LANCASTER, Calif. – When grocery store worker Francis Robateau received a positive test for coronavirus, he was already feeling symptoms.
“The biggest fear was ending up in a hospital stuck to a ventilator and not being able to see anybody,” Robateau said.
He was worried about infecting his two young daughters so he isolated in his room for two weeks. He says the hardest part was not being able to hug his children during that time.
Robateau believes he caught the virus from a coworker at a Stater Brothers grocery store in Lancaster, where he works as an overnight manager. He’s been employed there for 13 years.
“I took every precaution possible, wore my mask at all times, social distanced, washed my hands. Everything I was supposed to do,” he said. “Even when I got home, I made sure to change out of clothes before I went in.”
When the pandemic started, Robateau says he even cut his full-time work schedule to two days a week to reduce his exposure to coronavirus. But he feels the grocery store didn’t take safety precautions seriously, such as enforcing mask-wearing in the store, controlling customer crowds, and physically distancing overnight workers.
Robateau is a member of the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 770 union which reached out to the store about following more stringent safety protocols and was told the store management would look into it. Spectrum News 1 also reached out to Stater Brothers but hasn’t received a response yet.
State officials are cracking down on employers for not protecting employees from COVID-19. This week, five grocery stores in Los Angeles owned by Ralphs and Food 4 Less were cited for failing to protecting their employees from COVID-19 and issued fines ranging from $13,500 to $25,560.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health found Ralphs failed to properly notify the state when two workers at two stores died from COVID-19. Also, state officials found at Food 4 Less that employees could not maintain a safe physical distance from customers.
Robert Nothoff with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents 300 unions and thousands of workers, says when employers aren’t enforcing public health guidelines, workers are not the only ones at risk.
“When they go back home to their actual family members, both they and their families and their communities are put at risk,” Nothoff said.
That’s why his organization is calling for health councils led by workers at places where there are high rates of outbreaks and safety violations, serving as the eyes and ears of the L.A. County Public Health Department.
“When they can speak freely about any public health violation or know that there is support within their workplace should a customer walk in without a mask, that they can actually speak freely and not be retaliated against, then that’s beneficial for everybody,” he said.
The Department of Public Health is developing a policy and implementation plan for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to review on October 13.
Robateau is back at work, even though he has headaches as a lingering symptom. He believes small worker-led councils would go a long way in protecting employees and customers.
“It would make a big change. I think we can actually help better curb it but also protecting the community and the people who go shop there because their food safety is just as important as the workers’ safety,” he said.