UPDATE: After The Daily Beast published this story, employees were sent home Friday after yet another COVID case had been confirmed. In a bulletin to workers, the company said of the infected staffer, “Their last day in the building was Thursday, June 11, 2020.” Still, the note added the company would “resume operations today, this evening at 6:00 p.m. We expect to see you there.”
One employee noted in response: “No one feels safe anymore.”
Dollar General has thrived during the coronavirus crisis, hiring thousands of workers to keep up with demand for its products. But at one of the company’s Georgia warehouses, employees fear these profits are coming at a dangerous price.
The distribution center in Jackson, some 40 miles south of Atlanta, has had at least four confirmed cases of COVID-19, and workers there say supervisors haven’t been truthful about other possible infections in the warehouse. Employees also told The Daily Beast that some people have been fired, penalized, or forced to go without pay in recent weeks for refusing to work on their days off following confirmed cases.
Around 3:45 a.m. on Wednesday, June 10, night-shift workers say, managers sent them home early without explanation. When they left the building, they spotted contractors from a cleaning company waiting outside in their vehicle.
“We never leave that early,” one employee told The Daily Beast. “They told us it’s just for tonight. Initially, I was like, ‘Okay this is weird.’ But when I went outside and I see this cleanup company come in, I was like, ‘Oh, lord. It’s another case of COVID.’”
About two hours later, Dollar General’s morning shift began to trickle in for their routine temperature checks, conducted by nurses flanking an entrance way. Employees say one of those nurses warned workers there’d been a suspected COVID-19 case overnight—which, after being confirmed Friday, is now the second in one week.
Once they passed the checkpoint, warehouse staff demanded answers from supervisors and refused to work in protest of the alleged infection.
“They were sugarcoating it, telling us there wasn’t no case,” said a source who works the morning shift for $18.50 an hour. They asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution from their employer. “They were telling people to work or leave.” The source added that the Jackson warehouse has a routine cleaning every Saturday. “Why would they come in on a random Tuesday night?” they asked.
The source said the company’s phone app for employees listed four confirmed COVID-19 cases in the warehouse: On April 10, April 16, May 3, and June 2.
On April 9, local TV station WGXA reported that the distribution center had no confirmed cases of COVID-19, but that one employee was awaiting test results. Because of the suspected case, the warehouse shut down “for an extensive cleaning by a third-party cleaning company,” Dollar General told the news outlet.
Eleven days later, WGXA revealed an employee had tested positive for COVID-19 and the warehouse would close for a disinfecting of the building. “While the facility is shut down all employees are being paid for regularly scheduled hours,” the WGXA report noted.
Mary Kathryn Colbert, a spokeswoman for Dollar General, confirmed an employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus on June 5, but said the company was “currently unaware of any additional confirmed cases in our Jackson facility.” The company also “conducted a scheduled cleaning on early Wednesday morning.”
Colbert said the Wednesday, June 10 cleaning, around 3:30 a.m., “was a scheduled precautionary cleaning and not related to the Friday, June 5, confirmed case.” It’s unclear why the cleaning wasn’t announced to night-shift employees ahead of time.
“Upon learning of the confirmed diagnosis, we took preventative measures to halt operations to conduct an extensive and thorough cleaning by a third-party cleaning company,” Colbert added. “At the conclusion of that cleaning, we resumed operations to support the essential work and services that our stores are performing for the communities we serve. All employees were paid for regularly scheduled hours during this time.”
Colbert said that per company protocol, the employee who tested positive will be required to quarantine at home for 14 days and will be paid for their regularly scheduled hours. “Our thoughts are with our employee, and we wish them a quick recovery,” Colbert added.
“We continue to communicate with our employees on a regular basis to remind them of steps to help contain or avoid the spread of the COVID-19 virus, as well as steps they should take if they experience symptoms or have been in touch with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” Colbert said.
A third Dollar General employee told The Daily Beast of the COVID-19 scare this week, “No one was aware of anything until we heard it from people on night shift and some of the nurses. They had fumigated the warehouse for less than two hours.”
This employee said the smells from the quick cleaning were so strong, one pregnant woman who works in inventory walked out, followed by some fork-lifters and receiving checkers. And that one manager allegedly told employees, “You have two choices: you work or go home. If you go home, you will be accountable for a point on your attendance.”
“I’m one who decided to stay,” continued the third employee. “Because I know it’s definitely a high concern, but I felt until we were given real authorization to leave without a point counting against us, I had to stay.”
The employee said their family is especially worried they might contract the virus at the warehouse, because family members watch the employee’s children during work hours. The employee showers immediately on returning home, as a precaution.
“We’re just numbers and statistics to them,” the employee said of the company’s attendance point system, which the employee claims has led to people losing their jobs during the pandemic. “Unless a higher-up feels his health and safety is of concern.”
The company sent employees home early on Friday, June 5, after one worker’s coronavirus test came back positive. An employee bulletin stated work and common areas including lockers and time clocks would be cleaned. The note added: “Regardless, the fact that we believe it is [a] safe environment for you to be working today, we have made the decision to cancel the remainder of your shift and will resume operations as follow[s].”
Workers were advised to show up for another morning shift on Sunday, their day off. “We expect to see you there,” the announcement said, according to a screenshot reviewed by The Daily Beast. (One employee told us some employees who didn’t come to work Sunday were terminated. Dollar General did not answer questions sent via email about the alleged terminations, or what options employees are given if they don’t feel it’s safe to work.)
Dollar General, one of the country’s largest retailers, announced in March that it would double its usual hiring rate and add 50,000 employees to its ranks by the end of April in order to meet demands for household items during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last month, Forbes ranked the Tennessee-based company as one of the top “Corporate Responders” to meet the challenges of the coronavirus. Dollar General, which targets low- and middle-income customers in smaller cities and rural areas, was listed at No. 24 among the country’s 100 largest employers for, among other things, instituting shopping hours for seniors and investing nearly $60 million in employee appreciation bonuses.
While press releases indicate customer-service employees are provided with face masks and hand sanitizer, the company has not issued similar announcements about protocols being implemented within its distribution centers.
Mother Jones recently reported on Dollar General’s in-store employees working without proper protections. When one South Carolina store did receive masks, an employee shared a laughable photo of a face covering that appeared to be made of T-shirt fabric. Daniel Stone, a former corporate analyst, claims he was fired for raising too many questions about safety and for privately organizing store employees online. (Dollar General denied terminating Stone for “any unlawful reason,” and said it “has a zero-tolerance policy for unlawful retaliation,” according to a statement provided to Mother Jones.)
One employee who works at the Jackson warehouse said the most recent person to test positive for COVID-19 was last inside the building on June 2, but colleagues continued to work there until the test results were confirmed on June 5.
“Why not shut down until you get the results back?” they asked. “It seems like they care about the dollar sign instead of the employees.”
“There’s no way to properly sanitize a building like that,” the employee told The Daily Beast. “In order to make production, there’s no way for us to social distance. If we’re in the aisles, we’re right over the top of each other.”
The employee worries because some of their children have asthma. “But when you’re put in a predicament where you’re sent home without pay—it’s either I pay the bills, or I sit at home and don’t get paid, and I get put out on the street,” they said.
“They told us when work calls in, you have to show up.”