Warehouse workers risk COVID-19 to ship Gucci shades, face cream and couches

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(Reuters) – While US officials have closed non-core coronavirus companies, retailer Nordstrom Inc. has closed hundreds of stores and given store workers three weeks’ wages, making them safer absolute priority.

File photo: Akeel Sudlow, a Wayfair worker, who told his employers that he would not be coming to work during the coronavirus disease epidemic (COVID-19), poses at his home in Lawrence, New Jersey, States United States, April 6, 2020. REUTERS / Jessica Kourkounis

This benefit did not extend to Meagan Christensen, 34, an Iowa warehouse worker who packs online orders of $ 60 Birkenstock sandals, swimwear and face cream. The facility recently closed for cleaning after a co-worker contracted COVID-19, but reopened 36 hours later.

With the Americans trapped at home, warehouse workers scramble to fill online orders. Some, such as employees of Amazon.com Inc and Walmart Inc, often ship groceries and other essential items. Others risk their health for furniture or fashion retailers such as IKEA, Wayfair Inc or Macy’s Inc.

Government orders for home stays include exclusions for warehouses or e-commerce operations, allowing a wide range of retailers to piggyback on exemptions intended mainly to ensure the flow of essential products. The loophole means that a large segment of retail workers – who often have low benefits or sick leave – have to choose between their health and their wages. Some retailers, including Wayfair, Kohl’s and Macy’s, gave workers letters from executives to show the police if they stopped during the ride.

“Lots of people are scared” at Nordstrom, said Christensen, who says she earns less than $ 40,000 a year and is enrolled in the company’s health insurance plan. “We sell brand name clothes and cosmetics. None of this is to be done or broken for the current situation. “

Nordstrom said its online operations keep its business afloat – and provide workers with a long-term livelihood.

“What is the opposite scenario? Everything is completely stopped and we cannot afford to pay for your services? Said Gigi Ganatra Duff, vice president of corporate affairs at Nordstrom. “And we can’t afford to hire you back when you’re done?” “

As store sales evaporate, retailers are chasing a captive audience – stuck inside, bored, tempted to shop online. Macy’s ads, echoing others, tout “our lowest prices of the season right now!” “

These orders are filled by warehouses employing hundreds of people. Stephanie Morris, 57, works for IKEA in New Jersey, shipping sofas and shelves. She says she checks her temperature before each shift. “People don’t understand that when you order something there has to be someone to pick it up,” she said.

Reuters interviewed three dozen warehouse and delivery workers and reviewed COVID-19’s wages and benefits policies at nine retailers – Amazon, Walmart, Target Corp, Nordstrom, Wayfair, O’Reilly Automotive Inc , IKEA, Macy’s and Kohl’s. Five of them – Amazon, Walmart, Nordstrom, Kohl’s and Target – have granted temporary increases of $ 2 an hour to workers, some of whom earn less than $ 15 an hour. Wayfair offered increases of $ 4.

Companies said they prioritize safety by cleaning, encouraging social distancing and providing protective equipment. Kohl’s, Walmart and IKEA said their employees’ temperatures were checked before work shifts, although several IKEA employees said this did not happen in their warehouses.

IKEA and Wayfair have called their products essential for people who suddenly need home office furniture or other household items. Consumers are counting on “companies like Wayfair to supply them with the items they need for their homes in these difficult times,” said Wayfair, adding that the government has recognized its crucial role.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution’s think tank estimated that between 49 million and 62 million American workers – 34% to 43% of the total workforce – are employed in industries deemed essential depending on what l organization called a “radical” federal definition. These industries, Brookings found, tend to employ low-wage workers who often have less health insurance than most Americans.

Labor relations and public policy experts have said that the crisis poses dilemmas for employers and workers trying to balance security and financial survival. For consumers, the ability to shop online makes “this extraordinary time more comfortable,” said Erica Groshen, professor of labor relations at Cornell University.

Online sales represent an understandable “survival strategy” for an industry important to consumers, investors and the economy, said Thomas Kochan, professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But staying open also creates an obligation to give workers more voice over benefits and protections.

“Companies can view these workers as essential,” he said, “but they don’t treat them as essential. “

The workers themselves are often torn from continuing to work. One of Christensen’s colleagues at Nordstrom, Makenzie McMullen, 28, described the warehouse environment as a “time bomb” and said she was “very in conflict” as to whether she should stay at home.

“I love my job,” she said. “I would not have been there for the past three years if I had not done so. “

“EVERY SALE COUNTS NOW! “

Luxury retailer Neiman Marcus Group has asked, but not required, workers to come to closed stores to package online orders for sweaters, handbags and other items.

“Every sale counts now! Wrote a Neiman manager at the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania in an email to the employees. The pandemic has placed Neiman in a particularly dire situation: it is trying to make payments on about $ 4 billion in debt as it prepares for possible bankruptcy. Neiman did not comment on whether he extended any additional benefits, but said his precautions include cleaning and temperature controls.

Some retailers offer more generous pandemic benefits than others. Macy’s has given e-commerce employees two additional weeks of paid vacation time to use at all times. Nordstrom said it would pay the medical bills and wages of the infected workers until they recovered.

Other companies, such as Amazon, Walmart, Target, O’Reilly, Wayfair and IKEA, have offered warehouse workers one or two weeks of additional leave if they are positive or quarantined by a professional. health. IKEA policy also applies to workers with symptoms of COVID-19 or flu, those with family members experiencing symptoms, and workers with underlying health conditions that worsen the threat of the virus , said the company.

Another IKEA New Jersey warehouse worker, Tiwaan Bradley, 46, has diabetes and lupus, which puts him at high risk. When he learned that a colleague’s wife had tested positive, he stayed at home and exhausted his sickness benefits. He said he had not learned that he could be entitled to two more weeks of sick leave until this week when a manager told him that he was addressing other issues in the workplace with the company in its role as shop steward.

The additional two weeks of paid leave will help, he said, but is unlikely to last during the pandemic. He said he balanced the need for income with protecting his health.

“In order for me to take care of my family,” said Bradley, “I must be alive. “

Nordstrom offered warehouse workers five additional paid days. Kohl’s does not offer additional sick leave, workers say; he did not respond to questions about his policy regarding employees who contract COVID-19.

Some in-store Kohl’s and Nordstrom employees have the option of returning to stores to assist with online orders. Other retail workers have been put on leave – allowing them to keep their health benefits and apply for government unemployment insurance, an option some warehouse workers say they want.

Rae Jones, 29, works in an O’Reilly Auto Parts warehouse in Alabama. She suffers from an autoimmune disorder that has consumed the few sick leaves she has had so continues to work. The company has not offered any additional sick leave due to the virus unless it is positive for COVID-19. She didn’t provide sanitizer regularly, she said, so she started giving workers her own homemade preparation of Everclear grain alcohol and aloe vera.

“I need the paycheck,” said Jones. ” But I’m scared. “

Twice in the past few days, Jones said, dozens of O’Reilly employees have come out to protest the lack of personal protective equipment. O’Reilly Auto Parts did not comment on workers’ walkouts or complaints, but said it disinfected warehouses and provided cleaning supplies.

Cyndi Murray, a Walmart, Maryland employee, said workers must submit a positive coronavirus test and doctor’s note to a third-party online system to request additional paid leave. Decisions take two to seven days, she said, leaving workers in limbo.

Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg said the system takes at least two days but did not respond to concerns about the delays. He added that employees who test positive, have a fever or are quarantined can get two weeks of paid leave.

SHOOTING A PROTEST ORGANIZER

Amazon has taken the heat out of some workers on security. Employees at its Staten Island, New York, facility protested in late March, demanding that the facility be shut down for a thorough cleanup after workers tested positive. Similar protests followed elsewhere. Amazon said it fired the employee who organized the Staten Island protest because he did not quarantine after contact with an infected worker.

A Minnesota warehouse in the Amazon does not provide enough masks, disinfectant or gloves, said worker Sahro Sharif. Managers ask workers to wash their hands and clean work stations, said Sharif, but keep them too busy to do so.

Stephanie Haynes, an Amazon employee in Joliet, Illinois, said the company did not close its warehouse after a worker tested positive. Instead, Amazon checked the surveillance cameras to determine who had worked within six feet of the infected staff member and asked the workers to self-quarantine. Others were asked to return to work, even though they were convinced they had been exposed, she said.

“It’s very scary,” said Haynes, 42. “Amazon decides if you have been in close contact with an infected person. “

Amazon spokeswoman Kristen Kish said the company distributes masks, disinfectants and wipes, but has not responded to shortage complaints. Amazon is taking “extreme measures” to ensure security, she said. She did not respond to questions about the company’s protocols for closing warehouses after confirmed infections.

In late March, Wayfair employees at a New Jersey warehouse learned that an employee had tested positive. The building closed for cleaning and reopened 24 hours later. A second employee tested positive on Sunday.

Wayfair stated that 13 workers tested positive and, in each case, cleaned the facilities and identified those who were in close contact with the infected staff. The company said it paid all employees during the closings and paid quarantined workers.

SALE OF KNICK-KNACKS, GUCCI SUNGLASSES

Akeel Sudlow, 28, works in the warehouse as a computer support engineer. When asked to work from home, citing health concerns and school closings, his manager said he may not be paid, according to a communication seen by Reuters.

“Unless I’m sick and dying, there is no support for me,” said Sudlow, who stayed at home without pay for a month.

The company said it allowed workers to work from home if they could actually do their work there.

Anthony Costa, who works for Macy’s in Connecticut, decided to use his time off work to avoid the warehouse after seeing overcrowding and limited sanitation.

File photo: Stephanie Morris, IKEA warehouse worker, who continues to work during the coronavirus disease epidemic (COVID-19), poses at her home in the township of Burlington, New Jersey, USA, on the 6th April 2020. REUTERS / Jessica Kourkounis

“Having a pair of thousand dollar shoes is something that I don’t think is essential,” said Costa, who loads the goods and drives them a short distance between two warehouses. “You could wait until it was finished to order Gucci sunglasses. “

IKEA workers wondered why they were risking their health from shipping decorative plastic trees, knick-knacks and couches. Ahnisohn Harmon, 42, who works in a New Jersey warehouse, described a tense environment, with an increased awareness of each cough and workers who diagnose themselves constantly. The company encourages social distancing, he said, but employees often lift objects weighing 50 pounds or more – requiring a partner.

“We are going to be face to face,” he said, “while breathing the air of the other.”

Report by Chris Kirkham, Reade Levinson and Nandita Bose; Additional reports from Jessica DiNapoli, Mike Spector and Melissa Fares; Editing by Brian Thevenot

Our standards:Principles of the Thomson Reuters Trust.

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