Pharmacy and grocery store workers call for increased protections against COVID-19

By the end of this year, Talaya Ayala will have worked in retail for two decades. She said nothing—not the training she received nor the thousands of hours she’s worked—prepared her for working on the frontlines of a global pandemic.

As a pharmacy technician, Ayala is one of the many workers across the city, state and nation whose services are deemed essential enough to keep them at work. But like many of her colleagues across the industry, Ayala said she’s afraid.

She worries the equipment and safety measures she’s currently afforded at work won’t be enough to protect her and her family from the deadly new coronavirus.

“Every day, myself as well as coworkers are in fear of catching COVID-19,” said the 37-year-old mother of two, who works at a Rite Aid location on the city’s east side. “We go to work with fear everyday.”

Ayala and her coworkers aren’t alone. Retail workers across the country have sounded the alarm over a lack of sick leave, protective gear and hazard pay.

Shoppers for the grocery delivery service Instacart, organized by the newly-founded Gig Workers Collective, went on a one-day strike Monday. Whole Worker, a collective of Whole Foods Markets employees, is calling for a global “Sick Out,” urging workers to stay at home on Tuesday to call attention to demands for free coronavirus testing, increased hazard pay and appropriate sanitation equipment.

“We need crowd control and we need free testing,” said Tiffany Driscoll, a 45-year-old single mother who works as a checker at a Vons in Long Beach.

Driscoll, who has worked in retail for 24 years, continues to come to work, day after day. “It’s been overwhelming and stressful and we do it over and over again, every single day. We need these protections.”

Both Driscoll and Ayala are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Local 324, which is calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to join the governors of Minnesota, Michigan and Vermont in designating essential retail workers as emergency personnel.

If the union’s petition is successful, the emergency declaration would provide workers with certain protections, including access to personal protective equipment, breaks every 30 minutes to wash their hands and improved crowd control measures in stores.

“We are facing an unprecedented crisis. Essential retail store workers have stepped up to the plate to do their part to serve customers and help their communities,” UFCW Local 770 President John Grant said in a statement issued on behalf of all UFCW union presidents on Thursday.

“If we don’t take additional measures equally throughout California, customers and workers will get sick in greater numbers,” Grant added. “Now California must do everything in its power to keep people safe.”

Ayala, who lives with her 2-year-old toddler and 18-year-old daughter, is worried about the safety of her family and the families of her coworkers. “If we get infected, that means we’re going to go home and give it to our family, our loved ones,” she said. “It’s just going to be a continuous chain reaction.”

As a pharmacy worker, she is especially vulnerable to the virus, Ayala said. “We’re exposed to sick people every day,” she said. “God forbid one of them has it, comes to the pharmacy to pick up their medication, and we don’t have the necessary safety equipment to keep us safe.”

Workers at her location wear gloves and the store is sanitized every 30 minutes, but there are no protective masks for workers to wear, not even for purchase, and no plexiglass screens between pharmacy technicians or cashiers, and their customers. Cash registers and pharmacy counters are wiped down after every customer, but disinfectant is running low.

Ayala said she still had a stash of 20 protective masks from a few years ago in her apartment. She dons a new one every day before getting on the bus to go to work. She’s down to the last five.

After that, she worries she’ll be left defenseless even though patients depend on her and other pharmacy or grocery workers to provide them essential supplies.

“We’re just as important as the nurses and doctors,” Ayala said.

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Alena Maschke writes about all things business and beyond for the Long Beach Business Journal/Long Beach Post. Born and raised in Germany, she first fell in love with California during an exchange year at UCLA. After receiving her master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in 2017, she returned to the Golden State with an appetite for great stories, pupusas and the occasional Michelada.
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