Retail chains must get real about coronavirus.
There are valuable exceptions, of course. BuzzFeed News (3/18/20) reported on retail workers finding themselves in the crosshairs of the virus and all the public health information that tells them what they should be doing—and their owners’ insistence that showing up and making money is all that matters. Albert Samaha’s report is distressing: An employee at a Sunglass Hut in a mall in Minnesota says, “I see a lot of elderly people walk the mall in the morning. They wouldn’t be coming in if none of the stores were open.”
Gap workers bring sanitizers from home, Starbucks says they won’t use reusable cups, but feel free to line up close together to get your coffee. A Spencer’s outlet sent out coupons for “in-store” purchases that expire at the end of the month. So when you read about what “companies” are doing, remember, there’s no “company”: There are workers and owners, and their interests are not the same. And when you hear their CEOs announce what their “policies” are, it’s best to dig a little deeper.
The workers BuzzFeed listened to didn’t just talk about a lack of paid sick leave, but employers’ failure to even give them cleaning supplies, to wipe off, for example, the plastic cases a GameStop worker was handing out to customers. “I can’t clean anything in my store,” the manager said. “I can’t ensure my team isn’t carrying it right now. I can’t guarantee I won’t accidentally contribute to some of my favorite regulars, who are highly susceptible, and end up making them sick.”
GameStop did not respond to a request for comment, though in response to a report by Vice (3/19/20) that the retail chain had instructed employees to resist any attempts by authorities to shut down their operations, the videogame chain insisted it was vital that they remain open to continue to “offer a wide array of products and devices that are important to facilitate remote work, distance learning and virtual connectivity.”
A Godiva chocolates employee in Illinois said that when they asked managers why the store remained open,
their response was that since we’re an outdoor mall the germs don’t apply to us and that the mortality rate is too low to concern them.… They’re telling us to continue pushing sales, discounts and to bring our conversion up. We’ve had calls daily to tell us to keep going.
Godiva brass wouldn’t answer questions but blah-blahed that “the health and well-being of our employees and customers are our highest priority.”
Starbucks workers, including those with dry coughs and those just off international cruises, were told couldn’t take paid sick leave, despite what you may have read about Starbucks’ policies, because those policies require proof of a positive test result for coronavirus or proof that the employee had been directly exposed to someone who’d been specifically diagnosed with coronavirus. Workers were told they’d get paid leave if the company shut down their whole store; but an employee told BuzzFeed News that when their mall location was shut they were just reassigned to another one nearby.
We’re hearing talk about a new respect for retail workers as a “silver lining” of this crisis. But that won’t mean much if it doesn’t come with actual interrogation of their bosses.