Berkeley Bowl Marketplace on Oregon Street in Berkeley. Photo: Sarah Han
Berkeley Bowl Marketplace was where the COVID-19 outbreak first started. Photo: Sarah Han

After workers at two Berkeley Bowl stores came down with the coronavirus in late June and early July, management did not tell its staff immediately about the outbreak, did not follow its own social distancing protocols and guidelines, was not clear about sick leave policies or testing options, and was dismissive towards workers who expressed concern about their health and safety, according to a number of current Berkeley Bowl employees.

Seven employees reached out to Berkeleyside after a July 9 story that detailed how multiple employees at both Berkeley Bowl grocery stores tested positive for COVID-19. They expressed a range of feelings about how the outbreaks were handled, from fear to anger to frustration. Berkeleyside granted anonymity to workers who said they feared retaliation by management for speaking to the media. Names have been changed to protect these individuals.

Coronavirus outbreak started at “main”

The COVID-19 outbreak started at Berkeley Bowl Marketplace on Oregon Street, which many call the “main” store. General manager Steve Tsujimoto told Berkeleyside that Berkeley Bowl learned of the first positive cases at main in late June and that the store has been going above and beyond to adhere to guidelines from the city of Berkeley and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to keep staff and customers safe. He said a few unhappy employees do not represent the entire staff.

“We get employees all the time thanking us [for our pandemic response]. They come up a lot,” Tsujimoto said. “A lot of people understand what we’re doing and appreciate it.”

This has not been the experience of Darren Ran, who works at the main store in a public-serving department where an individual tested positive (Berkeleyside is not identifying the department to protect Ran’s privacy). In an email sent to Berkeleyside on July 9, Ran said he worked shifts with a “clearly sick” individual. Management did not send the employee home, even when other staff members brought the sick employee to their attention, he said.

“We were shocked that they let them continue to work,” Ran said. “In this case, management was warned about an employee who then continued to work for another day and finally tested positive [for COVID-19] only after co-workers forced him to be tested. Because of cases like this, there is a general consensus amongst employees that management has absolutely zero concern for the safety of employees or even customers.”

Tsujimoto said in a follow-up phone interview with Berkeleyside that he was skeptical of Ran’s account.

“That feels strange to me,” he said. “They told management and they refused to send them home. That doesn’t fit protocol. That doesn’t pass the smell test to me,” he said. Employees are always asked to go home if they are feeling sick at all, said Tsujimoto.

Berkeley Bowl told employees about the positive cases at main on June 27, said Tsujimoto. Management contacted employees who may have had close contact with the staffers who tested positive, information it gleaned through contact tracing. Those team members were told to quarantine for 14 days and return to work only when they tested negative for COVID-19, he said.

That same day, department managers were informed of the cases and were told to have one-on-one meetings with employees to share the news. A bulletin with these details was also posted by the time clock and in the break room at main, Tsujimoto said.

“Everybody in the store was told one way or another,” Tsujimoto said. Since Berkeley Bowl has more than 600 employees, all who have different schedules, management could not convey the news to all its employees in an all-hands meeting, he said. Berkeley Bowl relies on individual department managers to convey information to its staff. It’s possible that some people didn’t get the news right away, especially if they were out on vacation or out sick on the day that managers first shared the news, he said.

“This is all new to us. We’re just trying to do what’s right for everybody,” Tsujimoto said, expressing a sentiment shared by many business owners during the pandemic, most who’ve had to scramble to change their business practices to meet new health and safety guidelines.

The city of Berkeley has many guidelines on its website that businesses must follow during the pandemic and offers downloadable materials such as signs requiring face masks and how to prepare a site-specific safety plan. The city also has suggestions on how to inform employees of safety and social distancing protocols. But there is no clear guidance on the website about what to do when employees get sick with the virus. Berkeley is planning to add those soon and is currently communicating those guidelines verbally to stricken businesses around the city, according to Matthai Chakko, the city spokesperson. The city is also offering on-site testing services to many businesses.

Rumors spread the news

A few days after employees at the main store came down with COVID-19, some workers at Berkeley Bowl West also got sick.

Berkeley Bowl West posted a public alert with the news at the entrance on July 1. It wasn’t until several days later that Berkeley Bowl West employees heard the virus had impacted their store too, said cashier Victor Elias.

Serena Lopes, another Berkeley Bowl West cashier, said her manager didn’t relay the news of the positive employees until July 5, during their weekly department meeting.

Mark Modrian, another Berkeley Bowl West employee who works in the deli department, said when word began to spread among his colleagues, management said, “We can’t speak about it. Unofficially, we can tell you. I can’t tell you who, but pay attention to who’s missing.” Modrian said his supervisor confirmed on July 6 that both Berkeley Bowl stores had a total of 15 cases.

“Employees were not notified at all,” said Berkeley Bowl West employee Michael Lee. “The rumors of an outbreak circulated as hearsay for two weeks, and we were told by management to not worry about it, and especially not to talk about it. Nobody had an inkling of the real truth until your article was published,” Lee wrote to Berkeleyside.

Those opaque communications fueled the spread of rumors, which have added to workers’ concern.

Berkeley Bowl West. Photo: Sarah Han
Berkeley Bowl West. Photo: Sarah Han

Several workers we spoke with described a breakdown in communication between “upstairs” (the stores’ owners, human resources department, general manager and store manager) and “downstairs” (workers) that has existed even before the first coronavirus cases had been identified at either store.

“The experience at Berkeley Bowl in the midst of COVID-19 has been a world of confusion, miscommunication, stress, anger and poor management,” said another worker, Lisa May.

“I don’t feel safe. There is no communication between management and downstairs. We would not be panicking right now if there was more communication,” Elias said.

“Everything is hush-hush right now, trying to keep it as quiet as possible, keep people from speaking,” Lopes said.

“Management reached out to us because a ton of us were asking questions. A lot of management denied it at first, but at a meeting, they finally told us yes, there have been cases, but they only told us because we had asked,” Lopes said. “There was a lot of gossip already, we were already getting really scared. “

Testing, testing — is this thing on?

Berkeley Bowl maintains that all employees have been encouraged, but not required, to get free testing. When the outbreak at main was first announced, the Oregon Street store set up a mobile testing site with help from the city, where it tested 50 employees. Tsujimoto said all employees were also told about free testing sites they could access on their own time.

But according to employees, testing information has not been clear, or in some cases, not given at all.

“I haven’t heard any mentions of testing, haven’t heard places to do it and I don’t hear if it’s covered,” Lopes said.

“Management claims they provided free testing to anyone who had close contact, but since nobody knew the whole truth until [July 9, when Berkeleyside published its story], and nobody was consulted, there is no way they can know who was in close contact, or not,” said Lee.

Tsujimoto said information is posted all over the store about free testing, including in the July employee newsletter, which has information about location, hours and contact information to make an appointment for a test. When asked by Berkeleyside whether he believes employees read the newsletter, he said, “I don’t know.”

Improving communication with employees

This week, Berkeley Bowl offered three more days of on-site testing at main and plans to offer two on-site testing days at Berkeley Bowl West next week. On July 10, Berkeley Bowl launched a new system to send texts to all employees at once, which it hopes will better communicate important updates to staff. Tsujimoto said it’s taken a while to get the system up and running because Berkeley Bowl had to get employees’ permission and have them opt in to receive the messages.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has many employees worried about what to do if they get sick. Pay for sick days is accrued, but might not be sufficient for the coronavirus. Some employees are confused.

“Honestly, if they cleared these policies up… They haven’t said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you can use more sick days,’” said Lopes. “People are still scared, if I call in too much and if I’m sick on the day before my off day… I’m scared,” she said.

Ran agreed; he said information about sick leave has been scarce. “No one has yet to inform me on what will happen if I test positive or what has happened with the alleged cases as far as pay. Sick hours are limited and accrued,” he wrote.

In response, Tsujimoto told Berkeleyside that if employees are confused about the sick leave policy, this is something that HR will address and clarify. He said employees who test positive for COVID-19 or who are asked to quarantine are given paid leave until they test negative. And, if their illness lasts beyond 14 days, they are paid for that time too. However, if an employee chooses not to come to work just because they fear for their health or safety, they have to use their sick hours or take unpaid leave.

Employees were notified about the upcoming on-site testing date through the new texting system. They were also texted about temperature screening, which started Monday. Before clocking in, workers must fill out a pre-screening questionnaire and have their temperature scanned. An employee shared a screenshot of the text messages from Berkeley Bowl about the new screening system, which clearly stated who, what, when, where and why the new measures were taking place. The messages were written in a friendly tone, and even ended with an encouraging sign off: “You are all doing an awesome job!!! Berkeley Bowl Management”

Berkeley Bowl business has flagged because of COVID-19

Tsujimoto said Berkeley Bowl employees’ health is the management’s number one priority, even if it affects the company’s bottom line.

“We’re down in sales, but we didn’t want to lay anybody off,” Tsujimoto said. “We’re keeping everybody employed.” He said business has flagged because the store has been stringent about its safety measures, including limiting capacity inside. “But that was all done because we’re more concerned about safety than profits,” he said.

However, the employees Berkeleyside spoke to said they didn’t feel safe because management has not been properly enforcing its social distancing protocols amongst customers.

Both Elias and Lopes believe the store is letting in more customers than it should. According to Elias, he was told the maximum number of shoppers allowed in the store since the pandemic is 200, but he said lately, that number has seemed to grow.

A manager told Lopes they used to let in 180 people at a time, but now are letting in 220, sometimes even more, especially before the end of the day.

“Now they’re letting in 220 to 230. The store feels really packed when they do that,” she said. “They let anyone in the store around 4-5 p.m., they let everyone in. I know some of the people who count at the door. They tell me around 7:30 p.m., 30 minutes before we close, we just let people in. The store feels extra crowded during those times.”

The line to get into Berkeley Bowl Marketplace could sometimes wrap around the block, due to social distancing measures and the store’s limited occupancy. Photo: Pete Rosos

When Berkeley Bowl first started limiting capacity, it was allowing 125 customers at once inside at main and 175 at Berkeley Bowl West, Tsujimoto said. In June, it increased that number to 200. “We were getting a better handle on what was too much or too little,” he explained. But after the outbreak at the stores, Berkeley Bowl went back to allowing just 125 and 175 customers in at a time, he said.

Even so, Berkeley Bowl has always been under its allowed maximum occupancy, Tsujimoto said. Under CDC guidelines, retail businesses can allow up to half their original capacity. If Berkeley Bowl were to follow CDC guidance, it could let in around 500 customers at a time. Tsujimoto also discounts Lopes’ claim that the store is overly crowded in the evening.

“We have the records that we have no customers in at night now,” Tsujimoto said. “There’s nobody coming at night. It’s the slowest time of day.” He said business is so slow in the evening that Berkeley Bowl is closing earlier on Sundays. Starting this week, the store will close on Sundays at 6 p.m.

The customers aren’t always right

Another concern is the action of customers. Although Berkeley Bowl asks that customers wait until the shopper at the check-out counter completes his or her transaction and leaves the area before they can approach and load their groceries onto the conveyor belt, many customers are not complying with this request, according to two cashiers Berkeleyside interviewed. Cashiers often have to tell customers to follow the rules, said Elias. In some cases, security guards or managers will have to step in, but he said, they often take the side of the customer.

“Last week, a cashier was telling a customer to wait a little bit, and the person started causing a scene,” Elias said. “Loss and prevention security guards were called. The security guard accused the cashier of upsetting the customer, the employee was seen as the cause.”

Other scofflaw customers are not keeping their masks on once inside, and Elias said rather than approach non-compliant shoppers, management will make an announcement over the loudspeaker reminding them that masks are required in the store.

“They make the announcement every day now. During a shift I hear it three to four times within an hour,” Elias said. “I feel like people are thinking, they’re letting more people in, they feel it’s safe and they take off their mask.”

A customer waits for the shopper before him to complete his transaction at Berkeley Bowl West. Photo: Sarah Han
A customer waits for the shopper before him to complete his transaction at Berkeley Bowl West. Photo: Sarah Han

Tsujimoto said anyone who comes into the store is required to wear a mask, whether it’s customers, management, employees, buyers or vendors. If customers have a health condition that makes them unable to wear a mask, the store asks them to use Instacart to order groceries online, or request an employee to shop for them. Along with the loudspeaker reminders that are repeated throughout the day, Tsujimoto claimed that management and supervisors will talk to shoppers who are not wearing masks.

In his email to Berkeleyside, Lee was concerned about customers who were not social distancing in the store. “The statement that Berkeley Bowl was one of the first essential businesses to instate social distancing, and is maintaining a high standard, is an outright lie,” he wrote. “Since the onset of this crisis, I have repeatedly informed my managers of constant social distancing violations, and I am always waved off, as many of the violations are committed by the managers themselves.”

In response, Tsujimoto said customers are mostly social distancing, but “if six people decide to go to the flour at the same time,” the store cannot control that. Still, he said, for the most part, customers are at low-risk if they momentarily come closer than six feet of each other. CDC guidelines define “close contact” as when people are less than six feet from each other for 15 minutes or more at a time.

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Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...