Story

In a Pandemic, Work for Some Can Seem Like Home

Milton. Image by Natalia Gurevich. United States, 2020.

Milton. Image by Natalia Gurevich. United States, 2020.

Of the four jobs Milton has had since he arrived in San Francisco in 1983, his favorite by far is his current job at Trader Joe’s.

He has been a crew member there since December 2014, always at the Hyde and California store. 

Milton, who just turned 59, speaks with deep feeling in his voice, “I go to work there like I am going home. I feel like I am in my place. The managers, they appreciate and recognize my work.”

Now an American citizen, he hitchhiked from El Salvador to escape the violence and civil war there and had worked in hotels as a houseman. He married and had two sons. 

Then, in 2008, his life came apart and he lost his family and his job through a combination of bad luck and poor decisions. He pulled himself out after several years, but could not find a job. Not his old job. Not any job. Until Trader Joe’s. They hired him and have steadily promoted him. 

The first month he was there, after the store closed, he found a wallet with a lot of cash and car keys on a pile of apples, and a gold ring on the floor near the bananas. He turned both in to the manager, who mentioned this in a later performance review that included a raise.

Milton is slight and wiry, small and neat, with a wide, radiant smile. He could have been a jockey. He has always been thin, but since the pandemic began, has dropped down to about 129 pounds. This is a result, he says, of so many of his American (“blanco”) coworkers quitting, and his taking on many of their duties. 

“They say they will come back when the virus is over.  Some of them come in to visit and say they are getting benefits. But I am glad to work. I prefer to work. You know, I want to write a letter to the President, who says Latinos are lazy bandidos, and tell him that it’s the Latinos who are all working still. Working hard.”

Milton works the 3 to 11:30 p.m. shift, which includes unloading produce, stocking shelves and maintaining the produce displays, as well as cleaning all four staff bathrooms, the break room, and other common spaces when the store closes.

Milton at work. Image by Natalia Gurevich. United States, 2020.

Milton at work. Image by Natalia Gurevich. United States, 2020.

“My section is from the front doors of the store, down past the onions and potatoes, the fruits, all the way to where they used to give out samples.  That is the length of the store. I am responsible for keeping it neat and clean. Only me. All that area. Since the pandemic, that has included much more cleaning. I am glad to do it, but there used to be two of us, now it’s mainly me. Yesterday, they sent a bagger to help me. He was there for seven minutes.” 

Despite that, he says he feels respected and protected. “I know they are short-staffed.”

Every day of the pandemic, the managers ask employees to answer a checklist of symptoms; they provide them with double masks and disposable gloves. They encourage him to wash his hands frequently.

He has good health insurance. He has customers who know his name. 

“How I am, how I always have been, if I see something that needs to be done, I do it.  There was a big pile of garbage in our storage area, the manager said how did that get there? Well I didn’t know the answer but I went and cleaned it up, that’s what I do. Lots of our baggers who used to help me are calling in sick. I think they just don’t want to work.”

He has not been tested for the virus and does not plan to be, as long as he feels well.  He lives around the corner, in a Single Room Occupancy Hotel on Jones Street, and can be at work in five minutes. Because of that, he is often called to fill in at the last minute. 

“I am very careful. I take all precautions. When I am out or on Muni, I wear double masks. I use gloves. When I visit my sister to bring her groceries, we keep social distance because we are both older; she is 70.  My son works at the Trader Joe’s on Market and 4th, and we visit once a week and keep social distance too.” 

Milton hadn’t seen his sister in many months when he visited her this week. “She noticed I had lost a lot of weight and she was concerned. I told her I am just working very hard, I am fine, I am moving all the time: running around, lifting, carrying, climbing stairs, and I eat OK.  I would rather be working than stuck in my room.

“One day a guy I used to work with years ago at the hotel came in. He’d treated me really badly there at the hotel, like Hitler, but when he came into Trader Joe’s, he saw me working and well respected, he apologized for treating me bad.

“You know what I like most about my job? I know we have some customers who are homeless, they live around the store, and we always treat them with as much dignity and respect as we treat everyone else. ‘Hey Milton,’ they call out to me, ‘How ya doing?’

“And we joke and talk. That feels really good.”


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