At Walmart, the Coronavirus Makes It Feel Like Black Friday

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Over the four years I’ve worked at a Walmart, a handful of days stand out as extremely stressful, even dangerous. But right now, we retail associates are putting our health and safety at risk as people stock up for weeks (perhaps months) of isolation.

It’s been a lot like Black Friday at my store. The frenzy, with customers hoarding items or acting out when they can’t find something, is incredibly stressful. Security officers hold customers back as we restock empty shelves. And as we walk through the ransacked aisles to buy dinner for our own families at the end of our shifts, there’s not much left, even though Walmart is limiting customers’ purchases of items like milk and eggs.

If there were still lots of items on the shelves, I couldn’t afford to stockpile a month’s supply of toilet paper and frozen food on just about $13 an hour anyway. Under normal circumstances, I barely have enough to put food on the table for me and my father, whom I care for.

I need to work. I’m young and healthy, but I’m worried I will catch the coronavirus and infect my father, some elderly customers or even my co-workers. I’m stuck in this impossible situation because Walmart’s punitive paid leave policy fails to protect me, my family, my co-workers or our customers — particularly now.

I am classified as a part-time associate, which means that over the course of the year, I accrue less paid time off than my full-time colleagues. When I’m not feeling well, I have an extremely limited amount of paid leave that I can take without facing punishment from the company. Walmart doesn’t consistently accept doctors’ notes, so people can get fired for taking too many sick days even when they present evidence that they need to stay home.

While the company has made some positive adjustments in response to the pandemic — like waiving its worker attendance policy through the end of April for employees who don’t feel comfortable coming into work — they’re inadequate. The company is allowing workers who test positive for the coronavirus to stay home for up to two weeks, but it will cut pay in half for any needed sick time after that. If a worker is under forced quarantine, she will receive up to two weeks’ pay. We aren’t given additional paid time off if we have possible coronavirus symptoms or to care for family members effected by the coronavirus.

So if I or my co-workers develop symptoms, we could face the impossible choice of going to work sick and possibly infecting others or risking our already precarious finances.

There are over 1.5 million workers at Walmart who are trying to get ahead. But they have nowhere to turn during this crisis. Hundreds of thousands of part-timers like me are feeling especially squeezed.

That’s why, when I heard that giant corporations like Walmart, Amazon and McDonald’s were going to be exempt from federally mandated paid sick and family leave for workers hit by the coronavirus, it felt like a gut punch.

Yet again, Walmart, one of the country’s largest private employers, and which employs more women and people of color than any other retailer, has used its wealth and power to wriggle out of doing the bare minimum for its employees’ well-being.

Last year, Walmart gave $12 billion to shareholders in dividends and stock repurchases, and a lot of that went right to the Walton heirs. The family is worth an estimated $190 billion. I want to ask our chief executive, Doug McMillon, why we can afford to hand over so much money to the wealthiest family in America, but we can’t provide our associates with adequate paid sick leave and health care. These basics are vital year-round, but during this pandemic, business as usual isn’t cutting it. We make corporations like Walmart profitable — it’s time for them to ensure we have enough to live on.

Before the coronavirus, I joined with other retail workers and a labor advocacy group, United for Respect, to sound the alarm on the corporate practices that leave so many of my co-workers without adequate health insurance, fired for missing work because of medical issues or relying on food stamps to supplement low wages.

If Walmart continues down this path, I hope that our lawmakers will step in to ensure all working people have a lifeline for support.

I serve my Walmart customers and community tirelessly, day in and day out, in the middle of a pandemic. That’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly — but I need chief executives to take theirs seriously, too.

Melissa Love works for Walmart and is part of the labor advocacy group United for Respect.

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