Investigative Unit

Shoplifting, Risky Behavior Ramp Up at SF Walgreens During Pandemic: Workers

NBCUniversal, Inc.

Employees and customers at a San Francisco Walgreens are calling for additional staff, security, and protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying shoplifting and dangerous behavior inside the store have reached new heights during the city’s weeks-long stay at home order.

A series of videos taken by customers and provided to NBC Bay Area appear to show shoplifters cleaning out store shelves, undeterred by employees and customers yelling at them to stop. One video shows a customer pushing an apparent shoplifter out of the store.

“They come and then take all the merchandise, the food – especially the food” said a Walgreens employee who NBC Bay Area is not identifying. “And then they say, ‘We have the virus. We got tested positive. We have the virus.”

Shoplifting, the employee said, is nothing new in the store. But they say it’s getting worse, with thieves taking full advantage of the pandemic.

The employee said they’ve witnessed other troubling behavior, such as customers coming in, eating food off the shelves, and telling staff they have COVID-19. They said customers and employees fear for their safety – from shoplifters and the virus.

The store typically has a guard, but the employee said guard are not allowed to touch or grab customers because of potential lawsuits. The employee said they want additional security at the store, such as off-duty or on-duty police officers posted there.

“The shoplifters already know that security will not do anything to them,” the employee said.

The employee said they only received protective masks last week, and want additional cleaning supplies to sanitize the store.

It’s not just happening in San Francisco. In San Leandro last week, police arrested a man who they say stole nearly $800 in energy drinks. When employees tried to stop him, the man said he had coronavirus.

While police data show crime is down in many parts of the Bay Area during the shelter in place order, those broad numbers don’t necessarily reflect the trend at specific businesses that remain open during the pandemic.

“I’m upset because my heart goes out to these poor young Walgreens workers,” said Ray Sullivan, a Walgreens customer who said he’s watched theft escalate during the pandemic inside the several drugstores he frequents during the pandemic. “They’re not earning a lot of money. They’re putting their health and safety on the line every day.”

A petition posted three weeks ago on Change.Org seeking hazard pay and family leave for Walgreens employees now has more than 66,000 signatures.

A week later, Walgreens announced $300 bonuses for full-time employees and $150 bonuses for part-time employees.

Walgreens also announced it would allow employees to stay at home due to COVID-19-related issues, such as childcare or if an employee showed signs of the illness.

In a statement provided on Wednesday, a Walgreens spokesperson said:

“Shoplifting is an ongoing issue that has become more prevalent in the San Francisco area and when these incidents occur, we work with local law enforcement to investigate the matter. We have deployed off-duty police officers in certain stores. The safety and wellbeing of our team members is a top priority.”

The spokesperson also said Walgreens plans to install protective plastic shields in stores chain-wide, in accordance with CDC guidelines.

The employee said those changes are a step in the right direction, but they want a permanent security presence inside the store from open to close and would like an additional guard or employee to limit how many customers enter the store at once to improve social distancing.

They also fear we haven’t hit the peak of the crisis.

“We feel that it’s going to be worse,” the employee said.

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