got PPE. Then management tried to restrict us from changing our gloves because they said we were going to run out. But these are our lives.

In May to June of last year, we had “hero pay,” but just for those two months throughout the entire pandemic. In December, we had the highest point of infection in Los Angeles. We had the worst outbreaks in the stores. In the union, we had over three thousand people that were infected with Covid-19. We were doing the job of two or three people who were not there. The only reason we got vaccinated was because United Food and Commercial Workers is in coalition with the city to help us get vaccinations quickly. Thanks to the union I can say I’ve been vaccinated. I can feel a  little bit more at ease coming home to my seventy-year-old mother-in-law, and my husband who has high blood pressure.

Right now we are getting hero pay for 120 days from March to June. We want to call it hazard pay. I am grateful for it, but I wish they would have done it the entire year. We would have taken only those $2. Right now Los Angeles county has a hero pay mandate of $5. They are closing stores saying they cannot afford it when Kroger made over $2.56 billion dollars during the pandemic. They bought their own stocks back. We had customers who thought we were getting hazard pay throughout the pandemic. They would say “well you’re getting paid more to be here,” and it was like no, that stopped two months ago. There were people who would say “thank you for being here for your community.” You have your two kinds of customers: those that are grateful that you’re there and those that think you have to risk your life for it.

I have always been active in the union. I am a steward in Local 770. I know the difference in having a union job. My mom was a union worker back in the 1980s. She was a seamstress. In 1987, they lost the union. They gave the workers a good deal so they would say, “Yeah we can be without the union.” The next contract came along, and they just wanted to give them pennies for each piece. They ended up closing the factory and moving it to China. She lost her job. They allowed the union to get out because the members were not strong. I have become more active. The lack of involvement from others has cost us a lot. Over the years, we’ve always said yes to what Kroger has given us. Right now, with the minimum wage being $15 an hour, it is ridiculous that we should say OK. I have invested thirty-three years in this job to only be a few dollars above minimum wage. I am also on the bargaining committee with the local Kroger. Currently we have a pension and managed to not have any changes on that. They decided they no longer wanted to talk to the actual employees. Our meetings have been through Zoom. We tell them what’s going on in the stores. We tell them our truth. I feel like they disrespected us. They said they would only talk to the union negotiators, and they did not want to talk to the bargaining committee anymore.

We want a safety committee in the contract because we saw the importance of making sure all of our coworkers are safe on the job. We also want fair wages.

There are a couple of things we are fighting for in our contract that expired last June. First, to be recognized if there is ever a state of emergency like a pandemic or earthquake, and we are here risking our lives. We are not asking for $5 hazard pay. We are asking for $2. We also want a safety committee in the contract because we saw the importance of making sure all of our coworkers are safe on the job. We also want fair wages. The company only wanted to give us fifty cents each year. They increased it by five cents so it is a $1.55 over a three-year contract. The minimum wage is $15. Most of the all-purpose clerks are only earning $18 an hour. It is only a few dollars above minimum wage.

We had an action at our store this week, and asked customers not to shop during the time we were on the picket line. . . . The support was amazing. We want Kroger to see that our customers support us.

Most of us are vaccinated, and the number of infections are coming down. Thank goodness everything is going back to normal. In the future, if we ever go through something like this, just respect the regulations that are given for our safety. We had an action at our store this week, and asked customers not to shop during the time we were on the picket line. We were asking Kroger to negotiate with us and for higher wages. The support was amazing. We want Kroger to see that our customers support us. They know we have been there for them through this pandemic. We do love our customers. I wish Kroger would recognize the job that we do for our customers so they can have those $2.56 billion of profits. If we go on strike, then they are going to lose a lot more money. I love doing what I do. That’s why I’ve been around so long. I know it’s a hard job. I invested my life into it. We are the ones who make the money for them. I just wish Kroger would recognize that and see how valuable their employees are to the community and for them, too.


Author Biography

Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in labor studies from The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 9to5 and women organizing in the workplace.

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