A new measure meant to help protect workers from coronavirus passed a major hurdle Wednesday afternoon in Sacramento. The concept is simple – if a coworker becomes infected, you should know about it, so you can take action to protect yourself and your loved ones.

I-Team reporter Dan Noyes has been speaking with some East Bay grocery store workers. They are concerned about how Safeway is handling employees who get sick, and about what the company is doing to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

The I-Team has confirmed an employee at the Safeway store in Orinda became sick and tested positive for coronavirus one week ago. His last day of work before going into quarantine, July 28. The company says it has since performed multiple cycles of enhanced cleaning, but customers we spoke with last week were wary.

Alex Friedman told the I-Team, “That makes me not want to shop here at the moment.”

The customers we met did not know that they could have had contact with an infected employee until we told them.

“I probably wouldn’t have even gone in and done all my grocery shopping just now if I had known,” Friedman said. “Probably would have gone to Moraga or Lafayette for at least a couple of days so that I know that if everything is clean.”

Brian Doherty added, “It’s understandable it happens, but you should let people know. So like now, I want to go get tested because I know I’ve been in a location where somebody has tested positive.”

This Safeway employee told us the managers at the Orinda store failed to inform the staff in a timely manner, and only confirmed the COVID-19 case after being confronted by a group of employees who had heard it from the infected person.

Dan Noyes: “Did the manager actually say anything about not telling other employees or keeping this quiet?”

Safeway Employee: “Yes.”

Dan Noyes: “Tell me the words.”

Safeway Employee: “I’m not supposed to tell.”

Dan Noyes: “The manager said that?”

Safeway Employee: “Yes.”

She tells us many employees still haven’t heard what’s happening directly from managers, that they have to rely on the rumor mill for information on which to make important healthcare decisions.

“People should have the right to know if they’ve been exposed. It’s so that they feel like maybe I should go get tested. You know, they may have people that they need to care for, so they need to know right away.”

The I-Team reached the store manager by phone, but she hung up on us. And Safeway spokesperson Wendy Gutshall did not agree to an on-camera interview, but emailed, “We have confirmed that employees in the store were informed of the positive case and we are not aware of any manager telling employees to keep the positive case ‘quiet’.”

Gutshall said coworkers were identified through contact tracing and are on paid quarantine leave, adding, “Throughout this pandemic, the health and safety of everyone who walks through our doors has been our top priority.”

United Food and Commercial Workers represents many of the Orinda Safeway’s employees, and the president of the union’s political arm tells us, informing employees about possible Covid-19 exposure is essential.

“The employees need to know,” said Andrea Zinder of UFCW. “We believe the union needs to know we believe that public health departments need to know, there needs to be proper notification so that there can be contact tracing.”

And that’s the aim of AB-685 (https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201920200AB685) heard this afternoon before the Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee.

It would make it law that companies must:

  • Provide written notice of a positive case to employees and their union within 24 hours
  • Report to state and local public health departments, and CalOSHA
  • Failing to report would be a misdemeanor crime, punishable by a $10,000 fine
  • The number of COVID cases reported by any workplace would be made public

A variety of trade groups oppose the measure as being “overly broad and vague”: grocers, farmers, health facilities, restaurants, even the pool and spa association.

But, the sponsor of the bill tells us, it’s necessary to protect workers, especially those on the front line.

“It cannot be just one industry or one particular group,” said Democratic Assemblymember Eloise Reyes of San Bernardino. “Every single employee has a right to know that they have been exposed so that they can protect themselves, their family, the public.”

The bill passed 4 to 1, and has one more hearing before it goes to the governor’s desk.

Full Statement from Safeway:

Throughout this pandemic, the health and safety of everyone who walks through our doors has been our top priority. Like many of our neighbors in the Bay Area, COVID-19 has touched our own Safeway family with confirmed diagnoses among our associates. We have learned that an associate at our Safeway store on Camino Sobrante in Orinda has a confirmed case of COVID-19. First and foremost, our thoughts are with the associate who tested positive and we hope for a full recovery.

The associate has not worked at our Orinda store since July 28th. That store has been through multiple cycles of our enhanced cleaning, sanitizing and/or disinfecting process since that day. The store will remain open and we will continue to follow an enhanced cleaning, sanitizing and/or disinfecting process in every department.

When an associate at one of our facilities is confirmed to have COVID-19, trained nurses contact the associate to ensure they are seeking appropriate medical care and to initiate a close contacts investigation. Following that investigation, we may recommend that additional members of the team self-quarantine. These employees are eligible to receive up to 14 days quarantine pay. Among other safety precautions, Safeway conducts health screening of all employees upon arrival at the store. Employees with symptoms are sent home pending a risk assessment by trained nurses.

Per CDC guidelines, Store Directors and Assistant Store Directors review important information with all employees so that they receive notice that someone in their workplace has been confirmed to have COVID-19. For privacy reasons, identifying information about the employee is not provided. We have confirmed that employees in the store were informed of the positive case and we are not aware of any manager telling employees to keep the positive case “quiet”.

We have reviewed this process with store management and reaffirmed with all employees that they need to wash hands and disinfect check stands regularly and to practice social distancing. We have also reminded them that if they develop a fever and symptoms of respiratory illness, such as a cough or shortness of breath, stay home and call their healthcare provider right away.

As we all continue to navigate this public health crisis together, Safeway remains committed to do everything we can to prioritize the health and safety of our associates, customers, and communities, and to ensure our customers have access to the food, medications, and other essential goods they need at this critical time.

Source: ABC 7 San Francisco