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‘It’s people I knew’: Many Boulder King Soopers employees continue dealing with trauma from mass shooting

King Soopers employee Jason Vega, pictured Wednesday at his home in Boulder, was scheduled to work at the Table Mesa store March 22, the day a gunman opened fire there and killed 10. As officials develop plans to renovate and reopen the store, employees are only beginning to process the trauma the incident caused, whether or not they witnessed it in person. (Timothy Hurst / Staff Photographer)
King Soopers employee Jason Vega, pictured Wednesday at his home in Boulder, was scheduled to work at the Table Mesa store March 22, the day a gunman opened fire there and killed 10. As officials develop plans to renovate and reopen the store, employees are only beginning to process the trauma the incident caused, whether or not they witnessed it in person. (Timothy Hurst / Staff Photographer)

When Jason Vega arrived on his bicycle for his March 22 shift at the south Boulder King Soopers, he noticed the police cars and the chaos. He saw a couple holding hands, running from the store.

Vega assumed there had been a bad car accident.

But when the 16-year-old courtesy clerk went to park his bike, an officer told him to leave. It didn’t take long for Vega to realize what was happening: A gunman was inside the grocery store where he’d worked since October.

It’s been a little over two months since the day when someone walked into the King Soopers on Table Mesa Drive and killed 10 people, including three grocery store workers. The employees who survived have only just begun processing what they experienced that day at the store where they work, a community hub for south Boulder residents.

As Vega returned to his home that day, he felt tired and numb. He texted some of his coworkers, but he didn’t know if people had died or how many.

“I didn’t ride my bike back just because I felt like I was going to pass out,” Vega said. “My knees … buckled.”

The fog has persisted.

“Part of me sometimes forgets it happened,” he said. “I’m still kind of in denial when I think about it.”

In the days after the shooting, the community jumped into high gear. King Soopers and Boulder partnered to open the Boulder Strong Resource Center, a location where people still can access counseling services, massage and acupuncture and more. Various organizations raised funds for the families of those who died and for the survivors.

The United Food & Commercial Workers Local 7 chapter, the union representing about 31 people who work in the deli, meat and cheese departments or at Starbucks at the store, has undertaken a number of efforts meant to support employees at the Table Mesa store in the aftermath of the shooting. The union set up a fund to provide support, including trauma and grief counseling, to both union and non-union members. The union also offered its members a $700 stipend.

Initially, King Soopers offered the store employees $500 and paid leave through April 24, Kevin Schneider, the secretary and treasurer for Local 7, said.

“Of course, with the impact of the shooting weighing heavily on workers’ minds … Most weren’t ready to come back at that time,” he said.

The union worked with King Soopers officials to get the date extended through June 19. What happens next is uncertain, though Schneider said the union will be meeting with company representatives ahead of that day to advocate for an additional extension.

He said it’s also vital for the people who work there to have access to free therapy for as long as they need it, considering the effects of a traumatic event, such as a shooting at one’s workplace, can be unpredictable.

Vega said he’s grateful for the support and recognizes that he’s fortunate to live rent-free with his family. But others argue that King Soopers should be doing more to support its employees.

Former King Soopers employee Joel Loomis pictured Thursday at Harlow Platts Community Park in Boulder, said the company should be doing more to support its employees as they work through the emotions caused by the loss of their friends and coworkers. (Timothy Hurst / Staff Photographer)

“This huge trauma happened to them in their workplace,” Joel Loomis, who had been a part-time worker at the store, said.

According to Loomis, a 21-year-old University of Colorado Boulder student, those who do not agree to begin working at another King Soopers location after June 19 will no longer be paid or receive benefits.

King Soopers representatives could not be reached for comment.

Loomis may not have been working on the day of the shooting, but the trauma isn’t any less real for him.

“It’s not just that people died,” he said. “It’s people I knew.”

Next steps for store

Officials announced May 12 that it intends to reopen the Table Mesa store later this fall after renovating both the interior and exterior of the building. It is taking input from its staff, community members, Boulder city staff and others as it begins the rebuilding process.

Workers and shoppers have mixed feelings about it. Some remain hesitant to return, but others argue it’s exactly what the community needs.

South Boulder resident Marimikel Charrier is one of those people. She was “thrilled” to learn the store plans to reopen later this year.

Charrier is part of a group called SoBo Rising that intends to host events over the summer to rebuild the sense of community that’s enmeshed in the shopping center.

“Interacting with the community in that space will help heal the ache I feel when I drive past and bring a sense of empowerment,” she said. “I am glad to wait for a remodel, though, as I can only imagine the flood of memories the space must provoke in those that were present during the tragedy.”

Some argue the store should be torn down fully or that the rebuild should be expedited in order to return a sense of normalcy to the Table Mesa community.

A King Soopers hat sits among drying flower bouquets at the base of a makeshift memorial for the 10 people killed in the March 22 mass shooting at the Table Mesa King Soopers grocery store on April 6. Mental health professionals so there is no one correct emotional response to severe trauma like that experienced by employees of the store. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)

Reclaiming space

After taking about a month off, Mike Engelhardt, assistant deli manager at the Table Mesa store, was ready to get back to work, so he started working at a store closer to his home in Wheat Ridge.

Engelhardt wasn’t working the day of the shooting, but he watched it on a livestream and followed news coverage. He saw the bodies of coworkers he knew who were killed on the livestream.

The Table Mesa store itself or really any other store undoubtedly will serve as a “trigger stimulus” for many, according to Janine D’Anniballe, director of trauma services at Mental Health Partners in Boulder.

“For some, going right back into the location or into the store and being there is not only helpful, it’s important,” D’Anniballe said. “That’s how somebody actually reclaims that mastery over the situation.

“For others … it’s much better for them to avoid and not be exposed to that trigger,” she added. “The interesting thing is neither (reaction) is right or wrong.”

Engelhardt would like to go back to the Table Mesa store when it opens.

“I would go back to that store in a heartbeat,” he said. “The people that work there definitely make it worth it, though.”

Schneider said the union is working to ensure that any employee who wants to return can do so.

“We certainly want to make that available for them,” Schneider said. “It’s like a big family. They want to get back to their family.”

In the weeks and months since the shooting, Loomis has found strength in speaking out. He’s written letters and columns for various news outlets and spoke in favor of gun control measures at the Colorado State Capitol.

“It’s helped me to advocate for change,” he said. “It’s helped me deal with the grief and loss.”

Vega isn’t certain when he will feel ready to go back to the grocery store. When it opens later this year, he intends to try working at least one day a week just to see how it goes.

Trauma is unpredictable, D’Anniballe noted.

“I think the best thing we can try to do is make room for all the responses and not judge one as good or bad, better or worse,” she said. “We don’t know what someone’s full history is and the way that some events land on people can be intense, even if they’re a little more removed from the trauma.”

No matter what, talking about the experience and the coworkers he lost has been therapeutic for Vega.

“Holding it in didn’t help me. It did more harm than good,” he said. “(Talking) has helped me process it in a healthy way.”