Health and safety are hand-in-hand concerns for pretty much everyone on the planet dealing with the coronavirus, and retail employees are no exception.
Concerned about contracting COVID-19, some essential workers at Amazon, Walmart, Target, Instacart and FedEx are reportedly planning a walkout strike Friday. A Walmart Inc. store in Worcester, Mass., was ordered to be closed Wednesday by city officials after 23 employees tested positive for the coronavirus. About 400 store employees will be tested, according to a spokesman for Worcester’s city manager, Edward Augustus. The store will remain closed to allow a third-party agency to clean, sanitize and restock the shelves, a Walmart spokesman said. “We’ll be working with the city and medical officials on the appropriate reopening date,” he added.
Friday’s walkout has the support of Christian Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse worker who was dismissed, who posted a flier about the “Mayday General Strike” and tweeted, “Protect all workers at all costs we are not expandable (sic) or replaceable enough is enough TAKE THE POWER BACK!!”
The heightened attention about warehouse workers’ safety and consumers’ increased appreciation for their efforts continue to rise during the pandemic. Whether the COVID-19 situation could lead to nonunion workers seeking representation remains to be seen. Emily Spieler, a professor of law at Northeastern University, said the walkout indicates just “how angry and anxious people are and that they have been moved to action as a result.” Participants need not worry about being fired, since walkouts over health and safety, or hazardous work pay concerns, are protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
Spieler said, “It takes a lot to push workers to the point where they decide they are going to walk out. The lack of any federal intervention on health and safety for these workers means they’re kind of left on their own with their employers. There have been a lot of reports about concerns at Amazon warehouses around health and safety over time. But right now, the federal OSHA has made clear they’re doing very little other than issuing guidelines with regard to how to protect all frontline workers and industries from COVID-19 with the possible exception of very high-risk health care workers.”
In recent weeks there has been an uptick in workers’ activism around the country, spurred by health and safety concerns, not necessarily with formal unions, according to Spieler. “Increasingly people are coming to understand that safety inside workplaces relates to safety outside in the community,” said Spieler, citing how local health officials in areas where the meatpacking industry has been ordered by the Trump administration to stay open are very concerned.
Noting how it would be “very hard to pry a considerable number of people off Amazon right now,” Spieler said the issue of workers’ safety resonates with consumers in other ways. “I have no idea whether this will lead to a consumer boycott. It is much more likely that it will seed a future level of activism among workers. It will increase the awareness of consumers about the potential spread of the virus through the failure of enforcing safety inside workplaces,” she said.
Meanwhile, the prospect of unionizing is being explored by some. Asked if representatives from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union had reached out to workers at Target Corp., Walmart and the other aforementioned companies about unionizing, a RWSDU-UFCW spokeswoman said they have been speaking with Amazon Inc. workers. “But they reached out to us, not the other way around,” the union spokeswoman said.
RWSDU is a division of the United Food and Commercial Workers labor union. The unionization rate in retail is on par with the national unionization of 9 percent, according to the RWDSU-UFCW. That statistic includes all private sector industries.
As for Amazon’s stance regarding Friday’s planned event, the spokeswoman said, “While we respect people’s right to express themselves, we object to the irresponsible actions of labor groups in spreading misinformation and making false claims about Amazon during this unprecedented health and economic crisis. The statements made are not supported by facts or representative of the majority of the 500,000 Amazon operations employees in the U.S., who are showing up to work to support their communities. What’s true is that masks, temperature checks, hand sanitizer, increased time off, increased pay and more are standard across our Amazon and Whole Foods Market networks already.”
The spokeswoman said Amazon has procured millions of safety supplies and has invested nearly $700 million in increased pay. “Working globally with our teams and third parties we have gone to extreme measures to understand and address this pandemic with more than 150 process changes to date,” she said.
The company expects to spend more than $800 million in the first half of this year on COVID-19-related safety measures such as deploying more than 100 million masks, doing temperature checks and using thermal cameras. As of now, Amazon employees who are diagnosed with COVID-19 are placed into quarantine, and receive up to two weeks of pay, in addition to the five weeks of paid time off they receive. The company has expanded its unpaid personal leave of absence policy to accommodate high-risk individuals, school closures and other coronavirus-related issues.
Target also addressed safety measures that have been taken since early March in a statement issued by a company spokeswoman. The statement noted the “dozens” of safety, social distancing, and rigorous cleaning measures in its stores across the country, cleaning checkout lanes after each shopper’s transaction, rotating the partitions at checkout lanes for “deep” cleaning, installing plexiglass partitions at checkout lanes, actively monitoring, and when needed metering guest traffic, and using audio messages. In line with CDC guidelines, Target recently began requiring that employees wear masks or face coverings when working in its stores, the statement read.
”While we take them seriously, the concerns raised are from a very small minority. The vast majority of our more than 340,000 frontline team members have expressed pride in the role they are playing in helping provide for families across the country during this time of need,” the statement read. “When concerns have been brought to our attention, we’ve taken additional action, including increasing the frequency of overhead announcements and adding more signage.”
A spokeswoman for Walmart acknowledged several media requests asking whether the company had done anything to discourage workers from striking and what its stance on unionizing is. Without responding directly to either issue, she provided extensive material about coronavirus-related precautions and guidelines. She also noted that about 200,000 associates had been hired since mid-March and Walmart has paid nearly $180 million in cash bonuses to hourly workers. In addition, earlier this month the company gave a $300 cash bonus for full-time hourly workers and $150 for part-time ones, a total of more than $365 million paid to associates.
Unlike many nonessential companies that have been laying off and furloughing workers, Instacart is in a hiring mode. The food delivery business refers to its independent contractors as full-service “shoppers” that pick and deliver groceries for customers in 5,500 cities in North America. That base has grown from 200,000 workers to more than 500,000 since the outbreak of the pandemic. Last week the company revealed plans to bring on 250,000 more to meet consumer demand. The company has seen orders increase by 500 percent year-over-year and average orders have increased by 35 percent.
Asked about Friday’s planned strike, an Instacart spokeswoman said, “We remain singularly focused on the health and safety of the Instacart community. Our team has been diligently working to offer new policies, guidelines, product features, resources, increased bonuses and personal protective equipment to ensure the health and safety of shoppers during this critical time. We welcome all feedback from shoppers and we will continue to enhance their experience and ensure this community is support.”
FedEx did not respond to a request for comment.