Denver King Soopers won’t be cited for employees’ COVID-19 deaths in safety investigation

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration will not cite a Denver King Soopers store after a months-long investigation into working conditions that was triggered by the deaths of three workers from COVID-19.

OSHA issued a letter Dec. 2 to King Soopers store #29 on Ninth Avenue in Capitol Hill to recommend safety precautions, but the agency did not levy any citations.

Melissa McCollister, political liaison for the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 7, the union that represents King Soopers employees in Colorado, called the probe a “farce,” saying OSHA never sent investigators on site to evaluate safety measures because they didn’t want them to be exposed to the novel coronavirus.

“The stores our workers work in every day were too dangerous to investigate,” McCollister said.

Store management was not enforcing a mask mandate, and inspectors raised concerns that proper cleaning was not happening inside the store, according to a copy of OSHA’s letter provided to The Denver Post by the union. The agency also recommended the store’s management limit occupancy, designate six-foot separation zones throughout the store, add more hand sanitizer and provide N95 masks to employees who must work in the narrow back room/deliveries area, the letter said.

“OSHA will not issue a citation to the King Sooper (sic) Store #29 in Denver Colorado at this time,” the letter said. “However, improvements could be made to improve your approach to protecting employees from SARS-CoV-2.”

A King Soopers spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

In September, OSHA announced a $15,000 fine of JBS USA for failing to protect employees at its Greeley meatpacking plant after six workers died and hundreds were infected. That penalty was criticized by the same union as being far too lenient given the loss of life.

McCollister’s criticism of OSHA’s King Soopers investigation came during a Wednesday news conference at which workers, union officials and religious leaders asked the King Soopers and Safeway grocery chains to restore a hazard pay that was in place during the early days of the pandemic. Kroger, the parent company of King Soopers and City Market, gave employees a $2 per hour raise — called a “Heroes Bonus” — between March 31 and May 17. Safeway gave a $2 per hour pay increase between March 20 and June 14, McCollister said.

Since the hazard pay was dropped, COVID-19 cases have continued to rise inside the two chains’ stores across Colorado, she said.

Nikki Trujillo, whose brother Randy Narvaez died after contracting COVID-19 at King Soopers’ Capitol Hill store, said it was too late to help her brother but called on Kroger to reinstate the extra pay.

“While King Soopers was quick to call workers like my brother a hero with a fancy video announcing ‘hero pay,’ they were just as quick to take it away as infection rates rose,” Trujillo said.

Narvaez, a 30-year employee of the supermarket chain, died of COVID-19 on May 17. Karen Haws, a courtesy clerk, was the first store employee to die, on April 10. She had worked for the store since 2019. James McKay had worked for King Soopers since 2009, and he died on May 23.

On Wednesday, King Soopers employees expressed fear over catching the virus as they described customers without face coverings, hazardous conditions in stockrooms caused by overworked employees and bathrooms without soap and paper towels.

Marlon Johnson, a King Soopers deli worker, said he must work because everyone else in his family has been laid off. He cried when talking about missing his granddaughters because he’s afraid he could contract the virus and spread it to them. Johnson called on King Soopers managers to enforce mask-wearing at his store, describing what happened recently when he asked a security guard to talk to a customer about it.

“He said, ‘What do you want me to do about it?’” Johnson said. “Let that sink in for a minute.”

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