To the sources of airborne diseases brought in from schools, hospitals and airliners, add a new threat: Thousands of low-paid food handlers who are compelled by economic circumstances to remain on the job even when they are ill. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Infected food workers cause about 70 percent of reported norovirus outbreaks from contaminated food.” The CDC’s recommendations for containment include, “Requiring sick food workers to stay home, and considering use of paid sick leave and on-call staffing, to support compliance.”
Yet many of these workers have no paid sick leave and, in some cases, have claimed they risk losing their jobs if they stay home with the flu or a cold. From Orange County to South and East Los Angeles, however, hundreds of workers at El Super, which is the largest grocery chain in California’s exploding Latino food market, are demanding their employer provide sick leave pay. El Super grocery employees are joining the ranks of other service workers around the country who are periodically faced with a tough decision: To go to work ill or stay home and get better — but forego paying the bills.
Martin Ayala works 32 hours per week as a clerk in the meat department at the El Super located at the intersection of Vermont and Slauson avenues in South Los Angeles. Ayala, who is also a part of the union negotiating committee for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, said it makes him uncomfortable handling meat when he’s sick with the flu.
“It’s a big problem, everybody working sick,” Ayala said, standing outside his store during a rally last week – one of several held over the past several months calling attention to the issue.
El Super workers, many of whom are Latino, had been covered under a collective bargaining agreement with the store that expired last September. At rallies organized by UFCW and such campaign partners as the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (which sponsors Capital & Main), workers have been demanding their rights to a living wage, more guaranteed hours and paid sick leave. They are also pointing out the public health risks associated with working and handling food while sick.
UFCW representatives say they have met with the company repeatedly but have had little success in convincing corporate representatives to give their workers basic sick pay. On May 2, UFCW members at seven El Super stores rejected the company’s “last, best, and final” offer and voted to authorize a strike, if necessary, to bring the company back to the bargaining table.
At last week’s rally in South Los Angeles, Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price, along with Walmart and car wash workers, joined a handful of El Super employees in demanding their right to paid sick leave. As part of this action, the group had just completed a tour of the area, with El Super as their last stop.
“The Super company doesn’t want to give us the benefits,” Ayala said. “They don’t respect us, they don’t respect the consumer, they don’t respect the community.”
Ayala, adding that he is well aware of the health risks for customers, acknowledged that the food he works with, after days of being sneezed and coughed on, is likely contaminated, but he feels he has no choice – he has a family to support. His co-workers handling food in the other departments – tortilla, baked goods, produce, deli – face the same concerns.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 39 percent of American workers do not get paid leave, although labor leaders say a movement is afoot to give these workers, many of them low-wage service workers, paid sick days.
San Francisco was the first city in the nation to pass a law requiring all businesses to provide sick days to people who work in the city. Other cities followed suit, including Washington D.C., Seattle, WA; Portland, OR; New York City; Jersey City and Newark, NJ. Connecticut is the only state to have adopted a paid sick leave law.
Earlier this year, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) introduced Assembly Bill 1522, which would require employers to give employees at least three annual paid sick days. It cleared the Assembly last month and is being considered by the state Senate. If signed into law, it would go into effect in July 2015. More than five million Californians could benefit, advocates say.
“AB 1522 would provide all workers in California with a safety net of three earned sick days, but since we’re talking about workers that handle the food we eat, the best way to protect workers and customers is to have all El Super employees covered under a union contract,” Gonzalez said in a written statement provided to Capital & Main. “If El Super – a billion-dollar company – really wants to build brand loyalty in California’s Latino communities, they need to do right by their employees by ensuring they have access to living wages, paid sick days and affordable health care.”
Assembly Republicans opposed the bill and claimed businesses cannot absorb the costs of providing sick days for their employees.
Paramount-based Bodega Latina Corp., which operates El Super markets, earned an estimated $1.2 billion in sales in 2013, according to Supermarket News. Its Mexican parent company, Grupo Comercial Chedraui, operates a chain of megastores in Mexico that compete with Walmart. According to Forbes, founder Alfredo Chedraui Obeso became a billionaire more than a year ago.
El Super representatives did not return calls for this story.
Rigoberto Valdez, UFCW’s director of organizing, said his local represents approximately 575 El Super workers employed at seven locations. The UFCW says the company has 46 El Super stores, nearly all of them in California, and plans to open its 47th in Long Beach.
“We feel this company is not doing enough to reach a deal,” he said. He claims the working conditions at stores where employees are represented by UFCW are already poor but that employees at nonunion stores are treated even worse.
“If we end up going on strike, we want to make sure all workers have the rights to receive the same benefits,” Valdez said.
For Martin Ayala, the decision to work when sick is easy.
“I have kids and I’m the only one from my home who works,” he said. “Imagine a day or two days without those hours.”