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Vons, Pavilions to Replace Drivers with Contractors

When Dylan’s grocery delivery arrived a few days before New Years, it came with some bad news. The delivery driver who brought his groceries from Vons mentioned that drivers across the state are getting fired by Vons, Pavilions, and other California stores owned by Albertsons Companies in late February. Stores will instead turn to a third-party delivery service using independent contractors.

“I was disturbed and disappointed that Vons would eliminate these jobs. I felt like they were the only remaining company that treated delivery drivers ethically but no longer,” said Dylan.

After publication, an Albertsons representative sent the following statement: “We will transition that portion of our eCommerce operations to third-party logistics providers.” She added “While we know that this move will help us create a more efficient operation, it wasn’t a decision we made lightly or without a great deal of consideration.”

Drivers under the Albertsons Companies umbrella are employees, while Ralphs delivery is operated by Instacart and Target uses Shipt, a similar app. At Bay Area stores, drivers are unionized, and will not be affected by the layoffs. For southern California shoppers, this move leaves them without a grocery delivery option that treats drivers as employees.

Unions are vowing to fight the change, says Jim Araby, Director of Strategic Campaigns at UCFW5. “The only drivers that kept their jobs were the unionized drivers in the Bay Area. All the other drivers in California were laid off because they were non-union. We represent those drivers and they will keep their job.”

These layoffs are unsurprising after the passage of Proposition 22, which gutted worker protections while making it easier for companies to shift financial burdens onto newly-designated “independent contractors.” In a piece for KNOCK last year, Keith F. Eberl predicted this exact outcome in the opening paragraph:

“Contrary to the companies’ deceptive ad campaign and intimidating messages to their workers, Prop 22 does not preserve driver flexibility or save drivers from politicians. What Prop 22 does do is change current law so the companies can shift their costs to the driver and diminish or remove drivers’ rights, protections, and benefits. Prop 22 will also block drivers’ ability to organize so they can’t collectively bargain a contract. In addition, this proposition will block local governments from writing or enforcing protections for drivers.”

The only surprise is the speed at which Albertsons reversed course on its commitments to workers. This move comes after nearly a year of celebrating grocery store workers for feeding communities. Earlier this year, Albertsons Companies President & CEO Vivek Sankaran said the company was “taking care of our team.” Albertsons Companies “are working… to ensure that every member of our team who faces a crisis can have peace of mind that we will help them get through it.”

Albertsons was happy to reap public goodwill during the pandemic. But once Prop 22 gave the company the option of replacing workers with lower-paid contractors, they jumped at the opportunity. Employees received notice during the holidays that their employment would end one month into the new year.

Early in the pandemic, union members demanded hazard pay, additional medical leave, and employee protections during the pandemic. In March, Safeway and Northern California grocery workers reached an agreement providing these additional benefits.

Labor and management were able to cooperate in April, requesting that grocery workers be designated as first responders. In an April joint statement, Sankaran and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) President Marc Perrone wrote:

“This joint action is an example of how all Americans must work together to protect everyone working on the frontlines. This includes… associates at our nation’s grocery stores who are providing communities with the essential food and supplies needed to weather this public health crisis.”

Negotiations in October turned contentious, as members of the Teamsters issued a notice of potential strike due to rising healthcare costs. Lou Villavazo, who chairs the bargaining effort, told the Orange County Register that “employers have been bargaining in bad faith. We’ve had over 18 bargaining sessions with them and we provided our economic proposal … but no response.”

Organized labor made the difference for drivers in the Bay Area, who will remain as employees for now. But without the power of a union, southern California drivers lack an organizational structure through which to fight back.

Many, myself included, turned to Vons and Albertsons stores for their groceries, knowing that drivers were employed with benefits. Unionized drivers offered a clear alternative to the hellscape of gig-economy apps like Instacart.

In a March 2020 statement, Sankaran said “these times are unprecedented in the grocery industry… [a] simple ‘thank you’ doesn’t seem like quite enough.” He was right. Delivery drivers deserve healthcare, job protections, and fair wages. Workers won those fights this year because they fought as a union. With DoorDash taking over in February, that united front will be gone.

You can contact Albertsons Companies and let them know what you think of this move:

Vons Retail Store/Corporate Phone Number: 877–723–3929

Albertsons Retail Store/Corporate Phone Number: 877–723–3929

EDITOR’S NOTE: After publication, Albertson’s responded to KNOCK’s request for comment. This piece has since been edited to clarify that union drivers will not be laid off and that workers facing layoffs in Southern California are non-union, as well as to include statements from both Albertsons and UCFW5. The scheduled date of the layoffs was also corrected.

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Unofficial ballot drop boxes popping up

In a photo posted to social media last week, a young man wearing a mask with Orange County congressional candidate Michelle Steel’s name on it is holding a mail ballot and giving a thumbs up next to a box about the size of a file cabinet labeled “Official ballot drop off box.”

The post, from Jordan Tygh, a regional field director for the California Republican Party, encouraged people to message him for “convenient locations” to drop their own ballots.

The problem is the drop box in the photo is not official – and it could be against the law.

The California Secretary of State has received reports in recent days about possible unauthorized ballot drop boxes in Fresno, Los Angeles and Orange counties, agency spokesman Sam Mahood said Sunday evening. Reports place such boxes at local political party offices, candidate headquarters and churches.

Richard Lamberson, of Montclair, drops off his ballot in the official ballot drop off box at the Montclair Civic Center in Montclair on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. Montclair is one of 13 Inland Empire cities to have a ballot measure (Measure L) on taxes. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Secretary of State Alex Padilla said his office is coordinating with local elections officials to look into the reports.

Only county elections officials can oversee ballot drop boxes, choosing the number, location, hours of operation and other details. County registrars are charged with making sure every box follows strict state guidelines for security, including making sure they can’t be tampered with and tracing the chain of custody of all ballots.

“Operating unofficial ballot drop boxes – especially those misrepresented as official drop boxes – is not just misleading to voters, it’s a violation of state law,” Padilla said, with a felony conviction carrying a prison sentence of two to four years.

Reports came out Saturday night about a metal box in front of Freedom’s Way Baptist Church in Castaic that had a sign matching the one on the Orange County box. The church posted on social media that the box was “approved and brought by the GOP.” The post said church officials don’t have a key to the box and that GOP officials picks up the ballots. A pastor for the church didn’t respond to a request for comment.

On its website, the Fresno County Republican Party also shared a list of “secure” ballot collection locations. None are official county drop box sites, with the local GOP instead listing its own headquarters, multiple gun shops and other local businesses.Sign up for our daily Election News email newsletter with stories and updates about the 2020 elections. Subscribe here.

The state is still looking into the source or sources of the boxes, Mahood said.

The California Republican Party did not respond to requests for comment about the boxes by deadline. But they’ve been defending the practice in replies on Twitter, alleging the process was made legal under a 2016 law that allows California voters to designate a person to return their ballot for them. The GOP calls the practice “ballot harvesting” and blames it for losses to the Democrats in OC and other places in 2018.

But state officials clarified that using an unauthorized vote-by-mail drop box would not meet the requirements of the 2016 law. No designated “person” would be signing for the ballots as required by state law.

Tygh, who tweeted the Orange County drop box photo on Thursday, didn’t respond to requests for comment. He is listed on Steel’s campaign website as part of “Veterans for Michelle Steel,” a group supporting her election bid. Steel, a Republican supervisor in Orange County, is challenging Rep. Harley Rouda, a Democrat, for the 48th District Congressional seat.

A Democratic party operative retweeted Tygh’s photo on Sunday, alleging the unofficial drop box was at Steel’s campaign headquarters. Reached Sunday evening, Steel said she was out campaigning and was unaware of whether there were drop boxes at her campaign office. She said she’d check into it and call back, but could not be reached later Sunday night.

Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said Sunday that hundreds of people alerted him to the possible rogue drop box. Some had also sent the same message to the state Attorney General and FBI.

“What we did was started to look into it, notified the state, and the Secretary of State issued guidance this afternoon that it is illegal and you can’t do that,” Kelley said.

“It would be like me installing a mailbox out on the corner – the post office is the one that installs mailboxes.”

Kelley said he doesn’t have many details, such as where the box in the photo was located or who was responsible for it. He passed the information on to Padilla’s office and to Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer.

District Attorney’s spokeswoman Kimberly Edds said Spitzer’s office is investigating, but she declined to say where or how many there were or who had placed them.

To find official drop box locations near you, use tools on the Secretary of State or your local registrar’s websites. Orange County official drop box sites are at ocvote.com.

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Q&A with Orange County’s Registrar

As Orange County voters gear up for the November election, many residents have mounting questions about how the voting process will play out during the coronavirus pandemic, including questions around mail-in voting and delays in postal service.

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This week, Voice of OC put those kinds of questions directly to the man in charge of making sure the election goes smoothly, and that every vote counts.

Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley believes mail-in voting remains more secure than in-person voting, noting that he’s preparing for the vast majority of OC voters – upwards of 95 percent – to cast ballots by mail in the upcoming election.

In anticipation of possible delays in postal delivery, the California Legislature extended the deadline for ballots to be received by county to 17 days after Election Day, as long as ballots are postmarked Election Day.

Another elections expert agreed that California is well positioned for any delays in postal service.

“Let’s be clear on the fact that Orange County voters – every [voter] in Orange County got mailed a ballot in the primary, and there were not problems. And there’s no reason for voters in Orange County – or anywhere in California – to believe they’re going to be disenfranchised because of a national conversation or fight or political battle over the post office,” said Paul Mitchell, who helps lead one of the largest election data firms in California.

“We should all be watching and concerned about any defunding of the post office,” Mitchell said. “[But] it’s not going to affect California voters.”

The voting process in Orange County will be largely similar to the March primary, Kelley said, including every registered voter being mailed a ballot and having multiple options for casting it: by mail, dropping it off at a vote center or ballot drop box, or voting in person at a vote center.

The main differences, he said, will be new safety measures at in-person voting centers like one-time use pens, physical distancing, open front doors and hand sanitizer.

What should voters expect with voting in the pandemic, and what changes, if any, are coming?

I think the good news is that most voters will kind of see the same thing they saw in the March primary, in terms of: everybody’s going to get a mail ballot, and there will be lots of options for returning that ballot. We will have essentially the same number of vote centers that we operated in the March primary.

The main differences will be that the in-person voting components will have COVID-19 precautions. So there will be a number of items in place in those in-person sites that may slow the process down a little bit. And then, the other thing is that we will be operating our vote centers for 5 days – 4 days plus Election Day – instead of 11 days like we did in the March primary.

So the only real difference they will see is that reduction in the number of days. But the reality is, in March 99 percent of our voters that were in person used the voter centers the last four days. So we don’t anticipate much of an affect from that at all. But everything else would be kind of seamless for voters.

What safety measures will be in place at vote centers? Could you walk through some of that?

Every vote center will have a freestanding hand sanitation station when you walk in. There’s going to be signage there to guide voters and let them know what the COVID-19 precautions are. There will be floor markings, along with stanchions, that will show people where to stand 6 feet apart.

Once they get to the check-in station, each one of our vote center employees will have a face shield as well as a face covering. And the styluses that are used to sign will be sanitized after each use. Every one of those check-in stations will have hand sanitizer, tissues, disinfecting wipes, gloves. And for voters we will be using a one-time use pen. So when they mark their ballot, they throw the pen away. And then the secrecy folder that they would put their ballot in before they scan it is also a throw-away now, instead of a re-use.

Once they leave the check-in station, there’s floor markings and arrows to guide them in which direction to go in. Every other voting booth will be closed down for physical distancing, and they’ll have signage on them so that a voter couldn’t for instance stand between a booth. Those will be used to separate them.

And then when they get done voting their ballot, they’ll take their ballot to a scan station where there will be voting attendants showing them where to scan it. Once they scan their ballot, we’ve purchased dispensers for “I Voted” stickers. So now voters will grab their own “I Voted” sticker, and off they go. And the last thing they’ll see when they exit the vote center will be another freestanding hand sanitizing station that they can use once they leave the site.

Commonly touched surfaces have been a concern during the pandemic, like door handles. Are there any surfaces that would be touched by lots of people, that voters would come in contact with? Or is that all pretty much eliminated?

We’re going through a disinfecting procedure before we open the site. And that happens also every morning. But the vote center doors, when we can – which will be the majority of them – will be propped open, so that voters will not have to touch any hardware.

So the only thing the voter really will have to touch are two things. One is signing with the stylus, and as I mentioned that will be cleaned after every use. And then the pen itself that they mark their ballot with. And that is a disposable pen.

In terms of mail-in voting, are you expecting an increase in people casting ballots by mail?

Even with the national dialogue, the reality is 8 of 10 of our voters in March used a mail ballot. I anticipate probably we’re going to see upwards of 95 percent, roughly, that are going to use a mail ballot.

Three days after the March primary when COVID really exploded, I immediately started looking for grant funding to purchase a second automated sorter, and then doubling our scanning capacity. Because I thought, if anything’s going to happen to us in the fall, it’s going to be expanded vote-by-mail.

So we’re now the only county in California that, today we could run our entire election by mail if we had to. So we’re also going to see a speeding up of the post-election process, because I now have the ability to process ballots at twice the speed. Just because we’ve doubled that capacity.

Mail-in voting is a big topic nationally right now. What are your thoughts on the concerns about safety of mail-in voting? Should voters have concerns about that?

I think the reality is that, we’ve done a lot of the right things here in Orange County to make sure the checks and balances are in place. We’ve had 80 elections-plus since I’ve been here, and vote-by-mail has continued to grow. We’ve been through 45 recounts with an absolutely accurate counting of the system. We work closely with our federal law enforcement partners – DHS, FBI – on our voter records as well as our network-based systems. To be honest with you, I really feel – and this is my personal opinion but I think the data backs it up – that vote-by-mail voting, in particular in California, is more secure than in-person voting. Because in-person voting, there’s no ID laws, there’s no check on your voter record, there’s no signature comparison. All of that is done with vote-by-mail voting. And so a lot of this national dialogue, I just really don’t think it applies to what we’re doing here in California.

The postal service is getting a lot of attention right now. Let’s say there’s a wave of people putting their ballots in the mail on Election Day or the day before Election Day, and it’s a four or five-day delivery day with the postal service. What would happen in that scenario? Do you see that as a possibility, and would those ballots still count? What do you say to the concerns about delays?

They’re legitimate concerns. We have a good relationship with our postal folks here in Orange County, in fact I meet regularly with the postmaster. I don’t see the same kinds of concerns here in Orange County that some of my colleagues on the East Coast are facing. But the [California] Legislature thought ahead on this, and for COVID one of the bills that they passed extended the time for us to receive [ballots]. It’s now 17 days [after Election Day] instead of three days.

Would that also push out the final vote tallies – to about 2.5 weeks after Election Day?

Correct.

The 2020 general election is scheduled for Nov. 3. More information is available at the Orange County Registrar of Voters website at ocvote.com.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.