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LA County Ralphs, Food 4 Less Stores Cited For Failing To Protect Employees From COVID-19

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — Five grocery stores in Los Angeles County have been cited for failing to protect their employees from COVID-19.

Four local Ralphs branches and one Food 4 Less branch were cited for various health and safety violations — including some classified as serious — with proposed penalties ranging from $13,500 to $25,560, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health said Wednesday.

Cal/OSHA found that Ralphs failed to properly notify the state after two workers at two different stores died from COVID-19. At a Food 4 Less, the agency found that employees could not maintain physical distancing between themselves and customers.

"Grocery retail workers are on the front lines and face a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19," Cal/OSHA Chief Doug Parker said. "Employers in this industry must investigate possible causes of employee illness and put in place the necessary measures to protect their staff."

Cited for violations were a Food 4 Less in Los Angeles and Ralphs stores in Studio City, Sherman Oaks, West Hollywood and Culver City.

According to regulators, the stores in Los Angeles, Studio City, Sherman Oaks and West Hollywood put workers at risk for serious illness by allowing too many customers in the store, preventing workers from maintaining physical distance. They also found the Studio City location exposed workers in the cheese department by not installing physical barriers between employees and customers. The West Hollywood  also failed to install barriers at cash registers.

Inspectors also determined that both the Culver City and West Hollywood locations failed to effectively  train employees on how the virus is spread and how to avoid infection, signs and symptoms of infection and how to safely use cleaners and disinfectants.

The Culver city and Sherman Oaks locations failed to report that a worker had died from COVID-19. Regulators said Cal/OSHA learned of the fatality at the Culver City store one week later and six days later at the Sherman Oaks location.

Cal/OSHA proposed a $25,560 penalty for the Culver City location, $25,120 for the West Hollywood location, $23,700 for the Sherman Oaks location, $13,500 for the Studio City location and $16,500 for the Food 4 Less in Los Angeles.

"I am happy to see that Cal/OSHA has completed its investigation and found that Ralphs did not do what it was supposed to keep people safe," Jackie Mayoral, an employee at a Ralphs in Hollywood, said. "People are still getting sick and safety measures are still implemented inconsistently. My hope is that Ralphs will take these citations seriously and do its part to stop the spread of the virus, especially at a time when its profits are record high."

According to UCFW Local 770, the union that represents more than 20,000 grocery workers in the Los Angeles area, Mayoral contracted COVID-19 and led the call for changes inside the store to keep customers and workers safe.

A spokesperson for the supermarket chain said the company would appeal the fines.

"The press release issued by the Department of Labor Relations is a misrepresentation of the facts. Many of the citations date back to the early onset of the coronavirus pandemic, before Cal/OSHA even provided guidelines for worker safety," John Votava, director of corporate affairs for Kroger's Ralphs division, said. "To be clear, the safety of our associates and customers is our top priority.

"Since March, we have proactively invested more than $1 billion to both reward our associates and to safeguard them and our customers through the implementation of dozens of safety measures. The company's total COVID-19 incident rate continues to track meaningfully below the rate in the surrounding communities where we operate."

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)

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