Outside of one of Gap's retail stores

While this holiday season may look different from those in years past, some retailers will still be hiring extra staff, and those workers could be at increased risk for COVID-19 as cases continue to rise around the world.

Last week, the United States reached more than 160,000 new cases of the virus in one day — just more than a week after crossing a then record-high 100,000 new cases in a day.

As of now, retailers are expected to be open for the holiday season, and the top retailers in the country will be adding seasonal staff.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 583,000 seasonal workers were hired between October and December 2019 to meet the demands of holiday shopping. While that number may shrink this year, the longer promotional holiday season could still see a slew of seasonal staff in stores and fulfillment centers.

The National Retail Federation Holiday Planning Survey 2020 released in September looked at 54 retailers and found that 74 percent agreed the 2020 holiday season would be longer than in 2019 (Black Friday has begun for many companies already), and two-thirds expect all of their stores will be open from October to December. And beyond physical stores, the greater shift to e-commerce this year with the pandemic curbing mobility, fulfillment centers will see a staff ramp up, too.

Gap said it plans to hire 10,000 seasonal associates to support its fulfillment centers, customer service centers and Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Athleta, Intermix and Janie and Jack stores. Walmart will hire 20,000 seasonal associates in its e-commerce fulfillment centers. Amazon said it is hiring 100,000 seasonal roles for its fulfillment centers, sortation centers, AMZL delivery stations and global specialty fulfillment, including Amazon Fresh and Prime Now, and Amazon Air. A spokesperson for Amazon said the company has invested $800 million since the start of the pandemic on safety measures and that between March 1 and Sept. 19, 2020, COVID-19 infection rates were 42 percent lower for Amazon and Whole Foods frontline employees working for the company in the U.S at that time compared to the general population.

Kohl’s did not commit to how many seasonal associates it will bring on, noting that hiring is determined by location, but the company’s chief people officer Marc Chini said, “At Kohl’s, we pride ourselves in delivering an unmatched experience for our customers regardless of how they choose to shop us, and our associates play a pivotal role in bringing this to life for our customers year round. Just as we have in previous years, we plan to hire seasonal associates across our network to support the increased demand we experience during the holidays, both in store and through our digital channels including kohls.com and the Kohl’s app. We know customers will be shopping online more than ever this year and we’re staffing accordingly to support increased digital fulfillment efforts.”

As COVID-19 cases ramp up and stores staff up, diverse populations may be at increased risk of exposure to the virus.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2019 on employed persons by industry, of the 924,000 retail workers employed in clothing stores, 75 percent are white, 12 percent are Black, 8 percent are Asian and 24 percent are Latinx or Hispanic. For shoe stores, 67 percent are white, 22 percent are Black, 7 percent are Asian, and 18 percent are Latinx or Hispanic.

When it comes to warehousing and storage, those numbers shift to 65 percent white, 24 percent Black, 5 percent Asian, 32 percent Latinx.

While the majority of employed workers in the category are white, non-white workers are often not the majority when it comes to people-facing roles.

Data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for 2018 showed that of the 361,597 clothing and clothing accessories stores employees, for example, Hispanic and Latinx sales workers account for 35 percent of the workforce, Black accounts for 22 percent and Asian 6 percent. That means people of color make up more than 63 percent of the workforce in clothing sales, while white workers account for 30 percent.

The EEOC statistics show that white workers account for 38.8 percent of total clothing and clothing accessories stores employees, but they hold myriad roles, including executive/senior level official and manager roles, first/mid-level officials and managers roles, and office and clerical work, positions that are not entirely public facing like sales work, service work and laborers, or store stock and warehouse work. Hispanic and Latinx workers account for 29.5 percent of total clothing and clothing accessories stores employees, but 83 percent of Hispanic and Latinx employees are working in sales, service and labor.  

Retail workers of color who spoke to WWD expressed concerned about heading back to the stores in greater numbers while the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the country.

A Banana Republic retail manager from Las Vegas who wished to remain anonymous, said they were initially nervous about going back to the store at the height of the pandemic earlier this year and considered quitting instead of returning. The manager, along with other staff, had been furloughed in March.

“I’m not as nervous now as I was then, but I have mixed feelings about working,” they said. “It’s not that I’m nervous that I’ll catch it as much as it’s about people not taking it seriously and saying that they are. There have been a handful of people that argue about wearing a mask and my company says we have to make them leave, but the store manager says let them shop, stay 6 feet away and keep your distance.”

Not every Banana Republic worker returned from furlough immediately, according to the manager, but now that everyone is back, she says the store is still understaffed.

“When we first opened, we had a checklist of what we cleaned and we were funded for it,” the manager explained. “The company is slowly taking funding away from us and we have even more responsibilities now between operations, sales and cleaning our restrooms even more.”

Gap Inc. declined to comment for the story.

Erica Zambrana, an Amazon fulfillment center worker in Miami, said she joined the company in April. She and her family had concerns at the start because of the number of people at the fulfillment center, but trusted what the company said about its newly implemented policies and procedures.

“A few weeks ago, our site started giving out COVID-19 tests…Employees can use an app on their phone to check hours and scheduling, but they keep us up to date on if any employees have tested positive,” she said. “There’s always that little voice in the back of your head that says I hope I don’t get it today, but what has made me not so worried about a scare like that is the turnaround time for the test, which is two days. It was a weight off of my shoulders.”

Adam Duncan, a fulfillment center worker in Columbus, Ohio, caught the virus as an employee of Amazon, but was asymptomatic. He said he caught COVID-19 after meeting with friends, one of which informed Duncan and the others that they tested positive for the virus. He was concerned about working in the fulfillment center, because he has a two-year-old daughter and his parents are in their seventies. “There was some concern to my exposure level,” he said.

Addressing its measures and its case rate, a spokesperson for Amazon told WWD, “We compared COVID-19 case rates to the general population, as reported by Johns Hopkins University for the same period, accounting for geography and the age composition of our employees to make the data as accurate as possible. Based on this analysis, if the rate among Amazon and Whole Foods Market employees were the same as it is for the general population rate, we estimate that we would have seen 33,952 cases among our workforce. In reality, 19,816 employees have tested positive or been presumed positive for COVID-19 — 42% lower than the expected number.”

Continuing, Amazon said, “Through the social-distancing measures in place, we see the number of employees quarantined per confirmed case reducing every week to the point where, on average, we quarantine less than a fraction of a person per confirmed case. We see this as a strong evidence that our employees are not proliferating the virus at work.”

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