By Emily Dill and Jordan Varney
(Editor’s note: this is part one of a two-part article—part two will follow next week).
DAVIS — On Jan. 24, the Vanguard reported that an employee at the Davis Ace Hardware was placed on suspension, pending investigation, for addressing safety concerns to the corporate office. This employee was later fired and filed an “unfair labor practice claim” through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against the company. In early February, the NLRB found merit to the claim. The settlement included the former employee’s suspension and termination being cleared.
Since the recent uproar across social media about COVID-19 cases at the Davis Ace Hardware, the Vanguard began investigating allegations of mishandling COVID-19 regulations and other incidents at the Davis Ace.
To understand the situation at the Davis Ace, the Vanguard talked to multiple current and former employees and reached out to management and the corporate owners—who have not responded to comment.
Our sources expressed that “there is a lot of fear around COVID” at the store, and that the work environment has become more tense due to “a lot of people being worried about the rules that should be enacted, and whether or not we were doing enough [to combat COVID-19].”
Multiple sources told us that there have been six confirmed coronavirus cases among Davis Ace staff, which is a large proportion considering that 40 employees work at the store.
The first two COVID-19 cases at Davis Ace were from active employees who, according to sources, were not working when they contracted the virus. On Dec. 2 there was a third positive case, this time an active worker, and on Dec. 18 a fourth—active worker as well.
With two cases within just a couple weeks, some employees “weren’t satisfied with management’s response,” especially given that “this was right before Christmas, and [the store is] very busy at this time.” The holiday season was worrisome for some employees because the “store capacity was still over 100 people at a time” and prior to the Yolo County lockdown in December, capacity was as high as 150 people.
Davis Ace acquired the Green Check from Yolo County in mid-December showing that “they are in compliance with state and local guidance regarding COVID-19 and that public health and safety is a priority.” This program has a checklist of protocols that must be met in order to obtain a Green Check.
Davis Ace has been following the protocols “as well as possible,” said one employee. Masks and gloves are available and cleaning protocols have been enacted. Some sources mentioned that a worker from the county came out to do an inspection of the store for the Green Check certification. No staff member that the Vanguard talked to saw or met the individual, but heard from management that they passed inspection. When the Vanguard contacted Yolo County about the requirements to receive a Green Check, the county did not mention that a store visit was required.
Employees had different viewpoints on how accessible personal protective equipment (PPE) was, as one stated that “whenever we need anything we just ask for it and [management] comes running with whatever we asked for.” Another employee said that earlier in the pandemic, PPE was lacking and “several employees made a habit of asking management for masks whenever we could,” and only then did management “finally start providing them.”
The safety rules changed frequently, in order to keep in compliance with the evolving CDC requirements. One employee stated they “feel like that’s definitely where management could have handled it better,” and that with communication of the changing rules “management kind of flopped.”
At first, employees were encouraged to wear gloves at the cash registers, and then later that rule became a requirement. Davis Ace was not taking returns for a period of time but then changed to quarantining the items if they could not be sanitized.
A cleaning coordinator position was established where one employee cleaned and sanitized around the store and workers would rotate into it each hour. “Everyone is pretty good about it,” said one source. “At the end of one cleaning coordinator’s shift, they will look up the next person while checking themselves off the shift.”
The system to assign the cleaning coordinator shifts has now been moved to the Ace employee’s online portal that they check daily, but one source told us “beforehand it was kind of just on the employees to check [the schedule], so a lot of people missed it.”
One issue with this position is that at first “a lot of people weren’t ever trained on it,” meaning the cleaning procedure was not specified. An employee stated that “some of [these protocols] were put into place after the initial community backlash.”
The main registers on the north end of the hardware building concern employees during the store’s busy hours. When only two registers are being used, six feet of space can be maintained between workers, but when the store gets busy and they open a third register, there is no longer space for six feet of distance between employees.
When workers expressed concern over this, they “were told they could only social distance there if there wasn’t a line, making it clear that customers and profit are valued over employee safety,” said one employee.
The COVID-19 issues are not just between employees and management at Davis Ace. “You try as much as you can to social distance, and then customers are yelling at us because we aren’t going fast enough,” said one employee, regarding the lines at the main register. “The problem of social distancing has never really been a problem between employees as much as between the customer and the employee,” said one worker.
Staff was encouraged to have a manager speak to customers having an issue with the COVID-19 protocols required in the store rather than discussing the conflict with the customer themselves. Employees reported that Davis Ace has various signs located throughout the store to encourage social distancing and mask usage.
The protocols in Davis Ace’s worker break room were changed recently on Jan. 12. Up until this date, “four people could eat with their mask off in the break room at a time,” said an employee. Now “only one person can have their mask off at a time [in the break room].”
Some employees felt that management has not been doing an adequate job with new protocols and keeping workers safe and informed. A current worker at Ace stated, “I don’t hate the work itself, but I do want to quit because of the company’s response to the pandemic.” Other employees differed, one saying they have “zero complaints thus far, management has actually been very responsive.”
The COVID-19 fears that various employees spoke of was not only their being worried about contracting the virus, they were also worried about the required quarantining period and therefore loss of sick leave and paid time off.
One Davis Ace worker was “possibly exposed to [COVID-19] back in the beginning of December” and could not come back to work until receiving a negative test over a week later.
Another employee was “exposed to two different people at work who wound up testing positive for COVID,” and “was out for about a week and a half.”
A source walked us through the process of exposure, stating “if you hadn’t already used up all your paid sick leave, you’d fill out a form, if not you would take a hit to your paid time off which we acquire very slowly.” It was estimated by various employees that their paid time off equates to three hours accumulated for every 80 hours worked.
One employee explained their circumstances of having been exposed multiple times at Davis Ace: “I’m out of emergency sick leave time and will have to use paid time off if I wind up having to quarantine due to contact at work again.”
When a worker’s sick leave and paid time off have been used, “you don’t get paid, there aren’t any other benefits,” one source explained. “They were required to give us, I believe, ten days of paid sick leave, but that’s all the way back to March so if you have to quarantine more than once you’re already done with them.”
Quarantining more than once requires so much time away from work that it can be detrimental to some, as a source pointed out “most of us are paid so little that we couldn’t rely on savings for long, if at all.”
Employees must have a negative test to return to work after their quarantine period, and “if you have symptoms you have to go through your healthcare from the store,” one stated stated, “which isn’t an option for a lot of people.”
Part-time workers are not given healthcare through Ace Hardware. A part-time employee said that if they thought they contracted COVID-19 they would “go to the Mondavi Center [Healthy Davis Together] once my symptoms were over to get tested.”
Healthy Davis Together is a program offering free COVID-19 testing in and around Davis to “facilitate a coordinated and gradual return while preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the Davis community.” However, this program “only works for people who aren’t symptomatic,” said a source.
Davis Ace employees are notified by email when a coworker has tested positive and if they were exposed to said person or not. Contact tracing is conducted by Davis Ace’s human resources (HR) representative who, since the company was bought by Crown Ace Hardware in April 2019, works at the Crown corporate offices in Huntington Beach.
One employee explained that the store experienced a number of positive cases in December with “lackluster contact tracing” that led to additional exposure, resulting in “about half the staff calling out [sick] at one point due to concerns [of being exposed] or were quarantining.”
When prompted about whether closing the store for a period of time was ever discussed, one source answered no, but that “they would send out emails talking about how proud they are that they can remain open after someone would test positive.”
An email that the Vanguard obtained from Crown Ace HR to Davis Ace workers detailing a positive COVID-19 case at the store says “within the last 24 business hours the company learned that a person has tested positive for COVID-19,” and continues to state they are “profoundly grateful to have been deemed an essential business,” and that “the company is absolutely committed to remaining open to serve our communities.”
Another employee, when asked about possible store closure, informed us that it was never discussed in relation to the multiple positive COVID-19 cases among workers, “but for the sake of the rat infestation, we are trying to avoid it.”
Amid a pandemic, Davis Ace is “also dealing with a rat infestation, which is putting a lot of employees at danger of catching different diseases,” said one source.
Current workers explained that rats “were in the barn first, and then they got into the pet department,” where the rats would get into the bird seed and dog food. Some employees seemed less bothered than others by the problem, with one explaining that they have to “throw out the product if they find any bite marks,” which can be a “wee bit bothersome.”
“Ace has been hiring professional exterminators to try and come in and deal with the rats,” explained another employee, but that there has been little progress considering “the rats are literally living in the insulation of the roofing.” Employees stated that “it seems like it’s getting worse.”
“A dilemma that is drawing closer and closer to a conclusion by the day,” is how one employee is looking at the situation, indicating that the first time the Davis Ace closes during the pandemic may not be because of its multiple positive COVID-19 cases but because of the rat colony that lives in the building.
The Vanguard reached out to management at both the Davis Ace and corporate Crown Ace and has not heard back yet.
COVID-19 and a rat infestation are just a piece to this story that the Vanguard will be continuing.
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