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Essential workers still lack basic safety protections on the job

Many essential workers didn’t sign up for this — and they say they’re still not being protected.

Protesters stop at the McDonald’s drive-thru, as they join workers demanding guaranteed paid sick leave in the Crenshaw, Los Angeles on April 6.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Whenever a “code purple” is announced at the Walmart Sam Carroll works at in Oklahoma City, it’s a covert signal for employees to wash or sanitize their hands that customers aren’t supposed to pick up on. “But when the customers see us clean our hands, they usually put their hands out and I give them a little bit,” Carroll says. “I even joke with them, I say, ‘That’ll be $10.’”

Carroll, 57, like millions of essential workers across the country, finds himself on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. Walmart has been taking measures to protect him, but he thinks they could be doing more.

Walmart made masks mandatory for associates on April 17 and provides workers a new one every time they come in. But just 19 percent of essential workers across the country said the same of their workplaces, according to a new survey from the Shift Project out of the University of California Berkeley and UC San Francisco.

The report examines how essential food, grocery, retail, and delivery workers are being protected by their employers. Researchers surveyed 8,000 workers from nearly 50 big service-sector companies such as Walmart, McDonald’s, Costco, Amazon, UPS, and Walgreens between March 7 and April 9 to find out what sort of health and safety measures are being taken in their workplaces. They asked them whether cleaning has increased, whether they’re being provided gloves and masks, and whether they’re being required to wear them.

About two-thirds of employees said cleaning in their workplaces had improved, but in terms of providing protective equipment such as masks and gloves, companies have a long way to go.

And while some companies might have improved their sanitation and PPE regimes since the survey was taken, essential workers say there are still big gaps.

Vice President Mike Pence walks with Walmart CEO Doug McMillon at a distribution center in Gordonsville, Virginia, on April 1. Researchers say that only around half of warehouse and fulfillment center workers have access to gloves, which is notable, given that so many people are ordering online to stay safe.
Steve Helber/AP

Carroll, for instance, is the main provider for his family, including his wife and three sons, and as they depend on him to protect them, he is depending on Walmart to protect him. His store has hired a third-party cleaning company, but he feels they could do more. “They haven’t done a real thorough cleaning in the store,” he says. The store has always had gloves because they need them for people who work with meat in the deli, but they’re not required. Carroll, who is also a member of workers’ rights organization United for Respect, doesn’t have much use for them — after a while, you wind up poking a hole in them or tearing them.

The global pandemic has placed a new focus on how workers are treated, especially as millions of people who work in low-paid service jobs have suddenly been deemed vital to the American economy. And while some of the conversation has centered around how much they’re paid, at the very basic level, it’s also important to talk about how they’re protected. Going to work during a global pandemic, they’re at high risk of getting sick.

“There’s been a lot of attention to the lack of personal protective equipment in health care settings, but if we think about grocery stores and pharmacies and how much traffic is going through there, it’s really important to think about the essential workers who are continuing to staff these places,” said Kristen Harknett, an assistant professor at UCSF and one of the researchers behind the project. “We can’t hold onto the illusion that these jobs aren’t important, because they’re designated as essential.”

How protected you are depends on where you work

Most workers say they’ve seen new cleaning procedures at their jobs, which makes sense — cleaning your surroundings and washing your hands have been some of the most prominent and earliest pieces of advice from experts when it comes to combating the coronavirus.

Overall, 65 percent of workers surveyed said their workplaces had started requiring additional cleaning, 56 percent said gloves had been made available, and only 19 percent said masks had been made available. Just because equipment is available doesn’t mean it is required: Just 18 percent of workers said they were required to wear gloves and only 7 percent were required to wear masks.

Chart showing changes to cleaning procedures and glove and mask provision and requirements across various service sectors.
Covid-19-related workplace safety procedures (by industry).
Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett/The Shift Project

And it varies. Three-quarters of drugstore and pharmacy workers and two-thirds of big-box superstore workers say they’ve seen changes in cleaning, but less than half of warehouse workers and a quarter of delivery workers say the same.

About one-third of workers at restaurants, fast food stores, and coffee shops said cleaning policies hadn’t changed. To be sure, a lot of food-handling companies have pretty strict guidelines around cleanliness already. More than half of workers in those types of establishments said they had access to gloves, and they were likeliest to say gloves were required.

The researchers also note that only around half of warehouse and fulfillment center workers had access to gloves, which is notable, given that so many people are ordering online to stay safe.

Within industries, different companies are caring for their workers and customers at varying levels. For example, three-quarters of McDonald’s employees reported new cleaning procedures; less than half of Burger King employees did.

Charts showing new cleaning measures at different companies.
Additional cleaning measures by company and sector.
Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett/The Shift Project

“Among big-box stores and warehouse and fulfillment centers, Costco and Home Depot stand out and Walmart, Amazon, and UPS lag in terms of cleaning, gloves, and masks,” the report reads. “In grocery, larger shares of workers at Aldi report cleaning, gloves, and masks, while workers at Publix and Safeway report the fewest new protective measures. In pharmacy, CVS workers report less new cleaning, but more access to and requirements to use PPE.”

Costco workers have also reported poor working conditions and concerns about their health.

Kory Lundberg, a spokesperson for Walmart, told me that the company has continued to “evolve on this as the situation has gone on.” He noted that the retailer has implemented health screenings and temperature checks for employees before they start their shifts, installed plexiglass at checkout lanes and in other areas, and provides hand sanitizer to workers and customers. It has also put in place an emergency leave policy that is currently set to last through May. “We continue to look and work with public health officials and understand what are the steps we can take to help keep people safe,” he said.

But for many workers, their employers’ efforts aren’t good enough.

Some workers have been speaking out about the conditions they’re working under, including at Amazon, which has seen a rise in employee activism in recent years. Workers are worried the company isn’t doing enough to protect them and in March began petitioning for it to take additional steps and staging walkouts in protest of their conditions.

Hibaq Mohamad, who works at an Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, told me she’s worried about the lag time on getting gloves and masks and doesn’t think the company is doing enough to clean. “It’s scary,” she said.

Charts showing glove availability and requirements at different companies.
Gloves available and requires by company and sector.
Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett/The Shift Project
Charts showing mask provision and requirements at different companies.
Masks available and required by company and sector.
Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett/The Shift Project

In a statement to Vox, Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty said ensuring the health and safety of its employees is the company’s “top concern.” She highlighted that it has implemented more than 150 “process updates” and expects to spend more than $800 million on coronavirus-related safety measures in the first half of the year.

“Our focus remains on protecting associates in our operations network with extensive measures including distributing face masks, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, implementing temperature checks, operating with strict social distancing protocols, and recognizing their contributions with additional pay and leading benefits,” Lighty said. “We encourage anyone interested in the facts to compare our overall pay and benefits, as well as our speed in managing this crisis, to other retailers and major employers across the country.”

On Monday, Amazon said that a worker at its fulfillment facility in Staten Island had died of Covid-19, and on Tuesday, it confirmed an employee in Illinois had died. The first known coronavirus death of an Amazon worker happened on March 31. As Vox’s Anna North recently noted, at least 18 Walmart employees had died as of April 18, and workers at Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and Kroger stores have died as well.

Essential workers didn’t sign up for this

The Shift Project’s survey was conducted from early March to early April as the gravity of the pandemic was beginning to take hold in the United States. Companies may have tightened protective guidelines since then, but they’ve been slow to act. At the start of April, the New York Times reported that Home Depot employees said they had been told not to wear masks, and Walgreens workers had been discouraged from wearing them.

Some companies’ efforts to better protect their employees and their customers have encountered pushback from the public. One Oklahoma city reversed its mask requirement rule for shoppers after workers reported they were being threatened by customers, and a Family Dollar worker in Michigan was fatally shot after trying to enforce the store’s mask policy.

The way these service workers are being treated now is emblematic of the way they’ve always been treated, said Danny Schneider, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley and one of the researchers behind the project.

“We really have a large part of the labor force that was laboring under crummy job conditions for a long time, with low wages and unstable, unpredictable, and insufficient work hours,” Schneider said.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, there was a sense around many jobs now deemed “essential” that they were somehow less important. They were low-skilled and low-paid. But now, that illusion is over, or at least it should be. “We can now plainly see how difficult and important these jobs are,” Schneider said. “But it’s more of the same.”

On a policy level, there are things the government can do to make sure essential workers are protected and compensated. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has put out coronavirus guidelines for workplaces, and workers who feel their workplace is unsafe can report it, though how effective that will be is unclear. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) have pushed for an essential worker “bill of rights” in Congress that would include health and safety protection, universal paid leave, and child care support. Some Democrats and Republicans have put forth plans for essential worker hazard pay.

Schneider said that people can also ask employers to do better. “The data that we show, employer by employer, shows that some employers are doing better,” he said. It doesn’t have to be an inevitable race to the bottom, and everyone can do better.

Carroll, the Walmart worker, has been with the company for 11 years and makes $11.96 an hour. He collected a one-time bonus the company offered workers in March — $300 for full-time employees, $150 for part-time. Walmart said it also moved up a quarterly payment to April that would usually be made in May. I asked him what more he would want for the retailer to do. “I would ask for hazard pay. I would ask them to back pay that hazard pay from when it started until now,” he said.

I asked him how much he thinks would be adequate. “I would like it at least to be at $14 or $15 an hour,” he said, then qualified his response, chuckling with a bit of discomfort. “That sounds a little greedy, though.”

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