Every Employer Considers Itself 'Essential' In The Coronavirus Pandemic

Many companies think they're part of the "critical infrastructure" allowed to carry on despite COVID-19. But their employees feel anguish over working right now.

California Closets is a national company that builds and installs high-end, custom closet systems. Its product might not seem essential to the public right now, but you can still have a system designed and put in during the coronavirus pandemic ― even in states that have ordered residents not to leave their homes.

That’s because the company views itself as part of the critical infrastructure exempted from the shelter-in-place rules meant to curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Among those who disagree with that view: some of the workers building and installing closets for the company’s franchisees.

“I feel the whole company should just not be operating right now. I’ve been beating myself up about it,” said one employee on the East Coast, who, like other workers in this story, asked to speak anonymously because of fears of retribution.

“It’s really the install team that I’m super-concerned about,” the worker explained. “They are going into people’s homes every day. If one of them is infected and doesn’t show symptoms for two weeks, they’re going into someone’s house every day for two weeks.”

“I love my job and what I do,” said another California Closets worker. “We are treated fair and just in my opinion. The problem I have here is, is it moral to keep us working?”

California Closets considers itself part of the critical infrastructure, exempt from shutdown rules.
California Closets considers itself part of the critical infrastructure, exempt from shutdown rules.
Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images

The growing lockdown across the U.S. has hammered businesses of all kinds, leading to swift layoffs and alarmingly low revenue projections. Faced with orders in several states that all non-essential companies stop operating, some employers have tried to read the stay-home rules in the most generous way possible to avoid closing.

California Closets, for instance, says on its website that “our operations have been deemed an essential infrastructure service as determined by Homeland Security and/or the state or local municipality.” But it is California Closets who deemed it so ― not a government entity.

Bill Barton, the company’s chief executive, said in a statement that the safety of workers and customers was a priority, and employees could decline to work if they choose. ”We have many employees who have elected to do so across the country. We are in regular contact with our employees and franchisees, sharing information with them and encouraging them to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The stay-home rules vary from state to state, though they generally track DHS’s outline of critical sectors during an emergency such as the coronavirus outbreak, like health care, communications, transportation, banking, food and agriculture. Entities that meet the guidelines laid out for each sector in the executive orders can keep running.

But, practically speaking, who provides a critical service is largely a matter of legal interpretation. Some state and local officials expressed frustration with companies and residents they believe are flouting the rules.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said his state planned to take action but acknowledged its order is difficult to enforce. Oregon has warned it will begin ticketing individuals and referring businesses to licensing agencies if it appears they have violated the order.

“I feel the whole company should just not be operating right now. I’ve been beating myself up about it.”

- California Closets worker

Not surprisingly, many employees working through the pandemic find the justifications dubious.

The online used-car retailer Carvana has kept operating during the outbreak, telling its workers that it provides an essential service. “Carvana’s delivery network allows customers to safely buy or sell their vehicle without broader exposure to COVID-19,” the company said in an internal email obtained by HuffPost.

Customers’ exposure is limited because Carvana agents take on the exposure for them, going to their homes to retrieve the cars. As one employee put it, “We buy cars from people, so we have to get in cars not knowing about the customer.” The worker said several colleagues had opted to use sick leave rather than work during the outbreak and risk contracting and spreading the virus.

Carvana provided employees with a letter to show police in the event they are stopped. It notes that Amazon, Uber Eats and other online operations are still up and running as well: “We believe fulfilling orders placed by customers allows Carvana to safely allow access to mobility for customers who need it, or to sell cars they don’t need for cash they might need to get through these tough circumstances.”

A Carvana spokesperson said in an email that it was offering a “touchless delivery” service so that customers wouldn’t come in contact with employees. The company said it was monitoring public health orders and intended to comply with them in all states.

HuffPost readers: Has your employer put you in an uncomfortable position during the pandemic? Email us about it.

“In these uncertain times, Carvana wants to ensure its customers and employees feel safe and feel supported,” the spokesperson said in an email. “There are some things that can’t be put off. If buying a car is one of them, Carvana is doing everything it can to keep you safe so you can keep moving.”

Even some arts and craft stores argue they have a right and responsibility to keep their doors open during the pandemic. Several employees of the big-box craft retailer Michaels contacted HuffPost to say how upset they were to be working in stores with customers during a pandemic. The company says on its website that it has canceled in-store events, and corporate employees have the option of working from home.

Michaels arts and craft stores have kept their doors open.
Michaels arts and craft stores have kept their doors open.
Diana Haronis via Getty Images

Company executives made the case in a letter to employees that they are an “essential workforce” during the coronavirus scare. They cited three reasons: Small businesses rely on them, teachers use them for educational supplies and people “are looking to take their minds off a stressful reality” right now.

Also, the stores serve as UPS access points, the letter noted.

“Having crafts to ease stress during the pandemic is completely unnecessary,” one employee said in an email. “We have called corporate and HR so many times to the point where the line does not ring when you call.”

As HuffPost reported Saturday, the high-end home-furnishing retailer Restoration Hardware has kept its California call center open in spite of a stay-home order from Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). The company provided workers with letters saying they are part of the critical communications and transportations sector.

The workers spend most of their time fielding customer questions about the company’s pricy furniture, fixtures and decor.

“I think a cop is going to laugh at me if I hand him this letter,” said one employee.

In some cases, retailers have made public announcements about closing their stores and keeping employees at home, but workers are still being asked to come in to unload trucks, stock merchandise and fill orders during the pandemic.

URBN, parent company of the Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie clothing stores, has shuttered its locations in several states that have stay-at-home orders. Even so, workers are being told to come in to retail stores to pack and ship online orders, allowing the company to continue sales.

Some employees are also still working onsite at the company’s corporate offices in Philadelphia, where one worker tested positive for COVID-19, according to an internal note. A spokesperson told HuffPost that the employee was last in the building on March 15 and the building has been disinfected. The company said it had split the employees into two shifts to reduce density.

As for the workers still clocking in at stores where there are stay-at-home orders in effect, the URBN spokesperson said no more than three were working together at any given time and that they were instructed to practice social distancing.

The company was also assessing its policies “to make sure they continue to adhere to any changing municipal, state or federal ordinances,” the spokesperson said.

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