In late March, with coronavirus cases on the rise across the country, Cody Gordon got sick. He asked to go home, but his supervisor at a Kentucky Walmart told him if he did, he’d get fired, he said.
“There’s a sign by the time clock, ‘If you feel sick, do not clock in,’” Gordon told The Daily Beast. “Yet when that happened, they start to fire you.”
As it turned out, he had the flu and bronchitis, not COVID-19. But since Walmart’s emergency paid sick time policy covers only people diagnosed with the pandemic or quarantined because of it, he went without pay for the week he couldn’t work, he said.
Walmart spokeswoman Jami Lamontagne said all workers receive paid time off under regular circumstances, and that, in the current crisis, the company has waived its attendance policy, allowing employees to stay home if they feel uncomfortable working. They may choose to use their regular paid time off during that time. She said the company was also providing additional paid leave for people required to quarantine or diagnosed with COVID-19.
Now Gordon is back on the job. His wife, Jaycee, who is in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy, had to leave her own position at Walmart last month for health reasons, so Gordon is the family’s only wage earner. But he’s terrified that he’ll catch coronavirus and bring it home.
“I’ve thought about quitting and leaving at least six to eight times a day,” Gordon said. “At this point I wish they would fire me.”
The shutdown of much of the US economy has produced devastating levels of unemployment. At least 16 million people have applied for jobless benefits in the last three weeks, and many more have tried in vain to do so. Yet many retail workers who are still at their jobs are now questioning whether they’d be better off without them.
Mario Crippen led a walk-out at an Amazon fulfillment center in Michigan on April 1. He has been continuing to push for better conditions at the workplace, where he said there have now been at least eight confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“I’m fearful for my life every time I walk inside the building,” he said. “The more and more they say they’re doing, the more and more they’re lying.”
Crippen, who has two young children at home, finds it particularly galling that Amazon hasn’t shut down his location for deep cleaning because, he said, the facility has almost completely run out of essential products like sanitizers, face masks, and disinfectants to ship to customers. That means workers are spending most of their time shipping relatively superfluous consumer goods despite the risks involved in staying on the job, he argued.
“Currently they have one person walking around every single floor,” Crippen said earlier this week. “They clean the whole station with one disinfectant wipe. I feel there should be a tub of disinfectant wipes at every single station.”
Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski said in an email that the company has increased workers’ pay rates, added new paid time off benefits, added new social distancing measures, and increased cleaning efforts, tripling the size of its janitorial team.
Both the Gordons and Crippen have been working with United for Respect, a workers’ organization that is pushing for better leave policy, wages, and safety measures during the current crisis. Other retail workers say they feel they have nowhere to go with their concerns. Many asked to remain anonymous or use only their first names in this story for fear of repercussions at work.
A member of the management team at a Lowe’s store in the upper Midwest said he was frustrated to see CEO Marvin Ellison effectively encouraging shoppers to buy supplies for recreational DIY projects during this crisis. He said the store has continued receiving large shipments of patio furniture and grills, even after Lowe’s workers elsewhere have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and at least one has died from the illness.
“And it’s not like I’m doing this great service to the community by supplying bleach and masks,” he said. “Instead I am providing Marvin the resources he needs to have a really good selling summer.”
Lowe’s spokesperson Steve Salazar provided a statement indicating that two-thirds of the company’s business was critical repair and maintenance projects, which help people stay in their homes. He also outlined measures the company has taken to improve safety, including limiting the number of people in the store, providing masks and gloves for employees, and encouraging workers to use curbside pickup options.
Alex, a Walmart worker in New York, said that after her manager tested positive for COVID-19, she chose to self-quarantine, but wasn’t paid for that time. As an asthmatic, she worries about the continued risk when she returns to work this week.
“I’m putting my life on the line for a multibillion dollar corporation that doesn’t necessarily have my back, and if I died they’d replace me the next day,” she said. “It feels like it would be the most pointless thing. I know I’m far from the only one at Walmart with that sentiment. We’re being treated like cannon fodder.” (Lamontagne, the company spokesperson, said that workers receive paid time off if they are told to self-quarantine by the company, a health care professional, or a government.)
Like some other retailers, Home Depot is offering emergency paid leave and a bonus for those still working, but that may not solve workers’ problems. One Home Depot employee in Illinois said he’s taken extra leave because he lives with people with health issues that put them in extra danger from COVID-19.
“I’m currently on my last week of my 80 hours, and I’m constantly debating with myself and my family about going back,” he wrote in an email. “The question constantly comes up: ‘Do I risk getting sick and bringing it back? Or do I go to work and get paid so I can help out?’”
Another Home Depot worker in a Washington, D.C., suburb said he’d like to see US stores do what the ones in Ontario, Canada, have done and offer online ordering and pickup or delivery only. He said it’s galling to see shoppers packing the store with carts full of mulch and other non-essential items, even if he is getting a $100 bonus for working under the current conditions.
“A hundred dollars for my family’s health is really not the value I’m looking for,” he said.
Home Depot spokesperson Margaret Smith said the company guarantees that anyone who takes time off will have a job when they return, and encourages them to work with their managers to find an acceptable arrangement. She said Home Depot was also working on new ideas for adjusting store operations.
Michael Heydweiller and his parents and his brother all work at Kroger in Brentwood, Tennessee. Or at least they did. In late March, his mother got sick with an illness that looked enough like COVID-19 that doctors told the whole family to go into quarantine, he said. Eventually, a test came back negative for the disease. Heydweiller said the company refused to pay for the family’s time off or even let him use his paid vacation time. He said the store has asked members of the family to return to work, but his parents have underlying health issues that make that too risky given the rising numbers of coronavirus cases in the area.
Kroger responded to a request for comment with a link to a March 21 press release promising emergency paid time off for self-isolation and symptoms verified by a health-care professional.
“We did apply for unemployment because we can’t go back to this environment,” Heydweiller said. “We went ahead and applied for that while we wait for them to put us on leave, or fire us, for taking care of our health.”