If I ask people to wear a mask or socially distance at work, they get mad and tell the manager. Then I have to get coached. If you get coached too many times, you lose your job. — Peter Naughton, a Walmart cashier
If I ask people to wear a mask or socially distance at work, they get mad and tell the manager. Then I have to get coached. If you get coached too many times, you lose your job. — Peter Naughton, a Walmart cashier

Thousands of Walmart associates across the country have been forced to endure poverty wages and abysmal benefits while working through a deadly pandemic, managing panic-buying sprees and culture wars over mask mandates. — Bianca Agustin, accountability director for United for Respect
Thousands of Walmart associates across the country have been forced to endure poverty wages and abysmal benefits while working through a deadly pandemic, managing panic-buying sprees and culture wars over mask mandates. — Bianca Agustin, accountability director for United for Respect

'Every Day Is Frightening': Working For Walmart Amid Covid
As shuttered offices cautiously debate the merits and logistics of reopening, a parallel sphere of workers — retail employees, day laborers, emergency personnel, medical staff, and so on — seemingly inhabit another country entirely. In their case nothing ever shuttered. Often their jobs just got really, really hard.

“Every day is frightening,” Mr. Naughton said recently, now nearly two years into his employment at Walmart.

Mr. Naughton said this in the dark, his power still out days after Hurricane Ida had barreled through Louisiana. It was 93 degrees. Later he would take another cold shower, also in the dark, in hopes of cooling off before bed.

Mr. Naughton lives on a quiet, grassy street of low brick homes with his aging parents, not far from where he attended high school some two decades prior. He had an apartment of his own for a while last year, but his $11.55 hourly wage wasn’t enough to pay the rent, even working full time. So he moved back in with his mother and father, and now lives in fear of bringing the highly contagious Delta variant home to them. (Mr. Naughton is fully vaccinated. But at 78, his father has health issues that prevent him from getting the shots, Mr. Naughton said — health issues that make severe illness likelier should he contract the disease.)

Elsewhere in the country, the conversation has begun to move on, away from early Covid alarm and into something more guardedly speculative. What will post-pandemic life look like? How have our priorities shifted? But for vast swaths of the nation, largely untouched by doses from Pfizer and Moderna, it remains late 2020 in many ways.

“A lot of people here still don’t believe the virus is real — even when the hospitals are full, even when they have family dying,” Mr. Naughton said. “With the vaccines, one co-worker told me getting it would go against her faith. Another told me it contains baby fetuses and mercury. Someone else said it was created by Bill Gates to insert microchips to track you. I said, ‘Why would he want to track you?’”

The conversations Mr. Naughton describes may be epidemiologically out of step, but he and thousands of others seem trapped in an America-right-now vortex, a swirl of politics, belief, resentment and fear. At fast food restaurants, grocery stores, warehouses, nursing homes and anywhere else frontline workers show up each day, a deep schism has taken hold. Workers nervous about the virus find themselves at the mercy of those who aren’t.

“If I ask people to wear a mask or socially distance at work, they get mad and tell the manager. Then I have to get coached. If you get coached too many times, you lose your job,” Mr. Naughton said, referring to the company’s system for managing worker infractions. (Charles Crowson, a Walmart spokesman, did not dispute that an accumulation of coachings could lead to termination.)

Draped over this dynamic are often the stark realities of poverty, and the stresses of navigating a low-paying job in a high-pressure situation. And so an already strained situation strains further. Bitterness over masking requests, job insecurity, a run on bottled water, vaccine politics — tensions routinely boil over in his store and beyond, Mr. Naughton said.

“It wasn’t always like this. It used to be more friendly here. It’s become hostile. People are really on edge. They fight with you in the store, or with each other,” he said. “The other day a woman wanted to fight over the price of potatoes. You can even see it in how people drive, like they have a death wish.”

... With nearly 1.6 million workers, Walmart is the largest private employer in the country. It employs 35,954 people in Louisiana alone, working for one of the 137 Supercenters, discount stores, neighborhood markets or Sam’s Clubs across the state. Covid appears to have been good for the bottom line: During fiscal 2020, the company generated $559 billion in revenue, up $35 billion from the previous year. But labor activists say too little of that money has gone toward work force protections, which in turn has prolonged the pandemic.

According to United for Respect, a nonprofit labor advocacy group for Walmart and Amazon workers — Mr. Naughton is an outspoken member — safety measures remain deeply insufficient.

“Thousands of Walmart associates across the country like Peter have been forced to endure poverty wages and abysmal benefits while working through a deadly pandemic, managing panic-buying sprees and culture wars over mask mandates,” said Bianca Agustin, the accountability director for United for Respect.

In a survey the group conducted of Walmart associates — the term the company uses for all non-temporary employees — in May 2020, nearly half said they had come into work sick or would do so, fearing retaliation otherwise. This past April the group released a report with the public health nonprofit Human Impact Partners, finding that Walmart could have prevented at least 7,618 Covid cases and saved 133 lives with a more robust paid sick time policy. (Researchers have estimated that some 125,000 Walmart workers nationwide likely contracted Covid between February 2020 and February 2021.)

United for Respect is pushing for five measures in response: hazard pay of $5 per hour; access to adequate paid and unpaid leave; immediate notification of positive cases within a given store; the inclusion of workers in the creation of safety protocols; and protection from retaliation. In the meantime, it has created a Covid reporting tool for workers at Amazon and Walmart. So far almost 1,900 cases have been claimed at 360 stores and facilities.

“Walmart lets in people without masks all the time, and social distancing isn’t enforced,” Mr. Naughton said. “Our lives are constantly in danger. They have ‘health ambassadors,’ but all they do is sit at the door offering customers masks. I’ve had to fill in for them. A lot of people just ignore you, or else get angry.”


... “They say we’re essential,” he said, “but they treat us like we’re disposable.”
Read the full article: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/27/business/walmart-coronavirus-workers-safety.html