Lifting Worker Voices in the Pandemic: Eddie Quezada
Interview - Conducted by Johnnie Kallas, Ph.D. Student (Labor Relations)
Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations
Interview conducted May 6th, 2020
Eddie Quezada has worked in the produce department of the grocery industry for 32 years. He has worked for Stop & Shop on Long Island, New York, since 2015. He is a Covid-19 survivor. A huge influx of customers hit the store beginning in mid-late March and since his return to work, he still witnesses social distancing guidelines sometimes being ignored. He is a shop steward and executive board member with Local 338 RWDSU-UFCW.
Johnnie Kallas: How long have you worked in the field and in what positions?
Eddie Quezada: I have worked in my current field for 32 years. I started in 1988 as a part-timer working produce. At the time I worked for Waldbaum's, and then in 2015 they went out of business and I was picked up by Stop n Shop. (I have) been there ever since then. I became a manager in the produce department in 1997 and been a manager ever since then. That’s my current position.
J: What union do you belong to and for how long?
E: I belong to Local 338 of RWDSU and I’ve been with them for 32 years. I am also a shop steward at the local level in the store and I am an executive board member with the union.
J: Do you work out on Long Island?
E: Correct, Nassau County.
J: What was your work like before coronavirus?
E: Normal day I come in at 6am. I clean up the department. When you work in produce you like to go through the department, check bad stuff on the stand, straighten out bananas, check the dates on the salads. I dedicate the first hour to clean up. After that, we start to bring out the product that we need. We take care of all the normal stuff first. As the day goes by we just keep filling the department. We get deliveries and put those away. We make an order for the next day. That’s pretty much a basic day at work.
J: How has coronavirus impacted your work?
E: First of all, the influx of business. When the President decided to take this serious last month, maybe in March, he addressed the nation. The following day we saw a $200,000 increase in a single day. That led to 10 days of nonstop shopping from customers. I don’t know if the President taking it seriously caused a little bit of panic shopping but definitely an influx of business and obviously more people in the store than normal.
J: How about for you as workers? You’re in as close corridors as you can get, right?
E: We’re trying, though it’s not working 100%. We now have designated aisles as far as one way to shop. You can go up this aisle and come down the next aisle with tape on the floor and constant announcements that the store is one-way shopping to avoid customers intersecting with each other. When they are ready to check out there is a tape that is every six feet and they have to wait on the tape until they are called and then everybody moves up six feet. As far as people respecting that, I don’t really see it as much as I’d like to. I’m in the process of putting the product on the stand and there are people reaching over me to grab stuff. That’s the new norm that people can’t get used to yet, to respect the six feet no matter what they are doing. If I were in their position and I need something and they are cleaning it out, I would wait until they are done or ask permission to come over. Some customers do that, but I feel like they are not respecting the social distancing as well as they should.
J: Are they abiding now by the mask mandate?
E: Yes, every employee has to wear one. Every customer entering the store has to wear one.
J: What about other PPE? Were you given it early on?
E: PPE did not come into the store until mid-April. I got sick on March 31st. The day that I got sick, there were no masks for the employees. At the time we were told we could wear it out of our choice if we wanted to. I actually would wear a face shield that goes on your neck and you bring it up to cover your face. I was wearing that when I felt that I was being surrounded by too many people. At the time that I got sick, we had none of that. They were only putting up the partitions at the registers at the time.
J: I did not realize that you were sick with the virus. Are you feeling better now?
E: Yes, I actually contracted the virus at the end of March. I’m 100% better. My two kids did not get it. After I got my test and it came back positive a few days later my wife got tested and she came back negative. My family is in good health.
J: I am very glad you are better and your family is doing well. Do you know how you contracted the virus?
E: I don’t have 100% concrete proof that I got sick at work but my normal routine is work-home-work-home and at the time I got sick, none of the regulations were in place with the social distancing or the mandatory masks.
J: In addition to how bad the virus is, what was the economic impact for you?
E: I missed work for exactly two weeks. On March 31st, a Tuesday, I went to work and I was overcome by heat. Took off my jacket and went back to work. Then I was overcome by the chills. I knew something wasn’t right, so I left early at 12:30 pm and went home. I wasn’t feeling well, went to bed, and the next day was my day off. I thought I would recover on my day off. I felt a lot worse the next day. The fever hit me and it hit me for eight straight days. I contacted work. I knew the rules that if I’m sick I should stay home. I stayed home and eventually got to see the doctor who told me to get a test. The test came back positive.
J: Was there an outbreak in the store that you heard about after the fact?
E: I heard after. When I got sick, to my knowledge, nobody in the store was sick. After I got sick I found out that a female employee requested the week off before me. She asked not to work. The company is giving you the option, not forcing you to work if you are not comfortable working. They are giving you the time off. They are not paying you, so if you want to use your own time you can.. One of the female employees upfront by the register took time off before I did. She contracted it. Another person in the deli got sick before both of us. Our cases are very low in the store. We have a pretty big staff and from what I hear it is maybe five or six that have come in contact with it. I did get paid the two weeks I was off. It was separate from my personal or vacation time.
J: What do you think could have been done differently and what can be done going forward?
E: They should limit the amount of people in the store. One of the guidelines not being followed is that there should be one customer per wagon. We are still getting a family of three come into the shop or a husband and wife shopping. I think they should limit the amount of people in the store. If you’re shopping with a three-year-old child I get that part. What irks me is when I see three young kids just shopping together. One guy is buying beer and the other one is buying chips. The amount of people in the store should be limited down to the bare necessity and that’s the only thing that is really bugging me right now. I do like the partitions on top of every register. Customer service has big plexiglass covering their front desk. I like the one-way aisles up and down. I like six feet for the checkouts. At the end of the day, all that stuff does not matter if they are letting all of these people in the store so that maybe they should really crack down on one shopper/wagon policy.
J: How much of your time is spent on the floor versus in the back?
E: I probably spend 50% on the floor and 50% in the backroom or office making orders and paper work. It puts me in kind of the safer position. My other guys are on the floor 90% of the time. My fear is more for them than for me, but obviously, I was the lucky one who got it anyway. At this point, they are in a more vulnerable position than I am.
J: What have you and your union done in response?
E: My union rep is in constant contact with me as far as “do we need anything.” They are more concerned that we have masks, sanitizer, soap, and all of that is available 24-7. They tell you to wash your hands, last thing you want to do is go in the bathroom and there is no soap. For the most part, they are doing a good job of that. I have not seen an incident where we have run out of soap. The company has supplied us with sanitizer and soap. We keep it at my desk. The union does the same thing. They come with masks, here’s some extra ones just in case. Here’s bottomless sanitizer in case you need it. My union has responded very well with that. I am constantly in contact with them and they are checking to make sure we are in a good place at work.
J: So has the company been taking it more seriously since you got sick? Before that, maybe they were a little late in response?
E: I would agree with that. I wish we would have had the masks or social distancing two weeks earlier. We were definitely late as far as reacting. They didn’t do this because I got sick. They did it because of Cuomo’s updates. We have to make sure the masks and social distancing are taken seriously. I don’t blame anybody for me getting sick. I was probably just at the wrong place at the wrong time. If we would have taken some of these policies earlier, maybe I would have not gotten sick. Maybe down the road some of our other employees don’t get sick.
J: You work in an industry that people are valuing a lot more now than they did two months ago. It’s often underpaid work and nonunion work. Do you think this crisis will lead to a stronger labor movement in your industry and better job standards?
E: First of all, we do get the thank you’s from the customers and we appreciate that. We’re being valued more. I don’t put ourselves with the doctors and nurses, they are the real superheroes. We’re probably the next tier down to keep the country rolling. It seems like it will give us good negotiating power down the road to say we’re not just grocery workers. What we did in the time of need is we kept this country fed and communities fed. We kept coming to work at our own risk. Some of us got sick. We did not stray from our responsibility to the community. For us, down the road, it’s good negotiating power especially since every time contract negotiations come up usually the company wants to take things away. I am hoping that this tells them that we are more valuable than you think.
As far as the coronavirus, it’s very nasty. I lost 25 pounds. I don’t recommend anybody on the corona diet. It’s not a fun thing. Eight days with a fever is also a mental challenge. It wasn’t just a physical challenge. If I could tell people I would say to take it seriously. Follow the guidelines. Go out with a mask on and respect the six feet. I know people might not respect my six feet but I do respect their six feet. I thank my fellow co-workers for doing their jobs as well.
Photo of Eddie Quezada.