Just last week, as Drew Board was about to load a couple’s car with groceries at the Walmart where he works in Albemarle, North Carolina, he approached the passenger side and asked if everything was OK with their order.
Everything was not OK: The man driving told him to stay back. They’d just tested positive for COVID-19. Neither wore a mask.
For 23-year-old Board, it was just another day working retail during the pandemic. Board said he and his co-workers don’t feel protected from the coronavirus at work. Customers typically aren’t social distancing from each other or staff. He estimates about a quarter of shoppers don’t wear masks.
A significant share of workers at the nation’s largest retail and fast-food chains say they’re unsafe at work, according to a new survey of 11,651 service sector workers, conducted between September and November, at 71 companies including giants like Walmart and Kroger, and fast-food and restaurant outlets like Chipotle, Waffle House, Dunkin’ and Wendy’s.
Forty-one percent said they could only sometimes, rarely, or never socially distance at work, and 28% of workers said customers only sometimes, rarely, or never wore masks. In the food service industry, more than 40% of workers said customers weren’t wearing masks.
At Walmart, where Board works, 47% of workers said that they can only sometimes keep 6 feet away from others. And 26% said customers only sometimes or rarely mask up.
But other similar chains had better numbers. At Costco ― also a giant retailer ― only 5% of Costco employees said customers failed to wear masks.
“If Costco can get up to a high level, why should it be different for a Walmart,” said Rachel Deutsch, a supervising attorney for worker justice at the Center for Popular Democracy, who viewed the report.
The survey results differed widely between companies, even within the same industries ― a sign that keeping workers safe with social distancing and mask wearing is a practice within reach for all these businesses.
“There are intentional steps that businesses can take,” said Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy and sociology at Harvard University, who co-authored the report. It is certainly possible to keep these workers more protected, he said.
In so many ways, nothing about this is actually new. Hourly workers in low-wage industries, most not unionized, have always had limited control over their health and safety at work. With no real paid sick leave, employees regularly come to work ill. But in a pandemic, some hoped conditions would improve. Though companies are innovating in many ways to adjust to COVID-19 ― with outdoor dining, curbside delivery, appointment shopping ― it seems they have mostly failed to innovate around worker safety.
The consequences now are life or death.
Some of the wide swings in the survey are due in part to political and cultural differences around the country. Mask wearing and social distancing are more widely accepted in the Northeast than in other areas of the country, the researchers pointed out.
There’s a political dimension to that, too, said Kristen Harknett, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco, who co-authored the survey. In areas where policymakers have been slow to issue mask mandates, businesses have been less willing to get tough on customers. “That empowers some employers to do nothing,” she said.
At the grocery store ShopRite, which has branches mainly in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, only 7% of workers said customers weren’t putting on masks. But at the grocery store Food Lion, which has locations mainly in the South, it was 36%.
At restaurant chain Denny’s, which operates around the country, 24% of workers said they were only rarely able to socially distance; at mostly Southern restaurant chain Waffle House, the number was more than twice as high.
The survey comes from the Shift Project, a research group based out of Harvard’s Kennedy School for public policy that’s been documenting conditions for the lowest-paid workers in the country since 2016. And it follows a sobering report from the spring that found many of these workers do not have access to paid sick time.
It also comes at a time when the Senate is deadlocked on passing a new COVID-19 relief bill over the issue of workplace safety. But the issue isn’t that senators are seeking to do more to protect these workers. Instead, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), some in the GOP want to provide sweeping immunity for companies to protect them from getting sued when workers fall sick or die.
“It is really shocking that this is the line Republicans want to draw,” Deutsch said.
Paid sick leave protections that Congress passed in the spring are set to expire at the end of this month, too. And they never covered the workers ― hourly shift workers ― in the survey, which looks at only large employers. Companies with more than 500 employees were exempted from having to provide workers with paid time off when they’re sick.
Fast And Unsafe
Albert Morales, a service manager at a Chipotle in the Bronx, said he felt betrayed earlier this month when he found out that a co-worker of his tested positive for COVID-19. His managers kept the information secret, expecting everyone at the restaurant to just keep working.
“Everyone was fed up,” Morales said. He and his colleagues felt like the Mexican food chain was putting its profits over their safety. They walked off the job on Dec. 1 as the dinner shift was getting underway.
“We were like, hey, we don’t feel safe. We have to act because if we don’t, they’ll just keep us open and more people will get sick,” he said.
Workers in fast food reported some of the highest percentages of unsafe conditions.
Fifty-eight percent of Chipotle workers surveyed by the Shift Project said that they were only sometimes able to socially distance; 18% reported that customers were infrequently wearing masks.
Those numbers looked worse at some other chains: 82% of workers at Sonic said customers only sometimes work masks; possibly because the fast-food chain does so much drive-in and drive-thru business and customers in cars are even less likely to put masks on. At Waffle House, the number was 61%, and at Chick-fil-A it was 54%. Workers at those eateries also reported that social distancing wasn’t really possible. That makes sense. These outlets are still allowing customers in their dining rooms. There’s no new technology, of course, that makes it possible to eat with a mask on.
The Bronx Chipotle is only doing takeout, but the situation has still been hazardous. Morales believes he had COVID-19 back in April, at the height of the pandemic in the city, though he wasn’t able to get tested, and he estimated that about 20% of the store’s employees had already gotten the coronavirus.
The day after he and his co-workers walked out of their store, Chipotle relented, closed the shop, and paid for everyone in the store to quarantine for two weeks.
Morales went back to work on Sunday. He said he doesn’t feel all that safe there. “Uneased,” is how he described it. Customers are good about wearing masks, but it’s impossible to properly socially distance in the store’s tiny kitchen.
“At Chipotle, the health and safety of our employees and guests is our top priority,” said Laurie Schalow, the company’s chief corporate affairs officer in an emailed statement. She said the company has done more to enhance safety in the pandemic, including more cleaning, requiring masks and using “tamper evident packaging seals” for takeout and delivery.
Through another spokeswoman, the company reiterated that masks are required at its stores ― most of which are open for in-restaurant dining. Under company policy, if someone tests positive for COVID-19, Chipotle notifies individuals who have been in close contact and pays them for two weeks off.
A McDonald’s worker in Littlerock, California, told HuffPost something similar. “In the kitchen I don’t feel safe. We all work closely together ― five or six of us,” said Margarita Castillejo, a 56-year-old woman who has worked at the chain for nine years.
Speaking Spanish through a translator, Castillejo said that the restaurant hasn’t been forthcoming with staff when co-workers get COVID-19. So far, at least 20 positive cases have been linked to the restaurant where she works, according to complaints filed at the city and state level.
“We don’t know who’s sick or who’s going to get sick,” said Castillejo, who went on a 14-day strike with her co-workers this month to protest conditions.
“We are deeply disappointed in these allegations, which do not reflect what is actually happening in our restaurant,” Hernando Marroquin, the owner of the franchise, told HuffPost in a statement sent by the McDonald’s press team.
If a staffer tests positive for COVID-19, the restaurant’s policy is to immediately close and notify local health authorities and the employees who may have been in contact, asking them to quarantine. He said the local health department recently found the restaurant in compliance with COVID-19 regulations.
Employees Just Don’t Have Much Power
Employers are providing workers with masks and most require them, the survey found. But the rules for customers are far more lax ― especially as the holiday shopping season heats up and Americans grow weary of the pandemic.
Recently, a customer who had just tested positive for COVID-19 called up the Petco where Phil Andrews has worked as a dog groomer for the past 13 years in Florida. She wanted to know what precautions were necessary for her to come in and have her dog groomed, Andrews explained on a recent conference call with reporters hosted by a labor advocacy group.
When Andrews asked his manager what to do, he was told it was his decision. That was a wake-up call, Andrews said. He had the sense that the customer’s happiness was more important than his well-being. Petco never offered workers hazard pay during the crisis. Forty-three percent of the chain’s employees said they were only able to socially distance sometimes, rarely, or never.
“Virus dangers are real,” said Andrews, who makes $9 an hour. “Petco should be more assertive and consistent about masks and distancing.”
Ultimately, the woman came in with her dog. “I made sure they wore masks and gloves and met her outside,” he said. “It seemed to work out.”
In a statement, Petco said it has taken steps to ensure worker safety. At the start of the pandemic, the company furloughed workers and cut pay for some but didn’t lay off store employees, according to the statement. Since then, Petco has given out “appreciation bonuses.” The company didn’t specify an amount per worker but said it had spent $6 million on additional compensation for employees plus $13 million on “COVID-19 appreciation bonuses” over “five cycles.” Spread among its 27,000 employees, that comes to an average of $481 per person.
Recently, Board, the Walmart worker, watched his store manager ask a woman to put a mask on. She screamed at him about her asthma, saying she couldn’t breathe with a mask on. “He did what he could,” said Board. The woman didn’t put a mask on.
Walmart said it has required shoppers to wear face coverings since June, and it posts ambassadors at the storefront to enforce the rule. “We know it may not be possible for everyone to wear a face covering,” the company said in a press release at the time, adding that associates will be trained on how to “reduce friction for the shopper.”
And at some businesses, managers are reluctant to force anyone to do anything. It was a topic that came up in the Shift survey when the researchers asked workers an open-ended question about safety.
Over thousands of responses, mask hostility came up often.
“Customers become angry when asked to wear masks, verbally lashing out, even though it’s the law to wear one indoors,” one fast-food worker in Michigan said.
Others said they weren’t allowed to tell customers what to do.
The researchers at Shift, who have been studying things like unstable schedules in the industry, say that it’s not surprising how little control these workers have over the safety of the work environment.
“It wasn’t just that customers aren’t wearing masks, but workers said they’re forbidden from doing anything about it,” said Harknett. “They felt unsafe because their hands are tied.”
Unsafe And Unable To Stay Home
In the spring, many retail stores gave workers hazard pay, a few extra dollars an hour in recognition of how risky work had become. Those benefits are gone now.
Morales said he believes Chipotle should reinstate hazard pay from the spring, when it tacked on about 20% to everyone’s pay. He earns $18 an hour.
“The company’s stock price is still skyrocketing,” he said. “This Christmas they’re giving out customized speakers. We don’t want speakers. We don’t want socks. We want the hazard pay.”
Walmart has not offered hazard pay. The company recently announced it would give full-time employees an extra $300. That money is taxed. “If you did the math, it adds about 71 cents an hour,” said Board, who works at the Walmart in North Carolina and makes $13.22 an hour, after nearly three years at the company.
The money Walmart gives out this month will be the fourth round of cash bonuses the store has given employees, a spokeswoman told HuffPost.
For comparison, Domino’s announced this week it would be giving workers $1,200 bonuses.
Board is a member of United for Respect, a labor group that advocates for Walmart workers and a few weeks ago launched “Five to Survive,” a campaign to get companies to offer workers $5 an hour extra in hazard pay.
Sick Pay Would Be Good, Too
When workers do get sick, they still feel pressure to come to work, the researchers said.
“Workers are coming to work sick because they can’t go a day without pay,” Harknett said.
In the open-ended questions, a few mentioned testing positive and still coming in, Harknett said.
“No social distancing, no encouragement to stay home if sick, if you do get sick with covid just deal with two weeks without pay,” wrote one fast-food worker in Louisiana.
“Employer cares more about shift coverage than people staying home if sick,” wrote a big-box retail worker in Illinois. “You must work.”
“During all of this, me and my roommate got really sick and we were concerned that we may have COVID,” wrote a casual dining worker in Illinois. “I was met with resistance from my GM, who questioned me and asked, ‘Are you SURE you are sick?’”
Sara Fearrington, a 43-year-old Waffle House server in Durham, North Carolina, told HuffPost that before COVID-19, she would typically come to work if she was sick.
“I’ve been to work with a stomach virus. With pneumonia. With a fever,” she said. “You DayQuil it. You NyQuil it. You keep on kicking.”
During the pandemic, she’s been more careful. And in the spring, she stayed home from work for months worried about bringing the virus home to her husband of 28 years who suffers from a lung condition.
Eventually, their savings ran out and she went back to waiting tables.
Fearrington, who earns $3.10 an hour, the tipped minimum wage in her state, relies on tips to get by. When HuffPost spoke with her earlier this week, Fearrington said it’s not unusual for at least one customer to not tip at all during her shift. That day it was a pizza delivery guy who’d come in for some eggs, and “ran me to death” for jelly packets, she said. (As a member of the labor group Fight for $15, she’s advocating for an end to the tipped minimum wage.)
Her particular Waffle House has been open throughout the pandemic, and never paid any kind of hazard pay. Typically, Fearrington does get a Christmas bonus of $100 though.
She brings the money home to her family on Christmas Day, she said, handing out much-needed cash to her children and grandchildren.
Njeri Boss, the director of public relations for Waffle House, told HuffPost that the company made a number of changes to work conditions during the pandemic and was complying with all local regulations.
“We don’t believe our work environment is hazardous,” Boss said. “We don’t force anyone to come to work if they’re uncomfortable.”
The chain reduced occupancy by half in North Carolina, where Fearrington works. And in all its restaurants, customers are required to wear masks when they’re not eating. They’re also doing more cleanings.
Boss also said that each restaurant does health screenings on workers, and requires sick employees to go home.
The company relaxed the requirements for Christmas bonuses this year, Boss said, because it had been a hard one for everyone. But still, Fearrington had not worked enough to qualify.
Fearrington said she was disappointed not to get the bonus this year, but seemed resigned about it.
“That’s just Waffle House life,” she said.