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Coronavirus, then a mass shooting: It’s been a year from hell for Colorado grocery workers

Grocery store workers were already exhausted after a year of putting their health at risk so Coloradans could buy food. And they were worried about security long before the Boulder massacre.

Dejon Dishman, left, works the checkout counter helping customers at Marczyk Fine Foods on a busy Saturday on March 27, 2021, in Denver, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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In between making sure his store has enough apples and bread, and that all the shifts are covered, Mark Johnson added two things to his to-do list last week.

He is setting up active-shooter training for the 90 employees of Denver’s two Marczyk Fine Foods markets. And he will order more security cameras to protect the back entrances of the speciality foods store, a favorite of Denver residents looking for fresh-made sandwiches, pasta and wine. 

“We’re in the process of lining up some active-shooter training and I can’t believe I am even saying that,” Johnson said, after the store on East 17th Avenue reviewed security measures with its staff following a mass shooting at a Boulder supermarket. 

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The killing of 10 people at King Soopers in Boulder a week ago — including three of the supermarket’s employees, an Instacart shopper and vendor there to fix a machine at the in-store Starbucks — has rattled grocery workers everywhere, forcing them to imagine what they would do if that happened at their own store. And that terrifying day came after a hellish year for the essential employees who have had to argue with anti-mask customers and risk their health at work so the rest of us could buy food.

“It’s been brutal,” said Johnson, who is director of operations. “And it still is, quite honestly.”

The pandemic has been mentally exhausting for grocery workers — from sanitizing every basket and cart between shoppers, to taking employees’ temperatures before they can start a shift, to placing a monitor at the front door to make sure the store doesn’t bust capacity limits required by law. 

After arriving at work, general manager Will Sorensen checks in with his employees and inspects the merchandise at Marczyk Fine Foods last Saturday in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Most people coming into the Marczyk’s in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood have been happy to comply, but the ones who are not are the loudest. One customer who didn’t want to wear a mask even spit on an employee posted at the front door, Johnson said. 

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, workers are exhausted, constantly picking up extra shifts to keep up with unprecedented demand, and to cover for others who were exposed to the virus or had a cold. Any Marczyk employee “with so much as a sniffle” was not allowed to work, Johnson said. 

FULL COVERAGE

See all of The Sun’s coverage of the Boulder King Soopers shooting.

So when a grocery store in neighboring Boulder was the scene of a deadly rampage last week, rattled employees at Marczyk’s were offered time off if they needed to step away for a few days. Johnson said he and his team were “in shock,” but launched into making sure the store was as safe as possible. 

Workers were already trained about what to do in the event of a hold-up — there’s a button to push to call police. But what they were imagining before was a robbery, not a person wielding an assault weapon intent on killing workers and shoppers.

“Don’t even say that”

Just three weeks before the shooting, Erik Cornell, a union representative for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, surveyed several Boulder grocery stores for safety issues. The union represents 17,000 grocery workers at stores across Colorado and Wyoming, including the Table Mesa King Soopers where the shooting took place.

The union has pushed to make sure stores keep their back rooms clear so employees can shelter there during dangerous situations; that employees know where exits are; and that emergency exits remain unobstructed. 

One common problem: Stores often stack unused cardboard displays behind emergency exits, said Cornell, who worked in supermarket meat departments for three decades, including 12 years for King Soopers. 

A sign sits propped against police fencing that blocks off the area around a King Soopers in south Boulder. Employees and community members stopped by to leave flowers and memorials the day after a gunman opened fire at the store and killed 10 people. (Lucy Haggard, The Colorado Sun)

While surveying a store recently, Cornell said he brought up a potential active shooter scenario to the assistant manager at one store where he found displays tucked behind emergency exits.  

“If you’ve got … 20 people trying to get out that door, it’ll trip people, cause problems,” Cornell said. “And she was like, ‘Well, don’t even say that.’

“That hit me as soon as I was driving to the (Boulder) store, when I got word this was happening. How crazy that we had just talked about that.”

“I want to go back”

Jeff Hooker, a part-time pick-up clerk at the Table Mesa King Soopers, is among those now wondering what he would have done and where he might have hidden if he had been at work on March 22.

Hooker was off that day, but was headed toward the store to drop off some bread requested by the manager. He was nearly there, when his phone blew up with notifications about the shooting, and Hooker immediately turned his car around and headed home. 

As a pick-up clerk, Hooker works out of an office at the front of the store, filling online orders and bringing them to customers’ cars. Now he wonders where he could have sought shelter given that the office has two swinging doors that don’t lock. 

“The gunman shot somebody at the customer service area, and then at the pharmacy. And that’s where the office for the pick-up department is,” Hooker said. “I was just hoping that nobody in our department was injured or killed.”

His coworkers are going through a range of emotions after the shooting: anxiety, fear, anger, grief. Some aren’t sure if they’ll return to work, while others are ready to go back to work right away — or they don’t want to miss a day because they can’t spare the pay. The company paid employees at the Table Mesa store through the end of last week, according to the union, but it’s unclear how long the store will remain closed as police comb through the supermarket for evidence. 

Investigators were clearing shelves of food and scouring the giant store for bullets and shell casings, Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said last week.

Since the gunman killed three King Soopers employees — Rikki Olds, 25; Denny Stong, 20; and Teri Leiker, 51 — many stores have also added armed security, according to some employees. An Instacart worker, 62-year-old Lynn Murray, and employee for a machine maintenance vendor, 23-year-old Neven Stanisic, also came to the Table Mesa store that day and were killed. 

Customers stroll in and out of a King Soopers store in Erie the day after 10 people were killed in a store in Boulder. The grocery giant placed armed contract guards near the entrances to its stores after the mass shooting at the Table Mesa King Soopers. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Representatives of King Soopers declined an interview for this story. In a statement, Kroger-King Soopers spokeswoman Kristal Howard said the company is “horrified and heartbroken” about the attack and that workers’ safety and well-being is its top priority. Mental health services were offered to employees, she said. 

Several King Soopers employees from various stores across Colorado said they were not allowed to talk to the media without permission from the corporate office.

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At the Table Mesa King Soopers, employees received an active-shooter training several months prior, said Hooker, who has worked there for six months. He was paying close attention, with the Columbine and Aurora movie theater shootings in the back of his mind.

“It’s very scary. It’s such a random event … when you’re hiding from a gunman, you don’t know whether the gunman has a plan developed or not, or if it’s just a random thing where they want to shoot whatever moves,” Hooker said. 

While the Table Mesa store is closed, Hooker is still looking to pick up shifts at another King Soopers in Boulder. But he says he definitely wants to return to work, to support his colleagues and to get the store up and running again. 

“I want to go back,” he said. “I want to help bring the store back to health, in some manner.”

Grocery stores don’t close for blizzards, fires, a pandemic

At Lucky’s Market in Boulder, across town from the King Soopers, manager Rick Kramer wondered how he would react if a shooter barged into his store. As a manager, it would fall to him to enact evacuation procedures. The only practice he has is a fire drill.

“The key is getting away,” he said. “I would make sure that everyone is out.”

Employees watched an active-shooter video a year or so ago, and in light of what happened last week, Lucky’s is making plans for its 90 staff members in Boulder and Fort Collins to watch it again, Kramer said. They recently went over protocol about what to do if a suspicious or violent person enters the store — the greeter is supposed to call the manager on duty. 

Customers shop at Marczyk Fine Foods on Saturday in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A handful of workers in Boulder didn’t want to come to work this week and were allowed to take time off, Kramer said. It’s a lot, he added, dealing with the emotions of a local mass shooting after the year they’ve just had. 

They’ve been cursed at and called names, only by some of the small percentage of customers who insist on shopping without a mask. 

“I’ve been told some really not-great names,” Kramer said. 

Grocery employees have been lauded as “heroes” during the coronavirus pandemic, as the stores have remained open even as restaurants closed to in-person dining and bars and other businesses shut down. But these workers have been taking risks for their jobs long before coronavirus was circulating, said Kim Cordova, president of UFCW Local 7.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a man-made or natural disaster — flood, blizzard, forest fires, grocery workers always work. They’re a critical part of the food-supply chain.

Kim Cordova, union president

“Grocery workers, it doesn’t matter if it’s a man-made or natural disaster — flood, blizzard, forest fires, grocery workers always work. They’re a critical part of the food-supply chain,” Cordova said. “They’ve had coworkers die (of COVID), yet they have to come back to work every day.”

Five grocery workers who were members of the union have died from coronavirus, according to UFCW.

Employees were already worried about their safety before the shooting, Cordova said. With restaurants and bars closed, people are hanging out at supermarkets more and taking out their anxieties on employees. And in addition to enduring upset customers, anti-maskers and altercations between shoppers, employees have also felt threatened by the possibility of shoplifters and robbers, who might have knives or guns. 

“They’ve been scared. And then for this shooting to happen, this really, really created more trauma for these employees,” she said. “People are worried about copycats.”

The union, which is in contract talks with King Soopers, also hopes the attention the public has paid to grocery workers during the pandemic, and after the shooting, will translate into support for other changes: security at stores, higher pay and better sick leave policies. For employees of Kroger, King Soopers’ parent company, the extra $2 an hour in pandemic hazard pay ended May 17, according to UFCW. 

A King Soopers grocery store worker at another Boulder location pushes shopping carts from the parking lot last Wednesday. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Many grocery store employees aren’t guaranteed full-time work, and pick up second jobs and have multiple roommates to make ends meet, Cornell said. 

“There’s times in the year they might get 40 hours, but even if they’re getting 40 hours, they’re not going to be paid an hourly rate which is … going to get them that standard of living,” Cornell said. “Boulder’s a pricey place. A tremendous amount of workers don’t live there … they drive in from Thornton, Arvada. 

“These companies had made huge profits during this pandemic.” 

Shooting could bring increased security to grocery stores

Workers across Colorado’s more than 150 King Soopers stores mourned together on social media and in person, many creating displays of flowers and balloons at their store entrances. At a Highlands Ranch store, someone laid 10 red roses in a circle on the ground for employees to find when they opened up the next morning. A group from a store near the Table Mesa location held a memorial for their King Soopers “family members” last week, and invited employees from across the state.

Cornell, the union representative, says there are mixed emotions — and mixed opinions about whether the Table Mesa King Soopers, which has 130 employees, needs to make changes in the wake of the shooting. 

King Soopers stores in Boulder County were patrolled by security the day after the mass shooting. (The Colorado Sun)

Unionized workers at the Table Mesa store range in age from 20 to 70, said Cornell, who called to check on each of them. 

“A lot of them have been really resilient. I didn’t realize how young some of them are, until I went through the list, calling them,” Cornell said. “There’s some of them that don’t plan on going back to work in the grocery store, and people who want security … and I have some members who said they want to negotiate, in the next contract, the ability to have concealed carry. So you’ve got people with all different opinions out there.”

Cornell said Rikki Olds, the 25-year-old manager who was killed in the shooting, was a fixture at all the stores where she worked, including locations in Louisville and Boulder. “Everyone knew her. Even one of my newer members had mentioned (Rikki) made her feel welcome at the store, and was just a really positive person,” he said.  

The company has been responsive in the wake of the shooting, Cornell said, but he hopes corporate officials and the public will think about the role of grocery workers beyond the pandemic and this tragedy.

They want to be valued, not just when somebody gets killed. It shouldn’t take a guy blowing away 10 people in a store, or a pandemic.

Erik Cornell, union representative

“They want to be valued, not just when somebody gets killed. It shouldn’t take a guy blowing away 10 people in a store, or a pandemic,” Cornell said. “I’m afraid what happens, once this blows over and COVID is gone, it’ll go back to the way it was — ‘You better be at work. You’d better not miss.’”

The union was already planning a memorial for its five grocery members who died of coronavirus, Cordova said — a combined event to also remember the six employees of the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley who died from the virus. 

Now, they’re discussing how best to honor, too, the lives taken in a mass shooting.


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