Citing the risk of contracting COVID-19 at their workplaces, a group of janitors who clean Safeway stores across the Bay Area protested in Palo Alto on Thursday to demand safeguards for their health and financial security.
About 80-100 people showed up for an "Essential Workers Caravan" to show support for the contract employees, said Jane Martin, an organizer for Service Employees International Union, United Services Workers West (SEIU-USWW), which represents the janitors at the center of Thursday's action. The workers, many of whom are Latino, are in some cases supporting family members who have lost their jobs due to the economic shutdown, she said.
Ten janitors contracted to work in northern California Safeway stores have tested positive of COVID-19, according to the union, which represents more than 20,000 janitors statewide.
"When the clients come into the stores, everything is clean because of us," janitor Jesus Barrios said in Spanish. Barrios, who lives and works in Contra Costa County, took part in the protest with his daughters, Guadalupe and Susana.
"We are essential workers and we run the risk of contracting the virus. We deserve higher wages because we are at high risk," he said.
The caravan began at a parking lot along West Bayshore Road, near U.S. Highway 101, and drove to the Midtown Safeway on Middlefield Road, where the procession circled around the parking lot. Many participants decorated their cars and tied balloons to their vehicles.
The group is calling on Safeway to add $2 to contracted janitors' hourly wage, which Martin called "hazard pay." That amount is currently offered to janitors who have been directly hired by the supermarket chain rather than by contract.
The added compensation would recognize the dangers janitors face at their workplaces, where the employees often work night shifts after the grocery stores close to disinfect surfaces and clean bathrooms before customers return the following day, she said.
Most janitors are paid $16.20 an hour, a rate that will be renegotiated later this year, according to SEIU-USWW bargaining director Mark Sharwood. Most also benefit from paid family health coverage, up to 50 cents an hour in pension benefits, five days of paid sick leave, six paid holidays, four weeks of paid vacation and paid funeral leave.
Contracted janitors are also looking to receive adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, said Martin, who recalled speaking to a janitor who said his store supplies workers with face masks but at times faces a shortage of gloves.
The group also made calls for the passage of the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act), a $3 trillion federal package that would issue a second round of stimulus checks and extend a $600 weekly payment for the unemployed. The legislation gained the House's approval in May and awaits a vote from the U.S. Senate.
Thursday's protest ended at the Stanford Oval to raise awareness of the university's contracted janitors who have stopped receiving compensation since mid-June due to the shutdown. In April, the university announced it would continue pay and benefits for contracted service workers through June 15 amid pressure from the campus community.
The caravan, the only one in the Bay Area, was part of several protests across the state that sought to lobby for protections for essential workers, such as security officers and airport workers, who are on the frontlines of the pandemic.
A request for comment from Albertsons Companies, which owns Safeway, was not returned on Thursday.
Embarcadero Media Chief Visual Journalist Magali Gauthier contributed to this report.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.