Warehouse Workers' New Health Hazard: Frivolous Online Orders

Retailers see e-commerce as a way to survive the coronavirus pandemic. Their warehouse workers wonder if they'll survive it, too.

Business should be very slow for Pier 1 Imports right now. The home furnishings retailer filed for bankruptcy in February, even before the coronavirus pandemic hit and forced the chain to temporarily close all its stores.

But the company’s warehouse outside Columbus, Ohio, is running full tilt right now. An employee there told HuffPost the facility is filling between 5,000 and 6,000 orders a day, compared to a more normal 1,000 to 1,500, and bringing on dozens of temporary workers to meet demand.

The employee said many workers have been logging overtime since the coronavirus crisis began, leaving them to wonder how critical wind chimes, three-wick candles and artificial plants are during a full-blown pandemic.

“This is unnecessary,” said the worker, who, like others in this story, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “I don’t want to be the person who died for fragrant oils.”

The spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has hit the retail industry particularly hard. Grocery stores, hardware stores and big-box chains like Target have remained open, but retailers selling “nonessential” items, like Pier 1, have had to close stores in states with stay-at-home orders. Many chains, though not all, have gone ahead and shuttered them nationwide as a safety precaution.

But that does not mean business has stopped. Some companies selling less-than-essential products are leaning on e-commerce to keep them afloat. The online sales are helping companies weather a brutal period of uncertainty, but they require warehouse employees to continue clocking in and working among others, while the rest of the workforce is telecommuting or out on leave.

A Pier 1 employee said the company's Ohio warehouse should be shut down during the coronavirus scare.
A Pier 1 employee said the company's Ohio warehouse should be shut down during the coronavirus scare.
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

Several workers at different companies have told HuffPost in recent days that they are disturbed by the crowds and lack of hygiene in their warehouses, and they wonder why their companies are open for business at all when public health experts recommend people maintain social distance.

A typical retail fulfillment center buzzes with anywhere from dozens to hundreds of workers at a time. Employees often crowd in break rooms and at entrances on shift changes, and they share common equipment from one shift to the next, like forklifts, carts, bins and tape guns ― all with “high-touch” surfaces that could hold germs.

Workers also say they are dismayed by the frivolous nature of the customer orders that require them to keep showing up for work. Amazon, for example, is considered “essential” because it sells food and other household staples that people need during a public health crisis. But the nonessential items in the retail giant’s online store remain available for purchase as well, although they may take longer to arrive (the company has prioritized stocking household items in its warehouses). By all indications, Amazon customers are shopping eagerly while in self-imposed quarantine: The company said it will hire 100,000 new workers to meet demand.

“I would say probably 25% of [my colleagues] have decided they’re going to use their vacation time and sick time and stay home. The rest of us are like, ‘Why are we here?’” said one employee at a warehouse for Darice, the online arts-and-crafts wholesaler owned by Michaels. Michaels has invited intense criticism from employees for keeping many of its retail stores open during the pandemic, even in states with stay-at-home orders. The company did not respond to emailed requests for comment on Monday.

“I don’t want to be the person who died for fragrant oils.”

- Employee at a Pier 1 Imports warehouse

The Darice worker said most employees at the company’s warehouse in Strongsville, Ohio, are not wearing gloves, and there are so few cleaning supplies that a co-worker recently went to Dollar General to buy more wipes for their scanners. The worker had never given so much thought to what she touches inside the warehouse ― and the nonessential nature of most of the products.

“Here’s your glitter, Karen. Here are your fake flowers,” she said, describing her thoughts as she prepares shipments during the pandemic. “None of this stuff ― and we’ve been comparing notes on what we’ve sent out ― literally none of what I put together today was essential.”

‘It’s Either Keep Coming In Or Quit’

The Darice worker chafed at a mass email sent to the store’s customers that said its Ohio distribution center would remain open “on a strictly volunteer basis” ― as in, employees would only work if they wanted to. But working, she said, is a matter of economic necessity: Those who did not “volunteer” had to use whatever paid leave they had accumulated or forgo a paycheck. Workers start out around $12 per hour in the facility, she said.

While many states have urged nonessential retailers to close, companies have generally continued shipping out their clothing, sporting goods and home furnishing products. This is not the case everywhere. The Outnet, an online retailer selling designer clothes for women, recently posted a note to its website saying it had temporarily closed its warehouses “in line with new local government measures.” Any orders would be shipped out when they reopened.

But at other warehouses, it is business as usual. Many workers have been provided with letters by their employers to show police in the event they are stopped and asked why they are out and about despite a shelter-in-place order.

Those letters tend to rely on the exemption from the stay-at-home rules for transportation workers. California’s order, for instance, carves out “employees of firms providing services that enable logistics operations, including cooling, storing, packaging, and distributing for wholesale or retail sale or use.” Retailers may rely on logistics operations, but they are not providing those services for essential uses the way UPS and other carriers are.

Darice, a subsidiary of Michaels Stores, has kept its Ohio warehouse running during the pandemic.
Darice, a subsidiary of Michaels Stores, has kept its Ohio warehouse running during the pandemic.
RiverNorthPhotography via Getty Images

Workers for the high-end home-furnishings chain Restoration Hardware have continued working in the company’s call centers and at an Ohio distribution center, despite the fact that the retailer’s galleries and outlets have closed until at least April 3. The company has deemed them part of the “critical infrastructure.” A Restoration Hardware executive told HuffPost earlier this month that the chain would continue to move its home decor products so as not to back up the ports.

“I understand that they have us wearing gloves all day, but that is still not going to help with being close to each other,” one Restoration Hardware warehouse worker told HuffPost in an email. “Why can’t we be able to be shut down during this coronavirus?”

Subcontracted workers at a Tracy, California, warehouse received a letter from their staffing firm saying they play “a critical role in the continuity of operation of essential businesses in California.” The workers ship out memory foam mattresses, box springs and sofas produced by the company Zinus.

“Doesn’t seem very essential,” said one worker. “No one is happy to be working during this time but it’s either keep coming in or quit.”

The worker said supervisors insist the facility is being regularly sanitized but “never have I seen anyone doing so.”

A Question Of What’s ‘Essential’

Pier 1 employees in Ohio were given a letter claiming they are exempted from the state’s stay-at-home order for being part of a “transportation and logistics provider.” But a closer look at the Ohio order lays out particular types of businesses under that sector: “airlines, taxies, transportation network providers (such as Uber and Lyft), vehicle rental services, paratransit, marinas, docks and boat storage.” Other logistics providers are exempted only if they are “necessary for essential activities” laid out in the order.

Workers at the Pier 1 facility meet at the start and end of each shift. Photographs provided to HuffPost showed workers seated in groups of three and four at small tables throughout the breakroom, many less than a foot apart. Pier 1 did not respond to questions sent over email on Monday.

According to the employee, workers are not wearing gloves, and although supervisors have provided painters’ masks, there are not enough to go around.

“If this were my warehouse, I would send my people home,” the worker said. “If we were doing food or bandages or health and safety supplies that would be one thing. But it’s napkin rings and wicker chairs. It’s just not worth it.”

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