‘Essential’ frontline workers in open revolt over unsafe conditions
Low-wage earners helping to keep the nation’s top retailers operating during the COVID-19 crisis are balking at the Trump administration’s bid to return to business as usual by Easter.
Frontline retail workers at Amazon and Walmart forced to work without the benefit of face masks, gloves or hand sanitizer are already afraid they are being exposed to COVID-19. They are calling on corporate CEOs to temporarily shutter their workplaces for thorough disinfection.
Earlier this month, Congress exempted large corporations including Walmart and Amazon from legislation mandating businesses provide emergency paid sick and family leave.
“I do understand the need for workers to be in the store in order for people who need medicine; for people who need supplies who have children — but there’s got be something done to help protect us,” 19-year Walmart worker Cyndi Murray told me this week.
‘Walmart hasn’t done anything to protect its employees. I watch people come in and out of our store and I worry what I’m going to do if I get sick.’
“Maybe at a point, shut down — sanitize the registers,” the Hyattsville, Maryland resident added. “Do they realize how many people come into these little self-checkouts? We have 10 registers inside one of our self-checkouts. Do you know how close people are to each other?”
Amazon warehouse worker Monica Moody, 32, told me the coronavirus pandemic has her and her North Carolina co-workers “freaked out.”
Facilities Need Cleaning
“People are probably coming to work sick and not know it,” Moody said. “We all want the same thing — we need to see the facility shut down temporarily, so it can be cleaned. And we need to be paid. Shut down with full pay.”
The last few weeks on the job have been “a blur” for El Paso Walmart employee Sanjuana Arreola.
“Customers have been rushing into the stores to stock up for weeks in isolation — rice, canned goods, and water — I’m scared,” the married mother of three said. “As a Walmart associate, I don’t get to practice social distancing. Walmart hasn’t done anything to protect its employees. I watch people come in and out of our store and I worry what I’m going to do if I get sick.”
Stacy Rowback is a struggling part-time Walmart employee from Upstate New York with a 14-month-old baby girl to care for back at home. The new mom says Walmart has provided the employees where she works with zero training and protection.
Guarding the Toilet Paper
“They’ve not changed anything in my store,” Rowback told me. “The only thing they are doing is guarding toilet paper.”
All the workers quoted above are part of the Paid Leave for All campaign — a broad coalition of organizations urging Congress to pass a stimulus package that closes loopholes exempting both very large enterprises with 500 or more employees and smaller companies with fewer than 50 workers — and extends family sick leave to all American workers.
Forcing People to Work Sick
“Our nation is only as healthy as the most vulnerable among us,” said Wendy Chun-Hoon, executive director of Family Values @ Work and an executive team member of the Paid Leave for All campaign. “We cannot stop a pandemic if we force people to come to work sick. Walmart has gotten away with denying sick leave, artificially keeping [employee] work hours down, for years.”
Despite increasing deaths and more confirmed cases of COVID-19 nationwide — the country’s chief executive, on March 22, sent out a tweet saying, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15 day period, we will make a decision as to which way we want to go!”
Trump has since made further declarations indicating his administration’s eagerness to drop the social distancing Americans have been practicing the last couple of weeks to quell the economic impact of the coronavirus.
“Yeah — no. That’s not gonna work,” Moody said. “You can’t beat this thing without social distancing. If you want to ease back into it and let everybody go back to work — then just be prepared to get right back onto lockdown.”
Neither Walmart or Amazon responded to requests for comment.
‘Sanitize the Registers’
“Shut down,” a frustrated Murray continued. “Sanitize these registers, these keypads where people stick in their debit cards. What about the baskets? Sanitize them.”
According to Moody, three people from the nightshift where she works have already tested positive for COVID-19.
“I understand we’re the frontline and people are depending on us, [but] we’re human, too,” she said. “We need to be safe, too. Shut it down quick for two weeks and I’ll feel a lot safer going to work. I’m not asking for a permanent closing — I’m asking for it to be cleaned and safe for me to go to work.”
At $11.44 an hour, Arreola says she barely earns enough to put food on her table — let alone stock up for an emergency like the patrons who have stripped grocery and drug store shelves across the country.
“We’re making sure Walmart customers have everything they need — but who’s looking out for us,” she said. “We have to do this before it’s too late.”
Joe Maniscalco is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has spent the last decade covering labor unions and workplace justice issues.