Essential Workers: Summary of Interview with Carlos Castro

Essential Workers: Summary of Interview with Carlos Castro

Carlos Castro was interviewed by Eirini Giannaraki.

COVID-19 has significantly impacted retail businesses; it created new, challenging conditions under which businesses had to operate. Especially in the beginning of the pandemic, there were shortages of labor and disruptions in supply chains, as well as large spikes in the demand for specific items.

Carlos Castro, the owner of two Todos Supermarkets in the DC metro area, was born in Playitas, La Union and raised in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. We originally interviewed Mr. Castro in November 2020. We interviewed him again to discuss how the pandemic has affected him and his business. Mr. Castro reflected on the ways in which he managed this situation: “In the beginning, there was a lot of panic because of the news and everything that was going on. We had difficulties getting our team together. Not everybody was brave enough to show up to work. I became involved from the beginning with Prince William County leadership, Governor’s Ralph Northam’s office, and kept an eye on the Center for Decease Control to learn the latest news and best practices. The first priority was to protect our team. We struggled to get the protective equipment because it was very scarce. When we got our act together, we were able to protect everybody. The team felt safer.”

The increasing demand in certain products led to rising prices. Carlos mentions: “In the beginning, the difficulty was to get some products. People were going crazy about water, alcohol, toilet paper and more. Prices were rising rapidly, some products became so expensive, people started complaining and badmouthing us, saying that we were taking advantage of the people because of the pandemic. That was very disheartening because we were trying to do our best to help in this kind of situation and still find out that some people are never happy. They would say bad things to my employees and that hurt me a lot because I do not like people abusing my associates. They can abuse me all they want, but they can’t touch [my employees]. That was really hard at the beginning. Luckily our team is very forward thinking. We had a lot of supplies of the main staple foods. We had pallets and pallets of a lot of products, and we didn’t change the prices. We continued to sell at our normally low prices, and that kept people coming. At the same time, because of the situation, it became more expensive to run the stores – we had to disinfect the stores in the mornings and evenings, as well as throughout the day.”

Carlos emphasizes the difficulty in managing the panic of the team: “The first person that got infected was one of my key managers. When she called me saying that her husband got COVID-19 and she probably got it, my legs wobbled. In order to avoid a state of panic with our personnel, We decided to keep the information private. Some of the store managers did not like it, but after the crisis went through, they realized that it was e good decision that we handled it that way - because we avoided panic.” He continues: “In the beginning, my managers demanded that my wife and I should work from home in order to protect the company. I started working from home, but it was not feeling right. I thought that the pandemic gives me the opportunity to show to my employees that I am with them in good times and in bad times. So, I started coming to the store to showed them support.”

Since then, there were several more cases during the winter. Carlos says: “I had more people sick, but all of them got back to work after a couple of weeks. Any time anyone got sick, we all gave them moral support, financial support, brought them food, called them every day to see if they needed anything. This situation brought everybody closer; you feel closer to your people and they feel closer to you.”

In the beginning of the pandemic, there were a lot of delays in the supply chain. Carlos highlights: “We had to rationalize, and limit what we sold to each family in order to provide for more families. We ordered a computer and it took three months to get to us. We bought equipment, and they said there was going to be two-month delay. We tried to find things somewhere else, but sometimes we could do nothing but wait. To this day, we still have difficulties with some products, equipment and even services. The federal government policy of paying people to stay home has had a countrywide negative impact on the labor force, people make more money staying home and have no incentive to return to work”

Carlos and his team had also to create a new protocol with respect to the safety and health of the employees. He mentions: “We became a team that took care of each other. If you are sneezing and have a headache, you need to tell a supervisor. Doing it that way, our employees do not have to worry. We are going to continue paying them, and they need to go take a test and stay home until there is a negative test result. In the case of a positive result, they must stay home until at least two weeks. We let them know when they can come back, and we pay them two weeks’ salary. We did that, and also raised the pay for most of my team.

Carlos continues: “We also limited the access of the people coming into the store, so we had enough people to take care of the customers. We managed the access to the store so that the team has time to take care of the ones inside, and then let another batch enter. We also had to educate our staff, because some of them were adamant that they did not want to wear the mask, even though other employees said that it was wrong. I told them that wearing the mask is one of the ways to protect themselves and, if they do not want to wear the mask, they can stay home and cannot come to work. Also, the customers did not want to wear masks. I had to call the office of the Governor, and say that you need to make this mandatory. I had all kinds of trouble with people thinking that I am making this up and the president is saying don’t wear a mask, while I said do wear a mask while you are here.”

Businesses have had to manage staff shortages. Carlos mentions: “One of our strategies is to cross-train people. Not only because it’s good for business because you can move employees around, but also because you discover talents. You discover that there is an employee that is better for another position and has more opportunities to grow. We did this with double intent, and it worked. At the same time, it was also difficult. I closed one of my other businesses because I do not have enough people. Some people had to work overtime, and still work overtime, which is very expensive, but that’s all we can do – pay overtime.”

The pandemic caused retail businesses to make certain changes regarding their operations that turned out to be beneficial. Carlos mentions that he may consider keeping some of these changes in the future: “I found that people, after a certain hour, do not really go out. I was open until 10pm, and I realized that people want to shop earlier. We changed the hours from 7am to 9pm instead of 8am to 10pm, and we plan to leave it that way. We might extend the hours in the summer, but the early hours are there to stay. We might open even earlier, at 6 o’clock at some point. That has changed because a lot of people are not working right now so you cannot really tell what is it going to be like in the future. But it seems like that it is going to work.”

The other observation that Carlos made is about the essential nature of grocery stores. He mentions: You might manage to live without going to a restaurant, but you cannot manage to live without going to the grocery store. I was presented with the opportunity to take a larger space because the current one is too small already. Because it is such a robust business, I think that I will take the opportunity to open a new store. I think COVID and the challenges that we have with space pushed me to do what I didn’t really want to do (laughing). I actually didn’t want to open a new store because I am 66, going to be 67 this year. I was more in tune with retiring. I did not want to be doing nothing, but I wanted to have more freedom. The current situation pushed me to take that space. I think people are rediscovering that they can come to the grocery store and buy ready-made food; they don’t need to cook at home, they can carry out. It looks like the grocery business is going to stay good for a long time.”

Interestingly, Todos Supermarket has not yet developed the option of online shopping, which is something that other groceries stores have done. Carlos emphasizes the importance of knowing the customers and the community that he serves: “A lot of Latinos live together in big families and they need to get out. And a way to get out is a trip to the grocery store. If you want, you can come to the store when things are normal, and see a bunch of kids running around. We give them balloons so they want to come to the store, and they drag their parents to the store. Online grocery shopping is far from our culture. We want to touch the avocado, we want to smell the orange before we buy it. A lot of people are like that, including some Americans. So far, I have refused to go online because it also requires an extra team that you need to devote to it, and I do not have the people to do it. There has not been a big need, but we are opening a new store and we plan to offer online shopping, as a trial. This new store is going to be 65000sf, and we hope that more American people will come.”

Carlos Castro does a lot of work with policy makers and is involved in the decision-making process with respect to the retail sector and grocery stores. He mentions: “We did help some people. Also, we organized webinars for our team and talked about the store and the food – trying to bring the hype back. With the county and Chamber of Commerce there have been a lot of webinars on a variety of topics. There’s been a lot of monetary support from the government too.”

He continues: “What also needs to be done is educating the community for any kind of jobs. For so long, we have been paying attention to college degrees, and that’s great! I am also glad I went to college. But there is a big gap in people’s readiness to work, and the pandemic is going to do a lot more damage. People are getting lazier, picking up bad habits they did not have before. The states are going to have a need to work in the community, particularly in mental health, to ensure that when that time comes, people go back to being productive.”

Finally, Castro mentions that the current political polarization negatively affects the retail industry: “My message is that the business community needs to pressure our legislators to stop being partisan and start caring about our community - about people. The business community should put a lot of pressure and become more involved.”