Kroger closes two California grocery stores because it refuses to give 'hero pay' to workers
via Saul Gonzalez / Twitter and Tod Perry

In the early days of the pandemic, people across the country flocked to grocery stores to stock up, fearing the worst. I remember rolling my cart into my local Ralph's, on the eastside of Long Beach, California, and the store was seriously picked over. The paper products aisle was like a ghost town and shoppers all had thousand-yard stares.

Everyone looked at each other seemingly thinking, "Do they have the virus?"

My heart caved when I got to the checkout aisle and saw the checker in a facemask with black gloves. There was a newly-installed clear shield that stood between us.


I remember thinking to myself, "All of these workers are going to get sick. Some will die." I can't imagine the stress and anxiety these people on the front lines felt, especially in the early days of the pandemic. The worst thing is that most had no choice. You can't just quit your job in the middle of a pandemic and hope to find new work.

They were all sitting ducks.

My experience at the Ralph's on Los Coyotes Boulevard inspired me to write an op-ed in Upworthy posing the idea we should have tip jars at our supermarkets. That way we can all thank the employees for the extreme risk they're taking so we could feed our families.

Photo by Tod Perry

Eleven months later, my local Ralph's is being closed by its parent company, Kroger, because it refuses to pay $4 an hour in "hero pay" imposed by the city. Long Beach, the second-most populous city in Los Angeles County, is the first in America to give a mandated raise to its grocery store employees who've risked everything for their jobs.

Kroger is also closing a Food for Less in North Long Beach, a low-income neighborhood where discounted food items are a necessity, especially in these times.

On January 19, the City Council unanimously approved the 120-day hero pay ordinance. It applies to chain stores with 300 or more workers nationally and with 15 employees per store within the city, that devote 70% or more of its business to retailing food products.

It was signed into law the next day by Mayor Robert Garcia.

The ordinance comes at a time when grocery stores are making record profits due to the pandemic.

"Grocery workers are going in every single day and risking their life being exposed to the virus," Long Beach Councilwoman Mary Zendejas said. "Grocery businesses are experiencing a boom in their industry, they are making profits, record profits, on the shoulders of their employees, and they are not willing to share the profits with them."

Kroger said its sales rose 30% in March and increased more than 20% in April and May. It also reported a 92% boost in online sales in Q1 2020.

The company provided a $2 an hour bonus for its employees at the beginning of the pandemic, but it was phased out.

"As a result of the City of Long Beach's decision to pass an ordinance mandating Extra Pay for grocery workers, we have made the difficult decision to permanently close long-struggling store locations in Long Beach," a company spokesperson said in a news release. "This misguided action by the Long Beach City Council oversteps the traditional bargaining process and applies to some, but not all, grocery workers in the city."

What's even more irksome is that the stores are scheduled to close on April 17, 89 days into the 120-day period. Why not just wait it out an extra month?

Garcia vows to fight back against the Kroger closures because he believes it has the responsibility to compensate its workers for the extra danger they faced while the company raked in record profits.

"You have a corporation that, according to the Brookings Institute, they're making double what they normally make, they're making off the pandemic. And they're making it off the backs of these workers," Garcia said at a news conference at the Food 4 Less location slated to be closed.

"I don't think anyone who has shopped, over these last six months to a year, can look into the eyes of one of these workers and tell them that they don't deserve an additional few bucks an hour for the incredible work that they've been doing during this pandemic," he continued.

The pandemic is a serious topic for Garcia who lost both his mother and stepfather last year due to COVID-19. His work for the vaccine rollout in the city of 467,000 has been applauded by Governor Gavin Newsom and it was called a "model for the state" by The New York Times.

Kroger is well within its rights to shut down stores to avoid paying its employees a state-mandated bonus. But it's bloodless of the company to thank its employees — who heroically pulled it through the pandemic — by endangering their jobs.

A report in Safety and Health found that "grocery store workers who interact with customers may be five times more likely to contract COVID-19 than their colleagues who don't have direct contact with customers."

It also found that 24% of grocery store employees experienced at least mild anxiety associated with work.

"After all the hard work I've done to feed the needy families and everything and risk my life and my family's lives at home and they don't want to pay $4 extra an hour for four little months," said Robert Gonzales, who has worked in the industry for 26 years, and currently works at the Food 4 Less slated to close.

"And then it's over. What is the reason for this? You're going to hurt the elderly, the homeless people. We give donations every week to the homeless and needy families and they want to take that away" he added.

"To ask the North Long Beach community to make a choice: Jobs with dignity or food on the table. That's an unfair choice that the Kroger company is issuing to our community," Rex Richardson, vice mayor of Long Beach, said.

Garcia says the city will fight back against Kroger in court, but it's unclear what the legal system can do to stop a business from deciding to close its doors.

In the coming months, as the number of vaccinations rises and the number of cases falls, we will all happily put the pandemic era behind us. I hope that I can grab my cart and pull into my local Ralph's one day this summer and see them taking down the protective shields that stands between myself and the checker as well as the stickers on the floor that say, "maintain a six-foot distance"

But I most look forward to seeing the smiles on the checker's faces because, for the first time in ages, they won't be wearing masks. I'll tell them, "Thanks, we couldn't have made it without you." Let's hope that Kroger comes to the same realization, too.

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."