As COVID-19 infection rates soar, front-line retail workers are again struggling to stay safe while keeping shelves stocked.
Local and national groups are shining a spotlight on their plight, saying the often low-paid workers aren't receiving the same level of support they did earlier this year.
The Workers' Project, a local nonprofit, hopes to empower employees to stick up for themselves. Front-line retail workers have the legal right – and the obligation – to make their workplaces and the community safer, said Tom Lewandowski, the organization's director.
Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, is approaching the situation from another angle. The organization, which was founded by activist Ralph Nader, is trying to shame corporate America by contrasting workers' pay with corporate profits in a report issued last week.
The federal government also addressed the issue last week in a news release that reminded employers of their responsibility to protect worker safety.
“As the nation enters a unique holiday shopping season, employers must ensure that they train all workers to recognize and prevent job hazards, and incorporate safe work practices to prevent exposure to the coronavirus,” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's release said.
Lewandowski said it's a matter of life and death.
Every time a retail worker comes face-to-face with a customer who refuses to wear a face mask, for example, that worker, the worker's family and the community at large are all put at risk, he said.
“The front lines of this battle aren't just in the hospitals,” he added. “The front lines are everywhere.”
Public Citizen issued a report titled “Sacrificial Workers.” The 18-page document claims most retailers that increased workers' wages or paid bonuses during the pandemic's early days have ended the practice.
Meanwhile, the 15 highlighted retailers reported a combined $14.6 billion jump in profits compared with last year's third quarter and bought back $3.7 billion in stock. The companies also announced plans to buy back an additional $17.8 billion of shares, based on third-quarter earnings reports issued in recent weeks.
But only three of the retailers reviewed have continued to provide higher pay: Costco, Home Depot and Lowe's. Target has paid hourly workers two bonuses during the pandemic, most recently in October.
Employers that had reverted to pre-pandemic wages at the time of the study included Amazon, Dollar General, Kroger and Walmart. Washington-based Public Citizen posted the retailers' names on what it labeled a “Wall of Shame.”
Rick Claypool, a Public Citizen research director and the report's author, didn't pull punches in his comments.
“They may say 'we're all in this together,' but too many big retailers are prioritizing maximizing profits over paying their frontline workers,” he said in a statement. “While business booms and the pandemic rages, the rich are getting richer – and workers are getting sicker.”
Spreading the word
The Workers' Project is gearing up to support local front-line employees – whether they work in retail, restaurants or another industry.
The nonprofit represents the unemployed and anxiously employed – those workers afraid to publicly criticize employers for fear of losing their jobs. The organization, which is staffed almost exclusively by volunteers, supports non-unionized workers as well as union members.
Lewandowski said workers are protected by Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, which forbid employers from forcing employees to perform dangerous tasks.
Loren Sweatt, principal deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, on Friday addressed the same subject in a statement directed at employers.
“Throughout the holiday season, all employees, including seasonal workers, should be trained not only on how to perform their jobs safely, but also on how to stay safe from the coronavirus,” she said. “Every worker deserves a safe and healthful workplace, whether they are packing boxes, stocking shelves, delivering products or selling merchandise.”
Lewandowski wants workers to know they can stand up for their rights when managers aren't protecting them.
The challenge, he said, is getting that message to front-line retail workers – and persuading them to refuse assignments that threaten their health or safety. Such tasks include serving customers who refuse to wear face masks or shields while coronavirus cases skyrocket. They also include standing less than 6 feet away from coworkers while performing job duties.
Many retail employees work part time, which makes it tougher for them to share information about workers' rights and coordinate efforts to refuse hazardous tasks assigned by management, Lewandowski said.
If two or more workers act together on a safety or health issue, however, there's more legal protection from employer retribution, he said. Workers' Project volunteers will point people toward various local and national resources – including the National Employment Law Project – for more information about their rights.
“We also want workers to talk among themselves about how to make their workplace safer,” Lewandowski said during a phone interview.
He doesn't cast the situation as hourly workers vs. management.
“We have a common battle here,” he said. “Employers and workers need to work together for the public good. It's about finding what works.”
Financial realities make it harder for some to act.
Workers with part-time schedules typically don't receive benefits such as paid sick days and access to health insurance. That makes getting sick and missing work a potential financial disaster for their families.
Workers living paycheck-?to-?paycheck also face excruciating decisions when they should quarantine for 14 days.
Too many feel forced to choose to return to work rather than lose two weeks' pay, Lewandowski said.
“It's lives vs. livelihoods,” he said.
Tom Hayhurst, a retired physician and former Fort Wayne City Council member, worries about those individual situations.
“Young people needing a job, they're stuck,” he said. “They can't (afford to) stay home.”
Hayhurst is also concerned about the pandemic's widespread effects that include how society is functioning and whether people have food on their tables.
“I'm not just looking at the health aspect,” he said.
Hayhurst wants to see the public pressure to meet certain safety measures – or risk being boycotted.
Among the criteria for becoming a certified COVID-aware business, he said, could include: Providing N-95 masks to employees, refusing service to customers who won't wear a face mask, providing hazard pay to front-line workers and providing paid time off for workers who have to quarantine after being exposed to coronavirus.
“How we learn to deal with this,” he said, “will affect how we'll deal with the next global virus or pandemic. And there will be one.”
At a glance
To discuss workplace concerns with a Workers' Project volunteer in English, Spanish or Burmese, or learn more about a survey the nonprofit is conducting, call 260-387-0387.
Information about the Workers' Project can also be found on its website, www.workersproject.org, and on its Facebook page.