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Q&A with Albertsons: Worker safety, hiring furloughed workers, COVID precautions – and when the TP might return

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COVID-19 Idaho

The role grocery stores take in our everyday lives saw a bright spotlight in recent weeks in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Across Idaho, stores changed hours, adjusted safety measures and struggled with unprecedented customer demand. Boise-based Albertsons Companies operates 2,200 stores across the country, including more than 40 in Idaho under the Albertsons and Safeway names.

BoiseDev talked to company spokesperson Kathy Holland about the unprecedented time – including store and worker safety, supply chain… and of course… toilet paper.

We edited this interview transcript for length and clarity.

Don Day, BoiseDev: How’s the workforce coping, and how are things going for Albertsons employees around the state?

Kathy Holland, Albertsons Companies spokesperson: I think all in all, with the situation that we’re dealing with, things are going really well. The feedback we’re getting from our employees in the stores, they’re still upbeat. They still have smiles on their faces. They are reassured that we’ve added in like the plexiglass in front of the check stands and are working on the social distancing in the store. I think they’re they feel reassured that we’re concerned about employee safety as well as the customer.

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Someone was telling me the other day that her elderly father went to the store. The person in front of him paid a hundred dollars for groceries for the people behind them. So it paid for all of (the father’s) groceries and helped pay for the person behind them. In the midst of everything going on, there’s still a silver lining and people are still being kind.

BoiseDev: With the plexiglass dividers: you have multiple checkstands at 2,200 stores. Can you explain how Albertsons has tried to pivot and make these on-the-fly adjustments?

Holland: Each of our 14 divisions within Albertsons companies has a construction manager and they have a team of people that help make these things happen. Making changes in the stores is something that we do on a regular basis. We’ve never had to deal with something like this before, so we did have to pivot very quickly to make this happen. But we’ve got an amazing team of people that are on the construction side of the business, that get out into the stores and make those things happen pretty quickly. We started that in our Intermountain Division stores last week and we should be done by next week. I think all of the Boise-area stores are done.

[Albertsons borrows cash as ‘precaution’ during COVID-19 pandemic; adds seniors-only hours]

BoiseDev: How’s the supply chain? What steps has the company taken to ensure an uninterrupted flow of needed goods?

Holland: Our supply chain is very robust and we’re working very closely with our distribution centers, making sure that they’re getting those goods to stores right away. For customers, we are asking them to limit their quantities on some of those high demand items – hand sanitizer, toilet paper, canned goods – so that there is enough for the other individuals in the community. We’re telling customers that it may not be what you more normally buy, but we have just about everything. If it’s a pasta sauce, and you’re looking for a particular brand, we may not have that at the time that you’re shopping, but we have other varieties available. It’s market-by-market, day-by-day. You could go to the store today and not be able to find something, but if you go tomorrow we could have that item.”

Delivery trucks are coming on a regular basis and trying to stock the shelves as quickly as possible. That’s partly why we adjusted our store hours. Almost all of our stores are open between 7am and 10pm. Some of our stores with Starbucks do open at 6am. In a couple of stores, we’re opening at 5:00 or 5:30, if it’s in an area where we’ve got a lot of customers coming in early in the morning, like near Gowen Field.

BoiseDev: It’s the question on everyone’s mind: How is the paper goods supply, and when can customers expect to see some of those things start to come back in stock?

Holland: The manufacturers were just overloaded. Nobody really buys this much toilet paper at a given time. They weren’t really producing on that scale to accommodate the demand that we’re going through right now. From what we’re hearing from the manufacturers as they are working as diligently as they can to produce more so that they can get it to stores for customers to buy. From what we’ve heard in our stores, it’s been a little bit quieter this week. That gives an opportunity for the manufacturers and vendors to catch up a little as well. We should start seeing a lot of those products in the store soon.

New taper markers on the floor at checkstands and in other areas of the store help customers know how far apart to stand. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

BoiseDev: A few New York-area Trader Joe’s locations closed after employees tested positive for COVID-19. If a worker in an Albertsons Companies store tested positive, what steps would the company take?

Holland: We have a very detailed plan in place with our crisis response team. If there is an employee at the store who does test positive for COVID, we have a very detailed cleaning plan. There are staff members on our team that are tracking any cases, and getting very detailed information on where they’ve been in the store.

We’ve got a crew that comes in and very deep dive, cleans the store. We also share information with all the staff, and tells them that if they have any symptoms or any concerns, what steps to take there.

BoiseDev: I’ve heard a few reports of customers not being able to use the Drive Up and Go or delivery features. What’s the status on that?

Holland: There was such a high increase in customers wanting to do the Drive Up and Go right now and the lack of some products on the shelves at the time, that we suspended it temporarily because we weren’t able to completely fill the orders customers were looking for. We do have Drive Up and Go available again. They are limiting the number of orders per hour. You may have to look at a few different stores or adjust your schedule a little bit. There may not be available pickup times for today, but there could be for tomorrow. They are doing the same with home delivery, limiting the number of orders per hour so we aren’t overloading stores. Everyone’s very concerned about taking care of their family. So we want to fill their orders as much as we possibly can.

BoiseDev The company is currently hiring and also hiring from some companies with employees on furlough. How is that working and how can folks go about a job with Albertsons?

Holland: There are a number of individuals that maybe their hours are cut or maybe they are on furlough at this time because their business is shut down or just not quite as busy. We are getting busier, and we want to make sure that we are not overwhelming the associates that we have in our stores right now with long hours and and and big schedules. We have a number of positions open. It could be cashier, checker, stocking shelves or part of the sanitation crew that’s cleaning inside the store. Our talent acquisition team at Albertsons Companies has worked with some different businesses – if they have employees that are furloughed, they can come apply for a position with Albertsons.

We’re also letting individuals know within the community that if they’re interested in a position in the store with Albertsons to go visit their local store director and apply for a job. The application process is going quite a bit quicker right now. They’re able to complete an application online and potentially even interview that same day.

Individuals that are looking for more of a career with Albertsons, we still encourage them to go to that Albertsons.com Career page if they’re looking for more of a career with Albertsons, like with our corporate headquarters.

BoiseDev: The company instituted a pay bump for it looks like most of the front line associates. How did that come about and what the thinking was there

“It actually came from Vivek (Sankaran), our CEO of our company. He really wanted to make sure that they know that what they were doing was not going unrecognized. They’re working really hard to take care of our customers, take care of our community. They’re really the ones on the front lines making this happen, making our business run. He wanted to help take care of them by giving them a $2 an hour increase. And that’s for all of our store associates, and some of our backend team that are working in the stores to help make sure things are going smoothly and everything’s running.”

The day the information went out to the stores, we were hearing from our team members that there were just so excited and some individuals were crying because they were just so happy.

Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

BoiseDev: The company set up a donation campaign in its stores. How does that work and what will it benefit?

Holland: That launched in our Intermountain Division stores Wednesday. Our leadership team knew that there was a need within the community and we wanted to help support as much as we possibly could. The campaign helps feed families in need during this current crisis. Customers have the opportunity to donate at the check stand on the PIN pad when they pay for their groceries. It goes to support our local food banks who are either helping take care of families that have been impacted by the COVID crisis or schools that are running a breakfast or lunch program. All of those dollars go directly to our local food banks and stays local. And Albertsons Companies and the Albertsons Companies Foundation has pledged to match $3 million dollars. For individuals who can’t get to the store and want to help, they can donate at the Albertsons Companies Foundation website.

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