Grocery workers died feeding the nation. Now, their families are left to pick up the pieces.

 


By Leticia Miranda

As panicked shoppers overwhelmed grocery stores in the early days of the pandemic last year, Angela McMiller’s brother, a Walmart worker in Chicago, called to say he was so sick he couldn’t stand.

Phillip Thomas, 48, had been working at the store for nine years, most recently in the meat department. He hadn’t been to work in two weeks because he was so ill, she said.

McMiller told her brother that she’d bring over some food after work. But when she called that evening, he didn’t answer. The next day, she received a call that Thomas had tested positive for Covid-19 and died.

“I almost fell to the floor,” she said. “We don’t have deaths like this in our family.”

More than one year after the pandemic first swept across the country, the plight of grocery workers who risked death to keep the country fed has raised questions about retail labor conditions and the responsibility of corporations in worker deaths from the coronavirus. At least 158 grocery workers have died from the virus, with at least 35,100 workers infected or exposed, according to data from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Walmart has seen at least 22 store workers die from Covid-19, according to worker-sourced data provided to United For Respect, a nonprofit labor advocacy group. Walmart declined to comment on the number of coronavirus cases among its 1.5 million U.S.-based workers.

“I’m not going to say Walmart killed my brother,” McMiller said. “But did they help him? No, not at all.”

Image: Angela McMiller holds her phone displaying a photo of her late brother Phillip Thomas.
Angela McMiller holds her phone displaying a photo of her late brother Phillip Thomas.Eddie Quinones / for NBC News

Walmart reduced store hours and temporarily suspended or reduced some services, such as food demos, so associates can clean and sanitize, according to the company’s website. The company also checks temperatures as people clock in for work and requires masks for shoppers. It has also distributed four separate cash bonuses to associates between March and December of last year.

The company declined to comment on Thomas’s case. But Randy Hargrove, a spokesperson for Walmart, said in an emailed statement that “Walmart is not immune to the impact of Covid-19.”

“While it may be impossible to track the source of anyone’s infection, what we have seen is that the health of our associates tends to track the health of the country as a whole,” he said.

For those hundreds of families like McMiller’s who continue on after the loss of a loved one, there is little recourse across companies to seek monetary damages under current labor laws, according to Steven Levin, senior partner with the Chicago-based personal injury law firm Levin & Perconti. States such as Alaska to Connecticut are considering additional immunity laws that would make it harder to sue businesses for civil damages related to coronavirus cases.

“Many of these cases are going to be challenging even if the employer was screwing up and didn’t have the right procedures,” Levin said. “But how do we know how you got Covid? How do we know you didn’t get it at home or at a party? Where the infection came from — that is a factual legal challenge.”

Since the early days of the pandemic, grocery workers have been at the center of the country’s battle against the coronavirus. Like health care workers, they come into close contact with customers, raising their likelihood of becoming infected with the virus. But while Walmart, Kroger, and Amazon, which owns Whole Foods Market, all offer paid sick leave, 55 percent of grocery workers say they do not have paid sick leave benefits, according to the Shift Project at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“We started to see retail workers get sick and put themselves on self-quarantine,” said Kim Cordova, president of the UFCW Local 7 in Colorado, which represents more than 17,000 private sector grocery workers in the state. “They had to use personal time to take time off or go to work sick.”

With restaurants closing their doors, droves of people rushed grocery stores for food and essentials, boosting grocery sales across the board. At Kroger, total company sales were about $132 billion last year, compared to $122.3 billion the year before. Walmart, the country’s largest grocer, reported its sales grew to $341 billion in 2020 from $331 billion the year before.

“We experienced unprecedented demand in categories like paper goods, surface cleaners, and grocery staples,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told investors in May. “For many of these items, we were selling in 2 or 3 hours what we normally sell in 2 or 3 days.”

Image: The Walmart store where Phillip Thomas worked in Evergreen Park, Ill.
The Walmart store where Phillip Thomas worked in Evergreen Park, Ill., on April 6.Eddie Quinones / for NBC News

But while sales skyrocketed, many grocers were slow to roll out mask mandates and social distancing guidelines, Cordova said. Costco was the first national grocery chain to require masks, beginning in May last year. It wasn’t until July — four months into the pandemic — that nearly all major grocers required customers to wear a mask. And while Kroger, Walmart, and Amazon all offered additional hazard pay to workers, many of those benefits expired in May.

“Workers felt [hazard pay] was just like a carrot to keep you working during this dangerous health crisis,” she said.

Nicole Trujillo believes Kroger could have done more to protect workers at a King Soopers store in Denver, where her brother, Randy Narvaez, worked for 30 years before he died of Covid-19 last May. The Kroger Co. operates the King Soopers chain.

Narvaez was working overtime in the thick of the pandemic well before the company required employees and shoppers to wear masks, Trujillo said. It was only after Trujillo lost her brother, whom she calls “one of my very best friends in life,” that she learned there had been previous coronavirus cases at the same store where he worked. Since March 2020, there have been 28 coronavirus cases and two deaths at the store, according to UCFW.

“I get you can’t say, ‘So and so is in the hospital,’” she said of company privacy laws. “But there are other things you can do to ensure the safety of people. If you knew this person is in the hospital and they have Covid, why wouldn’t you do something to ensure my brother wasn’t exposed?”

Kristal Howard, a spokesperson for Kroger, said that the company has “taken extraordinary steps, investing more than $1.5 billion to both reward associates and to implement dozens of safety measures at every store to protect our workforce and provide our customers with a safe environment in which to shop.” The company did not respond to a request for comment on Narvaez’s case or the number of coronavirus cases it has had across its stores.

Grocery Stores Stock Toys As Holiday Shopping Season Begins
A worker checks out a customer from behind a Plexiglas barrier at a Kroger Marketplace in Versailles, Ky., on Nov. 24.Scotty Perry / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Coronavirus case disclosures have largely been a volunteer effort by companies and workers who crowdsource the data, said Debbie Berkowitz, worker safety and health program director with the National Employment Law Project. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only allows people to list their occupation on coronavirus tests if they are in the health care field.

After repeatedly resisting calls to disclose coronavirus cases, Amazon, which has 1.3 million front-line employees in the United States, reported in October it had recorded almost 20,000 cases across its Whole Foods Market and Amazon locations. Amazon directed a request for comment to Brian McGuigan, a Whole Foods Market spokesman, who said the company has invested $300 million toward temporary pay increases and bonuses for Whole Foods Market employees, along with enhanced safety procedures at its stores. It is also offering Whole Foods Market and Amazon workers time off and a $40 benefit for each vaccination dose they receive, he said.

Walmart’s coronavirus case disclosures are “nonexistent,” said Bianca Agustin, research director with United For Respect, who has been leading crowdsourced submissions of positive cases and deaths at the company. Walmart did not respond to a request for comment on its coronavirus case disclosures.

“Walmart and, to a larger extent, the Trump administration’s OSHA, was unwilling to admit that these huge retailers could be potential Covid hot spots,” she said, referring to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Image: Angela McMiller holds her late brother Phillip Thomas' Walmart employee badge.
Angela McMiller holds her late brother Phillip Thomas' Walmart employee badge.Eddie Quinones / for NBC News

Under former President Donald Trump, OSHA was slow to hire and replace investigators, even as coronavirus cases rose. Between March 2020 and April 4, OSHA received about 14,000 coronavirus-related complaints in 2020 and opened only about 1,900 for inspection, Jesse Lawder, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an emailed statement. Supermarkets and grocery stores made up about 17 percent of coronavirus-related inspections between March 2020 and April 8.

“All these retail workers filed complaints and OSHA didn’t respond with an inspection,” Berkowitz said. “They told retailers to do what they can. It was a real abdication of responsibility.”

Lawder said that the agency "will work to ensure all businesses are operating responsibly and safely."

"The agency is working to re-affirm its commitment to worker safety and re-establish the trust that it is advocating for workers," he added.

In January, President Joe Biden issued an executive order for OSHA to come up with an emergency coronavirus labor standard that would create a path to enforce more stringent worker safety protocols. But that move was delayed this week after Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh requested the addition of a newer analysis. OSHA has yet to respond to a request for comment.

McMiller said her 75-year-old mother still cries over the loss of her youngest son. McMiller’s older brother also has bouts of pain over losing someone she called “his twin.”

Thomas's funeral offered little peace for the family. The funeral home wore hazmat suits to carry her brother’s casket to the gravesite. “It was traumatic,” she said.

Dozens of Thomas’ friends from work reached out to the family to offer their condolences and share memories of her hardworking and playful brother. But she has yet to hear from Walmart.

Image: Angela McMiller outside her home in Chicago
"I kept thinking, 'My brother is a number,'" McMiller said. "But I want people to know he's more than a number."Eddie Quinones / for NBC News

She said she would have liked to receive a sympathy call and some compensation for the family. She blames Walmart for not taking “the proper protocols to protect my brother.”

“He died at the beginning of the pandemic and it was like [news of] five people and 10 people [in the state] died and I kept thinking, ‘My brother is a number,’’' she said. “But I want people to know he’s more than a number.”

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