CHICAGO — Businesses operating through the coronavirus pandemic are rolling out new safety measures as COVID-19 cases proliferate inside and out of their workplaces.
Masks are being distributed. Temperatures are being checked. Sneeze guards are being installed at checkout.
But some workers at businesses deemed essential, like grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, factories, warehouses and delivery services, say the steps being taken, which started with extra cleaning, aren’t enough.
Some concerned workers have walked off the job after their colleagues became ill. Employers have searched for protective equipment as federal guidelines have changed. And companies have had to respond to customers’ worries about the health of the store clerk, the delivery driver and the restaurant cook.
Experts say the pandemic could lead to lasting gains in employee benefits and safety protections. It also could embolden union organizing efforts and drive greater support for nationwide paid sick leave. Already, one hurdle has been cleared: The public is more aware than ever that low-wage workers are the backbone of the economy.
“If essential workers stop working, so does the rest of the nation,” said Michael Oswalt, associate law professor at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb. “I think there will be more pressure on companies to treat them with more respect. …
“They are genuinely the heroes of the pandemic.”
Escalating safety measures
Many grocery and retail chains have pledged to not penalize employees for missing work and to pay those diagnosed with the virus or told to quarantine, to encourage workers to stay home if they were ill. As customers crowded stores to stock up before stay-at-home orders took effect, several employers announced temporary raises or bonuses. Since then, some companies have taken additional steps to protect workers, like providing masks, installing sneeze guards and limiting the number of shoppers in stores.
But some employees say the efforts have failed to protect them. Walmart is facing a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of one of two employees at an Evergreen Park, Ill., store who died of COVID-19.
Ieshia Townsend, a drive-thru cashier at a McDonald’s franchise on Chicago’s South Side, said she’s scared to handle cash. She borrowed a box of latex gloves from her cousin two weeks ago when the company wouldn’t provide them.
McDonald’s recently announced it is sending masks to restaurants, starting with hot zones in New York, Seattle and San Francisco, and it is now allowing workers to wear gloves if they wish, after previously advising against it because government guidelines said hand-washing is better. But Townsend, 33, said she is skeptical the company will follow through.
“I don’t feel safe going to work,” she said.
McDonald’s workers in California filed complaints with the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health and held protests — driving through the parking lot and honking from cars, to maintain social distancing — after some employees tested positive. They say they want quarantine leave, more safety gear and hazard pay.
At Jewel-Osco, Chicago-area pharmacists complained of insufficient staffing and personal protective equipment, and some said they were told to remove masks when interacting with the public. Teamsters Local 727 filed a grievance against Osco Drug demanding it do more to reduce the risk of virus exposure. The company later installed barriers at pharmacy counters, improved communication and instituted bonus pay.
Albertson’s, parent company of Jewel-Osco, recently joined the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union to push for supermarket employees to be designated as emergency personnel so they can get easier access to testing and protective equipment.
Employers have varied in their approaches to workplace safety absent clear rules from the government. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that critical workers who may have been exposed to the virus but show no symptoms can return to work, provided they wear a mask and monitor their temperature. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration also issued new guidance encouraging retail employers to allow workers to wear masks.
Walmart, Amazon, CVS, Walgreens, Lowe’s and marijuana company Cresco Labs say they’re distributing masks, with Starbucks making them mandatory. But some said tight supplies have delayed their efforts.
Cresco’s mask order got held up at customs for 10 days, and in the meantime, many dispensary employees have been wearing their own, said spokesman Jason Erkes. Trader Joe’s asked the company that makes workers’ shirts to produce masks and expects them soon, said spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel.
Other changes continue to unfold in stores. Walmart, Target and Trader Joe’s are capping the number of shoppers in stores at one time. Walmart and Aldi have made aisles one-way. Menards has barred kids under 16 and pets.
Meanwhile, Amazon, McDonald’s, Walmart, and Home Depot are trying to spot ill employees earlier with temperature checks.
Companies can’t normally demand temperature checks, but the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that COVID-19 is a significant enough threat to workers’ safety that such checks are permitted, said Lauren Novak, a partner in the labor and employment practice at Chicago-based Schiff Hardin.
What’s unusual is seeing employees push for precautions like temperature checks, she said.
“Typically, you don’t find employees requesting measures that might prevent them from coming to work. Here you have employees who want to come to work in a safe environment, so they’re asking for these measures,” she said.
People in the market for a new job are also asking about safety as essential businesses scramble to fill positions.
A Wall Street Journal survey of economists found the unemployment rate is expected to hit 13% in June, though the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis estimated it could go as high as 32%.
Paid sick leave, unionizing
Most employers have made clear that the temporary pay increases, bonuses and extra paid time off they’re offering now will end once the health crisis passes. But some companies have said they plan to keep expanded paid sick leave around once the pandemic ends.
Darden Restaurants, the operator of chains like Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grille, said it accelerated existing plans to give all hourly employees paid sick leave.
Even if employers don’t voluntarily extend those benefits, the pandemic could boost efforts to mandate paid sick leave at the federal level, said Jeremy Glenn, a labor and employment attorney at Cozen O’Connor. While some states and cities, including Chicago, require employers to offer paid sick leave, much of the nation does not.
“There’s a recognition that if workers face a choice between giving up a paycheck and going to work sick, we as a country benefit from their being able to stay home,” Glenn said.
Though paid sick leave is a cost for employers, a nationwide framework could help companies, given concerns that COVID-19 could reappear.
“There are really good policy reasons up and down the line for why the government can step in and make something uniform so it’s not constantly enacting things in the midst of a crisis,” Oswalt said.
Philippe Weiss, head of Seyfarth at Work, a subsidiary of law firm Seyfarth Shaw that consults companies on workplace relations, said the pandemic is likely to boost employees’ efforts to advocate for health and safety protections within the workplace.
One of his clients recently established a new executive position tasked with devising protocols and securing supply pipelines for safety equipment in the event of future crises. Some clients are talking about personal protective equipment as part of essential office supplies, the same as uniforms and laptops.
“Many business leaders tell us that the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates in stark relief the dismal preparation efforts on the part of key governmental bodies,” Weiss said. “As a result, the chatter in some C-suites concerns how it may increasingly fall on corporate America to spur or proactively anchor initiatives that protect workers and others in the future.”
He also expects COVID-19 to spur unionizing efforts. Though most union growth has taken place during times of economic expansion and strong corporate profits, “seismic events” — such as the deadly 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire or the advent of the Great Depression — can hasten the process, Weiss said.
“In that regard, COVID-19 may well represent the seismic event of this generation,” he said.
Workers in many industries already have found their voice in recent weeks.
A group of workers at an Amazon delivery station in Chicago held four “safety strikes” outside the workplace after an employee was diagnosed with COVID-19.
The third, on April 3, drew about 30 people and was held not long after employees received messages from Amazon notifying them of a second case, said Ted Miin, 34, of Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood.
Amazon said fewer than 5% of the Chicago delivery station’s 600 employees took part in demonstrations, and that it has made more than 150 changes to its processes around health and safety.
“We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances. The truth is, the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day,” spokesman Timothy Carter said in an email.
Miin said the group of employees who want to see more protections is larger, but some can’t afford to forgo pay. He has seen extra cleanings but worries they’re “superficial,” and though the company has encouraged employees to keep their distance and placed cardboard sheets between some workstations, the warehouse wasn’t designed for social distancing, he said.
“With over 1,000 sites around the world, and so many measures and precautions rapidly rolled out over the past several weeks, there may be instances where we don’t get it perfect, but I can assure you that’s just what they’ll be — exceptions,” Dave Clark, senior vice president of worldwide operations at Amazon, said in a company blog post.
Julia Garcia, a line operator at Raymundo Food Group in Bedford Park, Ill., is part of a group of factory workers that has refused to go into work for 14 days after learning last Thursday that a colleague tested positive for COVID-19. They submitted a petition demanding workers be paid while they self-quarantine.
The company, which makes desserts mostly for Mexican restaurants, said it closed the factory last weekend to have it professionally deep cleaned. But it hasn’t imposed any distancing or other safety measures at the facility, where many work elbow-to-elbow, said Garcia, 38.
“It is not just about us,” said Garcia, who lives in Cicero, Ill., with her two daughters, ages 15 and 12. “It is about our families.”
Raymundo’s, in a statement, said employees may stay home if they feel unwell or unsafe, and workers can contact human resources to see if they qualify for paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides for two weeks of paid sick time for certain COVID-19 related situations that will be reimbursed to employers in tax credits.
The company, which employs about 245 people at the Bedford Park facility, has hired temp workers to keep the facility running, it said.
The seriousness of the health risks has spurred some workers to stand up to their employers for the first time, said Jorge Mujica, strategic campaigns organizer at the worker center Arise Chicago. While Arise has been helping the Raymundo’s plant workers organize for the past year, Mujica said he has gotten new requests from employees at supermarkets, restaurants, warehouses and manufacturing plants for help organizing walkouts or other protests amid the pandemic.
“This is going to be a big, big moment for organizing and for workers taking action,” Mujica said.
Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1, which represents 50,000 janitors, airport workers, seasonal ballpark workers and others in the Midwest, said the crisis’ impact on unionization depends on the state of the economy. Workers who face a double-digit unemployment rate may be less willing to raise a fuss, he said.
“We think that society is going to come out of this into a confusing, hostile economy,” he said.
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