Walmart workers during the coronavirus pandemic

Crowded aisles and work stations, coworkers falling sick with COVID-19, a sense of anxiety about going into work — in 2021, the frontline sales and warehouse workers at large retailers continue to face the troubling reality of showing up to work during a pandemic that has been a boom time for their employers. 

Melissa Love, a Walmart worker in Long Beach, Calif., and a member leader at the worker advocacy group United for Respect, said ever since the virus took hold around the country, there has been a feeling of uncertainty about what could happen at work. 

Love, who has worked 2 p.m.-to-11 p.m. shifts throughout the pandemic and makes roughly $13 an hour, described the practical difficulties of limiting the number of customers at stores, and said, pandemic or not, crowding was a given during the holiday shopping rush, even on weekdays. 

“It’s a lot of people in the aisles, and there’s no social distancing,” she said. “Sometimes you’re required to work in the aisles, and the customers are standing there.”

Rodney Estrada, a former warehouse worker at Amazon’s Phoenix 6 distribution facility in Arizona, who was let go in November, similarly described the impracticality of maintaining social distancing at a hectic work environment. It was especially a problem during a year when an increasing number of new warehouse workers were being brought on to meet the demands of the work-from-home crowd, he said. 

“I was part of a team that set up the barriers and a flow pattern, so that people are walking in an efficient manner while maintaining six-feet [distance],” said Estrada, who had also been part of a safety committee at the warehouse. “But when you are adding hundreds more people to the workforce, it’s very difficult to kind of maintain six feet.” At the time of his termination, Estrada was making roughly $17 an hour. 

Another Amazon packing worker at a facility in Michigan, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern about potential retaliation, made similar observations. Packing stations can be close, the worker said, with employees roughly just around three feet apart in practice, and often crossing into one another during the workday. 

“When you turn around, you’re running into each other, trying to get items out of the wall to fulfill the order that’s on your computer screen,” the worker said. 

While lockdowns around the country temporarily closed the doors of non-essential stores, “essential” retailers including Walmart, Amazon, and others have continued to operate throughout the ongoing pandemic, bringing on vast numbers of additional workers to meet the demand. Amazon hired some 400,000 workers last year, the company said in its third-quarter earnings release in October, while Walmart brought on an additional roughly 500,000 workers worldwide, according to its third-quarter earnings in November. 

Amazon says it has taken efforts to minimize crowding at its warehouses, instituting staggered breaks, allowing employees to clock-in and out using their phones, and appointing some staff, whom it calls “social distancing ambassadors,” to oversee distancing measures. The retailer also has the “capacity to conduct tens of thousands of COVID tests a day across hundreds of sites,” Amazon representative Maria Boschetti said in a statement.

“Amazon prioritizes the safety and health of its employees and has invested millions of dollars to provide a safe workplace, which is why at the onset of the pandemic we moved quickly to make more than 150 COVID-19 related process changes,” she noted.

Walmart said that it worked to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission at its stores over the holidays by conducting deal events over different days, and limiting some of its more popular products to online sales only.

“The health and safety of our customers and associates is always top of mind,” a Walmart representative said. “Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve taken many safety precautions to ensure safe in-store shopping and we offer several convenient, contactless ways for customers to shop in store or on walmart.com.”

All the while, retail workers have sought to draw attention to the reality of meeting demand during a pandemic, and coordinated efforts with one another where they can. Love, who last March penned an op-ed for The New York Times about working conditions at her store, said she continues to discuss safety issues with her coworkers, and is part of a group of retail workers at United for Respect who have advanced a so-called “Five to Survive” platform, seeking at least a $5 increase in hourly pay during the pandemic, among other changes. 

While big retailers including Amazon and Walmart have invested in safety and additional payments to workers during the pandemic, employees’ calls for better treatment on a broader scale are also up against a model that has prioritized keeping labor costs lean, labor experts said. 

The initial momentum around recognizing frontline staff working conditions during the pandemic also appears to be fading, said Erin Hatton, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo’s department of sociology. 

“Most of what we call big-box stores do rely on the low-cost, ‘squeezing labor costs wherever possible’ model,” she said. “It’s a strategic choice that they have made to profit by squeezing their workers’ wages as low as possible in order to make a profit.”

“At least, early on in [the pandemic] … we had a moment of recognition of just how important these workers are to keep the economy running, to keep things going, to allow so many people to stay at home,” she added. “But I think that silver lining has largely evaporated.”

Certainly, major retailers have taken steps to compensate their workers and institute safety measures during the pandemic, and have seen their operational costs increase. Amazon for example, which has handed out masks and protective gear to employees, implemented temperature testing and expanded COVID-19 testing for workers, has estimated that safety measures related to the pandemic cost the company roughly $10 billion in 2020. 

But, as experts predicted earlier in the pandemic, the likes of Walmart, Amazon and Target have also seen booming business in 2020 that have helped more than make up the extra costs. 

In just its second quarter, Amazon’s revenue hit $89 billion, while profits hit $5.2 billion. In the third and most recent quarter, its revenue grew to $96 billion, with profits of $6.3 billion. That’s a record for the e-tailer, and did not include the company’s annual shopping bonanza of Prime Day, which was pushed back this year.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and chief executive officer, said the massive third-quarter sales numbers were in part due to some very early holiday shopping in 2020, which he called “just one of the signs that this is going to be an unprecedented holiday season.”

It was a similar story at Walmart and Target. Walmart tallied revenue of $137.7 billion in the second quarter, and $6.5 billion in profits. In the third quarter, it reported $134.7 billion in revenue and $5.14 billion in profits, more than 1.5 times its profits in the same period a year ago. Target saw revenues of $22.6 billion in the second quarter and $1.7 billion in profits. In the third quarter, its revenue was $22.6 billion and profits were $1 billion, an increase of 41 percent year-over-year.

Collectively, the three retailers pulled in roughly $26 billion in profits over just two quarters of doing business during the coronavirus — business that could not be conducted without their combined roughly 2.8 million workers.

Where to Go From Here

The financial and psychological impact of the pandemic on sales and warehouse staff will also be cause for long-term concern, experts say. This workforce is contending with a relatively low hourly wage rate while facing the cumulative effects of the risk of exposure to the virus, and additional responsibilities including cleaning stores and filling curbside pick up orders, said Françoise Carré, research director at the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“They’ve been called upon to do more, and part of the reward has been a little bit of pay increases, most of which are temporary,” Carré said. “The question is, is this really viable for another nine to 12 months?” 

Target raised its starting hourly wage last year from $13 to $15, making it a permanent change after instituting it as temporary hazard pay, but it didn’t require customers to wear masks inside its stores until August. The retailer says it has spent roughly $1 billion during the pandemic on “the well-being, health and safety of team members.” Those efforts include the wage increase and two $200 bonuses over the year, as well as efforts like 30 days of paid leave for workers 65 and older who are designated as being at high risk of serious illness from the coronavirus, free “virtual doctor visits” and counseling sessions, and in certain cities where public transportation has been disrupted by responses to the pandemic, free Lyft rides to and from work. 

Walmart said it has installed plastic guards at checkout counters, like many grocery stores have done during the pandemic, and restricted the number of customers at its stores to encourage social distancing. But, in addition to the difficulty of maintaining social distancing in practice, workers have also pointed out that the retailer did not require customers to wear masks in stores until July, during a previous surge of the virus in many states, and despite an April lawsuit by the family of a longtime worker who died of the virus. 

Walmart has also said it offers paid sick leave to its U.S. hourly staff through a “protected paid-time-off” program, which adds to its standard paid time off. And, since March, the retailer instituted a COVID-19 emergency leave policy that lets workers stay home if they choose to, without penalizing them for attendance. The retailer has extended that emergency leave policy until July 5, 2021, according to its website.

In terms of pandemic pay, Walmart has also periodically doled out additional payments to its workers, totaling roughly $2.8 billion in a series of what it has called “incentive payouts” and “special cash bonuses” since March 2020. That $2.8 billion sum represents roughly half the $5.14 billion in consolidated net income, or profit, Walmart earned during its third quarter of fiscal year 2021. In its first two quarters of fiscal 2021, the retailer’s consolidated net income totaled roughly $10.5 billion. Walmart is scheduled to release its fourth-quarter 2021 earnings in February.  

United for Respect has said Walmart’s bonus payments amount to an average of $19 a week in additional pay for part-time associates, and $37 for full-time workers. Walmart’s starting wage still remains at $12 an hour, and, despite recent public demands by workers and worker rights groups for an additional $5 an hour in pandemic pay, the retailer has not instituted a broad-scale formal pay increase. Walmart leaders said in the third-quarter earnings announcement in November that the retailer had increased wages for roughly 165,000 associates in Walmart U.S., and that some 20,000 Sam’s Club U.S. workers also received increases. 

Meanwhile, Amazon had instituted an increase in hourly wages of $2 as hazard pay early on in the pandemic, but that ended during the summer, and has not been reinstated (Amazon’s starting wage is $15 an hour). The retailer had also temporarily introduced unlimited unpaid time off, or UPT, allowing workers who were ill or needed to care for family members to stay at home without being penalized. But that measure was also short-lived. The retailer has said it has dispensed some $2.5 billion in bonuses and incentives “for our teams globally in 2020,” including a “special one-time Thank You bonus totaling over $500 million.” 

Rising Disparity

The cases of the coronavirus in the U.S are now at an all-time high and deaths are breaking records on a daily basis. As of Tuesday, there are more than 20.8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S., and some 354,263 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally. 

Labor advocates and public interest groups have meanwhile also highlighted the vastly different fortunes of rank and file sales and warehouse staff at big retailers, compared to those at the top. 

In November, a report by a number of groups including United for Respect, Bargaining for the Common Good and the Institute for Policy Studies, in partnership with groups including Action Center on Race and the Economy, highlighted that in 2018 alone, Walmart’s ceo Doug McMillion’s earnings were more than a thousand times that of Walmart’s “median worker.” Amazon ceo Jeff Bezos’ wealth rose 62 percent during the pandemic to $188.3 billion in November, according to the report, which noted that roughly 20,000 Amazon workers caught COVID-19.

Amazon says that based on its analysis of data on roughly 1.4 million Amazon and Whole Foods Market workers from March to Sept. 19, it found “19,816 employees have tested positive or been presumed positive for COVID-19.” But the retailer has said that marks a lower rate of infections than among the general public.

Highlighting inequalities has been one way worker advocacy groups have sought to frame the discussion, and to keep the attention on workers speaking out about pay and safety issues, said Chris Tilly, professor and chair of the department of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

“Even though most retailers have backed off the hazard pay, or limited it to sort of one-off bonuses, there is, I think in the general public, a renewed respect for this workforce,” he said. “I think that creates an opportunity … to advocate more protections, but also for more voice.” 

New Rules for Retail?

Raising wages would certainly cut into the companies’ profits. But ultimately, profits reflect what’s left after the company has paid for its costs, including taxes, and to operate fully on a daily basis. 

Back-of-the-envelope calculations show it would cost Amazon a total of $800 million a week to pay all of its workers $20 an hour, assuming a 40-hour work week (despite many workers in retail being part-time). To do so for a month it would cost the company $3.2 billion. It would cost Walmart roughly $1 billion a week to pay all of its workers $17 an hour, and $4 billion to do so for a month.

At the same time, retail industry leaders oppose concrete policy measures to address the safety of their workers who, along with workers in health care, are some of the only people to be required to interact with the public on a daily basis.

For instance, the National Retail Federation, which represents all major retailers and has a leadership board made up of major industry executives, recently came out against new, more specified measures from California’s Occupational Safety and Health agency. 

The rules, considered “emergency” mandates, were in the works for months and finally implemented in November, meant to address the safety of employees and the public while businesses stayed open. But the NRF called the requirements “unworkable and burdensome,” even as retail has been open for business in the state since May. California is now a new epicenter of the pandemic, with an alarmingly high number of daily cases, including a record high of more than 74,000 new reported cases on Monday alone, according to an analysis by the L.A. Times based on public county data. As of Jan. 3, the daily average of new cases over the last two weeks is 37,753 a day in the state. 

So many patients are now hospitalized in intensive care units, all of Central and Southern California are out of available ICU beds.

Nevertheless, the NRF is opposed to the new rules for businesses in California. The new emergency requirements include that any employee outbreak of the virus (three or more cases in two weeks) be reported, and that virus testing be provided to workers, along with contact tracing and any worker who falls ill with the virus being paid during a required quarantine period. 

Those would be some of the strictest rules for worker safety in the country, however, and are not mandated by OSHA at the federal level.

The NRF is currently fighting those measures through a lawsuit filed in mid-December, arguing Cal/OSHA lacks the jurisdiction to implement them, and claiming the rules could effectively compel retailers to provide “unlimited” paid leave. Language to that effect is nowhere to be found in the emergency rules.

The NRF also argued in its lawsuit that the emergency rules place a “burden” of testing employees for the virus on businesses when it should be on public health authorities, alleging “there is no data or science to connect COVID-19 spread to the workplace.” But this seems to ignore the growing science around transmission of the virus.

Since the early days of the pandemic, scientific and medical experts have been consistent in that close contact between people is the main source of spread for the virus. Hence the early recommendations, and subsequent mandates in some states, for people to wear face-coverings in public spaces and maintain six feet of social distancing from others they do not live with. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “These viruses may be able to infect people who are further than six feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space,” according to the CDC.

Retail workers are not only indoors in relatively close contact with colleagues, but for those working, even partially, in grocery, which Amazon, Walmart and Target all operate in, they can come in contact with thousands of customers a week. 

Even outside California, retail workers are fearing for their safety in increasing numbers.

Up-to-date data from the OSHA, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, shows that safety complaints from workers in the retail sector, excluding grocery, have nearly tripled since the end of May. OSHA has 1,458 active complaints from retail workers and counting, specifically concerning the pandemic and potential violations of worker safety measures. That’s up from about 500 in May.

Although retail is operating in many states under mandates related to the pandemic, like in-store capacity limits and mask requirements for workers and shoppers, it seems many workers feel such mandates are not being followed by all.

OSHA does not make specific complaints public, and its data is generally anonymized beyond breaking it down by sector. 

But retail has the second-highest number of coronavirus-related complaints of any industry, only behind health care, where OSHA is handling 2,805 complaints to date. Grocery stores, which have been operating as essential businesses throughout the pandemic, have the fewest official complaints of any industry, with only 202 to date.

But these are just the cases OSHA is capable of dealing with. The agency overall, including individual state counterparts like Cal/OSHA, has just 2,100 inspectors tasked with oversight of working conditions for 130 million employees. 

There are likely thousands more safety complaints from retail workers going directly to state-run OSHA agencies, of which there are 22. To-date state OSHA agencies have received 40,127 worker complaints over coronavirus safety in total, but OSHA does not break them out by sector as it does for those made at the federal level. Federal OSHA has received a total of 12,120 complaints.

At its core, retail profitability depends on the ability to move massive amounts of product. And unlike mom-and-pop shops, large retailers are able to buy in bulk at lower price points. 

During the pandemic, consumers shifted to purchasing necessities and familiar items, which allowed big-box retailers to keep their doors open, even if they sometimes reduced hours or temporarily closed stores. But throughout the pandemic, and particularly during the height of the holiday season and the ongoing surge in coronavirus cases, retailers have also been fielding demand for non-essential items.

Under these circumstances, retailers should consider what they owe their employees, said Mousumi Behari, an e-commerce and retail strategy expert at Avionos, which works with Ulta Beauty. A responsible thing for retailers to do, she said, is to “offer a healthy environment, offer the right sanitary supplies such as masks and gloves, and offer sick leave and the ability for free testing” to all employees.

“All of those are important things that should be there in any job — not just the shop,” she said. “If retailers are doing that successfully, and people are happy and employed, it’s OK [to keep doors open].”

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