At a Target store in Michigan, an employee in the electronics department has stopped greeting his favorite customers with handshakes and hugs amid the growing threat of coronavirus, and he’s started to worry about what would happen if he got sick.
“You don’t get paid if you call out,” the employee, Robert O’Banner, said in an interview with Business Insider. “I don’t have the money to call off a day.”
On the other side of the country, in Oregon, Robert Davis is growing concerned about the likelihood of exposure to the virus through his job stocking shelves at a Walmart store.
“We’re in contact with hundreds of people every week,” Davis said, noting that he also handles hundreds of products during his shifts. He said he’s worried about what his family would do if he died.
“It weighs a lot on me,” he said.
As the number of coronavirus cases in the US grows, some shoppers are stampeding stores and panic-buying goods including masks, hand sanitizer, and household staples.
Retail employees are meanwhile frantically working to restock shelves and help panicked customers. At the same time, many privately grapple with their own anxieties about exposure to the virus at work and whether they could face punishment if they call out sick due to attendance policies, according to interviews with 20 retail workers from 13 states across the US. Eleven work at Target, nine at Walmart, and one at CVS.
Some of these workers asked to remain anonymous in this story for fear of retribution from their employer. In these cases, Business Insider verified their identities.
Some workers fear calling off sick and admit to working while ill
At Walmart, employee absences are managed by a point system. Workers are allowed to accrue five points in a six-month period, and one point is equal to one day off work, employees said.
Eight workers said they fear getting sick and missing work under this system, despite a recent Walmart memo that directed employees to stay home when ill.
“On an associate level, most of us are concerned that we don’t have the attendance leeway to cope with this,” said an employee of an Oregon Walmart who asked to remain anonymous. “If you were to get sick our attendance policy is extremely strict and a good run of the flu will end your job.”
Many people come to work ill as a result, she said.
“We have had people coming to work so sick that they are practically falling over,” she said. She added that she has been wearing a mask to work every day for the past couple of weeks.
A worker in the deli department of a Missouri Walmart store admitted to coming to work while sick.
“If I get sick, I still work because I can’t afford to stay home, get pointed, and not get paid,” said this person, who also asked to remain anonymous. “If I run a fever, then they will send me to a different department.”
This is a problem faced by many retail workers. Less than half of workers in the bottom quarter of earners have access to paid sick leave, compared to 90% of workers with access to that benefit in the top 25% of wages, according to Labor Department statistics.
A Walmart spokesperson said the company is closely monitoring the situation and will adjust policies as needed.
“Anytime there are extreme events or natural disasters, we closely monitor what’s happening in our communities, and adjust business operations and policies, such as waiving absences, as appropriate — the coronavirus is no different,” she said.
If employees are sick, they should not report to work, she said.
“Anytime our associates are not feeling well, we want them to stay home and get healthy, and we have [paid time off] options to support them,” she said. “If an associate believes they might have contracted COVID-19, they should not come to work. We want associates focused on their health — the last thing we want associates worried about is their job.”
Both full-time and part-time employees start accruing paid time off beginning on their first day of work, she said.
“In addition, we also offer flexible scheduling options that allow our associates to swap shifts with coworkers, when needed,” she added.
Workers are busy trying to manage surging demand as shoppers stock up
Retail workers are also under the added pressure of a busier-than-average work environment, with shoppers stocking up on essentials in anticipation of a potentially wider outbreak of the coronavirus.
A CVS worker in Rhode Island described the store environment as one of “mild panic” and said a “surge” of people have been coming in to get their flu vaccine.
A spokesperson for CVS confirmed that the company’s pharmacies and clinics are currently administering a higher number of flu shots for this time of year.
“We are actively monitoring the environment for COVID-19 related risks as we develop workplace plans to help ensure our employees stay safe and healthy,” the CVS spokesperson said.
A Seattle-area Target employee said some customers are getting upset about some items being out of stock, as the store tries to handle surging demand of certain products.
“Never mind that it’s stressful working in a busy retail environment to begin with,” this person said. “This panic just makes it worse.”
A Target employee at a store in Austin, Texas, said he’s getting aggravated about being asked about hand sanitizer all day.
“It’s getting ridiculous,” he said.
Employees are anxious about catching the virus at work
Target sent an email to store leaders across the US on Tuesday morning instructing them not to change anything about how stores function, despite mounting fears resulting from the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, employees below the management level said they felt confused and in the dark from the lack of communication from the top.
A Target employee of a Seattle-area store, who said he received no communication from management about how to handle the coronavirus, said he’s nervous about reporting to work in a state that is currently weathering an outbreak.
“It’s scary being around so many people, especially people with small children, who quite often come in coughing and sneezing, and they touch everything,” he said. “And when there’s an illness in the store it usually goes through the entire staff.”
In response to Business Insider’s request for comment, Target referred to CEO Brian Cornell’s comments from the company’s Tuesday earnings call.
“At Target, we’ve been prioritizing our team, starting by ensuring that all of our China-based team members have been able to work from home,” Cornell said during the call. “More broadly, we spent considerable time focused on the best way to support our team members all around the world to make sure they stay healthy and safe.”
A Walmart employee in Alabama who asked to remain anonymous said he’s concerned about catching the virus at work because he cleans the store’s bathrooms and handles the trash. He said he’s also worried about getting paid if the store is forced to close.
“It scares me that someone could come in here infected, and the store could close,” he said. “I can’t miss a week of pay at the moment.”
Several workers said they wished their employers would provide them with gloves and masks, even though the CDC recommends against general use of masks for healthy people.
Lisa Baker works at a Walmart store in Florence, Alabama, and said she is currently out on medical leave following cancer-related surgery. She said she is concerned about returning to work after undergoing chemotherapy, which can have a severe impact on immunity.
“Working in Walmart, I’m always around a crowd of people,” she said. “If I come in to work, how do I protect myself?”
An employee of a Michigan Walmart store said she receives shipments coming off delivery trucks, and she’s scared of getting sick by touching so many different boxes throughout the day.
“What do I do?” she said. “I’m scared. I’m scared to lose my job and I’m scared to die from the coronavirus. Please help me.”