Lopez, 46, tried to scream for help, but found she had no voice. A co-worker who had squeezed behind a refrigerator called out instead. A SWAT team officer led them to the exit.
“I didn’t even look around. I just wanted to get the hell out of there,” said Lopez. “I think about how last Thursday I got my vaccine shot. What a hopeful day that was. Then a few days later my store gets shot up.”
For more than a year, the pandemic had been the menace hanging over the heads of the employees at King Soopers, as it did for grocery store workers across the country. After what seemed like an impossibly difficult year — one marked repeatedly by difficult encounters with mask-refusing customers — the sudden, bloody assault on King Soopers seemed bewildering. How could colleagues and customers die this way after all they had survived?
“The pandemic feels like a decade ago after all of this,” Lopez said.
Among the 10 people killed by the gunman were three grocery employees: Denny Stong, 20, Teri Leiker, 51, and Rikki Olds, 25.
Olds was a front-end manager with a sunny disposition in the face of pandemic stressors. If an employee had a bad encounter with a mask-refusing customer, or a close-talking customer, or a customer angry at a product being out of stock, Olds lightened the mood.
“She would tell a joke or offer to hit you with her cart, and you can go home early with your injury,” said Carlee Lough, Olds’s co-worker and friend. “Rikki had just such a fun spirit.”
Olds helped the store navigate the uncertain early days of the pandemic when she wasn’t quarantining as a result of close contacts with people infected with the coronavirus. She took the complaint calls at the customer service desk when patrons couldn’t understand how a grocery store could run out of flour, or why the meat department was capping orders at certain weights or why the store didn’t have common cuts of meat. (Colorado’s meat packaging plants experienced numerous outbreaks and closures over the summer.)
“You had a lot of families with kids not in school, so the parents are providing a meal they weren’t before,” said Lough, who was not working when the shooting happened. “People started making their own bread. We couldn’t keep yeast on the shelf. We were out of flour every other day, people couldn’t understand, like, ‘It’s flour, how don’t you have that?’ People get really frustrated.”
Across the country, some Americans took that frustration out on grocery store workers, men and women masked for eight or more hours a day, their hands dried out and cracked from constant washing and sanitizing.
“You get people in the store that just draw their mask down,” said Jeff Hooker, 62, who worked in the online order section bagging groceries and delivering them to the trunks of cars in the parking lot. “They’ll be coughing or getting in your face, you try to stay away or get behind a barrier. Sometimes, people just forget to wear a mask. Other times, they’re indignant about it.
“We never argue; we suggest. Almost every time the person would comply, and if they didn’t we’d have to call a manager.”
Hooker, like some other workers at the store, contracted the coronavirus. He first got sick around Christmas, briefly experienced some tough symptoms, but recovered without having to be hospitalized. He was out of work for a month. Still, he considers himself lucky. He says his nephew and former mother-in-law died of the virus.
“There has been this sense of worry throughout the pandemic, with this unseen force that has strong consequences,” said Hooker, who was driving to work when the shooting happened. “And that’s just been replaced with sadness and grief.”
Since last February the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union’s Local 7 office has filed two grievances on behalf of employees at the store alleging a failure “to provide a safe working environment.”
The union was also at odds with Kroger, King Soopers’s parent company, over its May 17 withdrawal of “hero pay,” an extra $2 an hour for employees working during the pandemic, according to union representative Erik Cornell. And before that, in 2019, the union pushed in collective bargaining for an armed guard at the store after numerous unsavory interactions between employees and members of the public but was denied, union officials said.
King Soopers corporate headquarters did not respond to requests for comment.
“We’ve had all these issues, and now this shooting,” Cornell said. “Our members have been through a lot. I’ve been inspired by their resilience. It’s something else.”
King Soopers told employees they’d be paid through Friday, consistent with the hours they were scheduled to work, employees said. The union and company leadership plan to negotiate this weekend any compensation beyond that. King Soopers has pledged $1 million to a relief fund benefiting victims, families and the community. The union has pledged to assist all of the store’s workers — including those it doesn’t represent — with money from the union’s hardship fund. UFCW7 is soliciting donations from the public through its website.
“What they’re facing now isn’t much different than what they’ve faced all year,” said Kim Cordova, the local’s president. “At some point during covid, they’ve all felt like disposable or sacrificial workers.”
Two weeks before the shooting, store general manager Sheri Bosman held a “Day of Listening,” employees said, during which her door was open to any and all employees who wanted to talk. Her office was occupied for an entire day’s shift with staff members airing their grievances, reflecting on a trying year.
“We just kind of talked about the stresses we’d been feeling recently,” said Moe Rochelle, a former floral department worker who bounced around the store during the first months of the pandemic, when the floral department was shuttered, and eventually landed as an assistant manager for general merchandise. “I think things were feeling relatively back to normal for the first time.”
Then a 21-year-old man entered the store with a AR-15-style pistol and opened fire.
Now, Rochelle is unsure whether she’ll go back to work in the building surrounded by police fencing. Outside there are heaps of flowers, written tributes to victims and posters calling for gun control.
“I think most of us don’t even want to believe this happened,” Rochelle said. “I’ve talked to a few people who just can’t imagine walking through those doors again.”
Lopez and Hooker can. Lopez says she doesn’t think she wants to see the store until it’s repaired but has no doubt she’ll come back once it is.
“I don’t want to go see a murder scene,” Lopez said. “That’s not my store. When I go back, it’s going to be my store again. I’m anxious to get back to my cheese. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Standing just beyond the police tape, taking visual stock of co-workers’ cars still stranded in the lot as part of the investigation, Hooker said he looks forward to the day when he can walk through the doors again.
“I’ve heard they’re going to send us all to different stores in the short term, but I hope I get the opportunity to go back to work in this store,” he said. “I’d like to be a part of the comeback.”