Walmart is updating its mask policies for store workers, as the COVID-19 Delta variant sends cases of the virus spiking in certain areas of the United States.
The retailer will now require masks for workers “inside our facilities in areas of substantial or high transmission.” The decision will take effect immediately.
The new rules for the world’s largest retailer keep the company in compliance with new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and could spur other companies to adopt similar changes.
On July 27, the CDC updated their recommendations for fully-vaccinated individuals. Now, the organization recommends that vaccinated individuals “wear a mask in public indoor settings” if they live in an area with “substantial or high transmission” of the COVID-19 Delta variant.
Fully-vaccinated individuals can still spread the Delta variant of the virus. A leaked CDC presentation recently described the Delta variant as being “as contagious as chicken pox.”
Though vaccinated individuals are contracting the Delta variant, symptoms are most often mild or non-existent. Non-vaccianted individuals, however, comprise the majority of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the University of California Davis Health.
In a memo sent out to “field associates,” Chief People Officer Donna Morris and EVP of Health and Wellnesss Dr. Cheryl Pegus wrote that the rules will not apply to all stores.
“Managers will refer to the CDC site for updates relevant to their county each Monday,” they wrote in the memo. “Customers are strongly encouraged to wear masks, but not required.”
Worker unions say this is not an isolated incident.
“Attacks on retail workers are on the increase. Parliament needs to act now to toughen the law,” Mark Wilkinson, senior organizer at the union GMB, which represents over 600,000 workers, said in a statement Friday.
Acts of customer aggression have risen in the UK and the US since the start of the pandemic – staff members are in the uncomfortable position of having to police mask-wearing in stores or enforce social-distancing rules. Some are quitting retail jobs in search of better pay and working conditions, helping to fuel a labor crunch.
Many retail workers are fed up with their jobs. For years, these employees have bemoaned the low wages, stress, and lack of respect they say they face at work.
The pandemic has only amplified their concerns. Workers at major retailers have been rage-quitting, striking, and generally making their unhappiness with the industry known.
Now, a tight labor market could give these employees unprecedented power to demand lasting changes in the industry, experts say.
“Retail workers are leading a movement and turning public praise during the pandemic into good jobs that can create meaningful, lasting change in their lives,” Bianca Augustin, the research director for workers’ rights group United for Respect. “Never has there been more support for the idea that everybody employed by a major corporation should receive at least $15/hour and 40 hours/week, adequate paid sick leave, and a voice on the job.”
In the twilight of the pandemic, the evidence seems to point toward certain important gains for retail workers – like small, permanent pay increases as well as more leverage for and choice of individual prospective employees. But that doesn’t mean that a complete overhaul of retail work is imminent.
Common retail industry practices, such as relying on low-paying part-time jobs, are still entrenched within the business, experts say. And returning to “normal” after the pandemic could mean a return to low pay and more stress for many retail workers.
Consumer demand is rising faster than retailers can hire
Chris Tilly, a professor at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, said it’s hard to make predictions about what’s next for the labor market, but noted that consumer demand appears to be outpacing retailers’ ability to staff stores. That gives more leverage to workers.
“I don’t think we’re at a point where workers have permanently gained the upper hand, but I would be cautious about saying exactly when the power is going to shift back more to employers,” he said.
The central problem is that “retailers are having trouble attracting workers at the rates of pay that they’re offering,” according to Tilly, who has studied unequal labor conditions and their effects.
“Consumer demand is expanding faster than people are able and willing to go back into the labor force,” he said.
University of Massachusetts Boston professor Françoise Carré said that retail jobs have been particularly grueling during the pandemic because of their “frantic pace” and employees’ fears over catching COVID-19.
Still, she said that some retailers may be looking to wait out the tight labor market.
“Maybe some retailers are speculating that, ‘Well, there’s all these unemployed retail workers sitting around waiting to see some kind of revival with the clothing stores and all the other categories of retailers that were closed,'” she said. “‘Maybe I’ll have no trouble.'”
Retailers looking to wait things out are likely in for a rude awakening, according to Krista Hardwick, the legal director of Deputy, an international shift-work management company.
“I don’t think that the labor shortage is going to resolve itself or just kind of go away as a lot of businesses are hoping,” she said.
Workers are claiming small victories, but have a long way to go
One way workers can win higher pay and better benefits is through organizing with labor unions. But only 4.1% of retail workers belonged to a union in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
President Joe Biden is more open to worker-friendly causes – like a national $15 minimum wage – than his predecessor, but a vote on such measures hardly seems imminent.
And while a boost to the federal minimum wage would help, it wouldn’t address many other pervasive frustrations with retail work, such as inconsistent shifts, poor benefits packages, and a lack of childcare.
“It’s not surprising that these kinds of jobs are not appealing to workers who have some level of choice in the matter,” Tilly said.
Retailers that don’t make changes to attract workers could suffer consequences, Hardwick said.
“Some businesses are taking a wait-and-see approach and banking on the fact that workers are going to have to come back,” Hardwick said. “But I don’t know – it’ll be really interesting to watch. I think that workers aren’t going to want to come back to work at places that aren’t treating them fairly.”
Walmart – the country’s largest private employer and Amazon’s biggest competitor – promotes hourly employees to managers at roughly double the rate at Amazon, according to a new New York Times report.
More than 75% of managers at Walmart stores in the US began as hourly workers, the Times reported. Amazon, for example, last year promoted only about 220 of 5,000 employees at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, according to the Times. It’s part of a plan at Amazon to fill management roles with “wicked smart” college graduates, one former executive told the outlet.
David Niekerk, a former human resources vice president who stepped down in 2016, told The Times Amazon prevented hourly employees from achieving promotions by design, and said the firm’s then-head of operations shot down a 2014 proposal to create more leadership roles for these workers.
Amazon, which flourished during the COVID-19 pandemic as Americans spent more on e-commerce than in-store shopping, announced it would hire 75,000 people across US in Canada with a starting pay. of more than $17 and a signing bonus of up to $1,000. The retailer also increased pay by up to $3 an hour for 500,000 current workers.
The online retailer repeatedly touts their $15 minimum wage – a benchmark Walmart has not officially set for its workforce yet. In a Bloomberg article published late last year, an Amazon spokesperson brought attention to the fact Walmart has “yet to join” Amazon in raising its minimum wage to $15.
Jeff Bezos envisions Amazon as “Earth’s best employer and Earth’s safest place to work” in his final letter to shareholders as chief executive. Bezos wrote he will renew his commitment to helping reduce work-related injuries and increase employee satisfaction as Executive Chair.
“If we want to be Earth’s Best Employer, we shouldn’t settle for 94% of employees saying they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work,” Bezos wrote in April. “We have to aim for 100%.”
Walmart and Amazon were not immediately available for comment.
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Preliminary information suggested the customer left the store without making a purchase after getting into an argument about his face mask with the cashier, the GBI said. The customer returned and shot the cashier, the GBI said.
The cashier was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead, the GBI said.
The customer also shot the security guard in the store, who is a reserve deputy officer for the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office in Atlanta, the GBI said. Another cashier was also wounded, the GBI said.
In a press conference, DeKalb County Sheriff Melody Maddox said the officer was in a stable condition and was being treated at Atlanta Medical Center. He was reportedly wearing a bulletproof vest at the time.
The shooter, who was arrested at the scene, was also in a stable condition and was being treated at another Atlanta hospital, according to the GBI statement.
Sheriff Maddox said that she did not know what the store’s policy was on masks, but said that it would be up to the store to decide if masks were mandatory or not.
Maddox said that she understood the topic of face masks was “very sensitive at this time.”
“We just want to make sure that everyone is safe,” she said.
Critics say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent relaxing of rules around wearing masks in indoor and outdoor spaces has made it even more difficult for retail workers, who have to act as “mask police” to enforce rules.
“Essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures. Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?” Marc Perrone, president of The United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW), said in a statement emailed to Insider last month.
Business owners are in a “horrible situation,” Larry Barton, a professor of crisis management and public safety at the University of Central Florida, told Insider. “The business owner is expected to be referee, pseudo police, and mask enforcer, just as they’re trying to rebuild rapport with customers,” he said.
Walmart is the world’s largest private employer, with about 2.3 million workers globally, including 1.6 million in the US – and it’s looking to hire thousands more people this year.
Many of Walmart’s employees are based in the retailer’s stores, working the checkout lines, stocking goods, and packing grocery orders, among other duties. Walmart pays about $15.25 an hour on average, according to the company.
But what is it really like to work for Walmart as a store-level employee? And what do workers wish they’d known before joining the retail giant?
In interviews with Insider, nine Walmart employees from across the US revealed what they have learned about managing time off and communicating with supervisors, among other work tips.
Openly communicating with managers and other employees makes the job easier
An employee who worked until recently worked in the grocery department of a Walmart store in Georgia said openly communicating with other employees helped her schedule work shifts around her responsibilities as a mother. She said Walmart managers allowed her to use lunch breaks to pick up her daughter from school.
She also said if her daughter needed something during her shift, she could get coworkers whom she had befriended to cover for her.
“I’m going to shout out my coworkers, I was able to get through a lot of days from my coworkers’ help,” she told Insider. “You have to be a team in order to get something done.”
Insider confirmed the employment status of this employee, as well as others cited in this story. Several workers interviewed asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
One department manager who has worked at Walmart for about 15 years told Insider that they advise employees to “always keep in mind the core values of self respect and respect for others” in order to get through stressful times at work.
Walmart said gathering feedback from employees is a cornerstone of its culture.
“Sam Walton believed front-line associates are our best idea generators and one of his rules for building a business was to listen to everyone in the company,” a spokesperson said in a statement sent to Insider. “Today, associates’ feedback – both anonymous and direct – continues to create a culture of trust, transparency, and engagement.”
One employee in Oklahoma said he tells new hires to beware of accruing attendance points, which mark absences from work.
Workers get one point for missing a shift without managerial approval, two points for missing a shift without advance notice, and two points for missing work during holidays like Christmas Eve or around Thanksgiving, the employee said.
A total of five points can result in termination, though in some cases managers have discretion to remove points, the worker said. Each point remains on employees’ records for six months.
“I personally hate this point system,” the employee said. “I get the reasoning behind it but I believe that having a little more than five points might make it a little better.”
A former part-time Walmart cashier named Gypsy Noonan – who is also a member of the labor advocacy group United for Respect – told Insider of her own experience with the points system. She said that she was once “pointed” for taking off when her young son was sick.
“I helped them out and worked for them on one of my days off,” she told Insider. “But they wouldn’t balance the point out. I thought that was really unfair, seeing as I really had been a model employee for them.”
A Walmart spokesperson said that the company’s attendance system services to ensure that “associates in the right place at the right time.”
“Walmart associates receive their schedules at least two weeks in advance and key retail event dates are updated quarterly,” a spokesperson said. “Like any business, we have an attendance policy that clearly outlines expectations for regular and punctual attendance, as well as steps to follow when an associate must miss work. We understand that there are times when unexpected circumstances arise.”
The spokesperson said that Walmart workers receive regular paid-time-off, which workers can request in advance, as well as protected paid-time-off, which can be used at times “when they are unexpectedly unable to make it to work.”
Your department could have a major impact on your work experience
The department you work in – whether it be grocery, customer service, or electronics – impacts the quality of your job, said one Walmart worker in California.
He said the electronics department – where he works – is more of a “chill job,” while other departments have to handle more customer complaints and do extra work to keep up with demand.
Another worker who helped in the electronics department in another Walmart location in California echoed that sentiment. He said he would recommend that new hires try to land in a department that’s not in the front end – where cashiers and greeters are – due to the higher likelihood of clashing with customers.
A Wisconsin-based cashier said one challenge of working in the front end is managing checkouts.
“We never seem to have enough staff to do checkouts,” the cashier said. “People complain about there not being enough cashiers, but I can’t do anything about it.”
“The good news about Walmart is there is all different types of jobs in our stores, our clubs, our distribution and fulfillment centers meaning there are many, many opportunities to find the job that is right for you,” a Walmart spokesperson said in a statement to Insider.
Beware of the impact the job can have on your mental health.
One front-end employee in Texas said she wished she had a better idea of the stress that the job could entail before she joined Walmart. She said customers have become more “hateful” and rude since the pandemic began, and she recalled an instance where a shopper yelled at her for asking her to move out of the entrance.
“It’s rare that you encounter nice people,” she added.
The employee, who works nights, said she feels her store is understaffed, and she typically continues working past the time that her shift ends to put returned items back on shelves and clean.
The associate also said she gets paid around $11 an hour, less than other associates in other departments who get paid a few dollars more. Walmart confirmed that the minimum hourly pay for certain roles in some locations remains around $11.
“It’s a good job to get you through a period where you need some sort of employment, but I don’t think it’s anywhere anyone should stay for any length of time,” she said.
Other workers said that taking a proactive approach can mitigate conflicts with shoppers.
A Walmart worker in Virginia told Insider that they have found that many customers “are good people and, if you give them a bit of help, most are very nice.”
“Retail is a people business and our first priority is to serve customers,” a Walmart spokesperson said. “Anyone can have a bad day, but overall retail is a very exciting industry to be in right now, there is so much change, new technology, new ways to serve customers and that change will continue which brings a ton of opportunity to launch and grow a career. And no one offers more opportunity than Walmart – we promote 500 US associates every day.”
Berndt Erikson worked as the nightly closer and key-holder at a Dollar General in the small town of Eliot, Maine. After every shift, he’d count up the money generated by the store and clean up before heading out.
But when he closed up shop on May 3, he knew he wouldn’t be going back.
Erikson and his fellow employees walked out of the store that day, leaving signs on the windows highlighting what they say were unacceptable working conditions at the retailer.
He said that understaffing, low wages, and frustration over a lack of communication from the company’s district management ultimately led to his decision to move on. In total, two employees and a manager quit the store, leaving one sole staffer remaining.
“Out of respect for these individuals, as well as the value we place on open and direct communication with our employees, we do not plan to comment on their employment status further,” Dollar General told local news station WMTW in a statement. “Our Eliot store remains open to provide the York County community with convenient, affordable access to everyday essentials.”
The company did not immediately return Insider’s request for comment.
Erikson had started at the Maine Dollar General in January 2020, after getting laid off from a local Super Shoes store. But very quickly, he said, the Dollar General began hemorrhaging workers. Pay for workers stayed around $13 an hour on average, which Erikson says was not a living wage in that part of Maine.
“People started to try to find better jobs, or they just had enough of being worked to death and being disrespected by both corporate and customers,” he told Insider. “We were already understaffed the entire time I had worked there, but it got to a point where we were not able to keep up.”
Keeping lean store staffs is a part of Dollar General’s business model, and one of the reasons the chain has been able to expand its footprint at such a rapid rate. In 1992, the company operated 1,522 stores in the US. As of February 26, 2021, Dollar General has a fleet of 17,266 stores across 46 states.
However, critics say that having so few employees to man the stores creates an unsafe environment, leaving workers as targets for robberies and violence. In Erikson’s case, he said that anti-maskers and anti-vax customers often screamed at employees, adding further tension to an already-difficult work environment. Meanwhile, requests by store managers that he receive a raise for his work were often ignored.
“They figured that they had me trapped in a job that I couldn’t get out of. To some degree, they were right,” he said.
But eventually, Erikson said, he decided that it would be better to seek out work with a different employer. And he’s not alone. As the coronavirus pandemic winds down, many business owners have complained about a tightening labor market, with employees quitting their minimum wage jobs to seek higher-paying roles.
The day before Erikson quit, the store manager left. He later called the acting district manager numerous times to say that he couldn’t man the entire store from opening to closing, but never heard back. Fed up, he and his coworker wrote up the signs – even including a special message to Joe, a beloved regular customer who’d often buy them sodas – and locked up the place at 4 p.m. that day.
The store opened back up the next day, with assistance from the acting district manager.
-Andy “Pass the PRO Act” O’Brien (@aobrien2010) May 4, 2021
“The Dollar General walk-out in Eliot is yet another example of service sector realizing the true value of their labor after suffering with low wages, poor treatment and lousy working conditions,” Maine’s AFL-CIO union communications director Andy O’Brien said in a statement to Insider. “While business owners are constantly whining and complaining about how they can’t find enough people to work for them, they still refuse to pay living wages to attract employees and the workers are fighting back.”
O’Brien added that, in the case of Dollar General, workers say the company expects in-store salaried employees work 70 to 80 hours a week. O’Brien said that a bill in the Maine legislature could make most salaried employees earning up to $55,000 a year eligible for overtime pay, which would “prevent the kind of blatant exploitation of salaried employees that Dollar General continues to get away with.”
The walkout at the Dollar General in Eliot isn’t the only flicker of labor unrest to occur in the state in recent months. According to O’Brien, “the pandemic and the sacrifices frontline workers have had to make” have sparked a recent victory for striking shipyard workers, an ongoing strike by delivery drivers and mechanics, and successful union drives among nurses and museum workers in the state.
“When working people win, other workers become inspired and that’s why we’re seeing more of these kinds of wild cat strikes and walk outs,” O’Brien said. “It’s an exciting time to be alive.”
Erikson told Insider that he’s well aware that he may be retaliated against, or black-balled from future retail jobs. But he said he’s glad that his story has resonated with frustrated retail workers around the country, based on the reaction on social media. He also said that, in a way, his experience at Dollar General has helped bolster his self-esteem.
“I eventually got fed up with it and started to see my own self worth,” he said. “I actually gained the confidence to fight back, which is probably what led to me leaving in style. So thank you, Dollar General.”
Are you a Dollar General employee or a retail worker with a story to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, it looked like retail workers might ascend to the role of societal “heroes,” taking on a designation usually reserved for military personnel, firefighters, and medical professionals in the United States.
Employees working on the frontlines of stores faced disease and death in order to keep the “open for business” signs blazing for consumers desperate to access essential goods. And it seemed like the public and private sector alike were beginning to appreciate that.
Major companies like Walmart and Amazon released advertisements touting their workers’ resoluteness and bravery in the face of COVID-19. Those same national retailers also began to dole out bonuses during the pandemic. Retail workers even got their own action figures. As part of its “everyday hero” line of dolls, Mattel released a toy grocery store employee.
For many months, none of that adulation has resulted in much political headway for workers. In recent days, however, retail employees have seen a few key wins.
As vaccine distribution has begun, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel voted last week to recommend that “frontline essential workers” should be next in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine after elderly individuals.
“For purposes of this recommendation, the following essential workers are considered frontline: fire fighters, police officers, corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, those who work in the education sector (teachers, and support staff), as well as daycare workers,” according to the CDC recommendations.
In Congress, there’s also been positive news for retail workers.
United States Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had long pushed for a provision to the stimulus bill that would strip consumers and employees of the ability to bring coronavirus-related lawsuits against companies. Retailers who funded McConnell and lobbied legislators to protect companies in this election cycle include Walmart, CVS, Publix, as well as trade groups like the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and the National Grocers Association, according to previous Business Insider reporting. But ultimately that provision has been cut from the relief package. That relief package is now in limbo as Trump is demanding an increase in direct payments from $600 to $2,000.
Remington Gregg, a lawyer for the consumer-rights group Public Citizen, said that the passage of the stimulus package without the liability proposal was a “major win for workers,” but the fact that it was up for debate at all is indicative of a system stacked against working Americans.
The stimulus package also includes an extension of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was initially due to expire on December 31. This act states that employees of covered employers can get up to two weeks of paid sick leave if “the employee is unable to work because the employee is quarantined (pursuant to Federal, State, or local government order or advice of a health care provider), and/or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis” and up to an additional 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave.
But there are loopholes in the Families First coverage. Employers with over 500 employees and those with less than 50 employees can find exemptions to the paid leave covered in this act. Meanwhile, many retail employers continue to foster risky environments.
A 2020 workplace safety survey from hazardous waste disposal compliance company Stericycle found that 24% of retail employers have not even implemented workplace training around COVID-19 safety. Meanwhile, a third of retail workers said they’d been asked to bring their own personal protective equipment to work. A sweep of local news outlets across the country reveals that retailers have come under fire for safety violations during the pandemic, with some even allegedly firing workers for reporting problems
Gregg said that it’s “all well and good” for companies to market off their workers’ heroics. “But I think those heroes would prefer to have paid sick leave, higher minimum wage, and actually have their employers treat them with dignity,” he said.
And while pandemic bonuses may provide workers with more cash support during the pandemic, labor rights organizations like United for Respect say it’s too little too late. United for Respect calculated Walmart’s bonus amounts from the start of the pandemic and found that it came out to a raise of $0.71 per hour.
Walmart employee and United for Respect member Mendy Hughes said that her store fails to adequately enforce mask-wearing or stock hand sanitizer at checkout.
A Walmart spokesperson told Business Insider that the company has required face coverings for all shoppers since July, and employees since April. The company also noted its next cash bonus would roll out on December 24, which would bring Walmart’s total 2020 quarterly and special cash bonuses for employees to more than $2.8 billion, the spokesperson said.
Walmart also offers its own COVID emergency leave policy with paid time off for sickness or quarantine and the potential for additional “pay replacement” for up to 26 weeks.
But leave policies are varied across the retail landscape.
For example, at Costco, the big box employer has ramped up pay for its frontline workers but has not yet universally extended leave time. Business Insider previously reported that the company did quietly give some older employees two weeks of extra paid leave during the pandemic.
“The extra $2 per hour worked is nice, but I’d much rather have more personal and sick time,” a Minnesota Costco employee who asked to remain anonymous told Business Insider.
Costco didn’t reply to Business Insider’s request for comment.
“Sometimes a person needs a break from having members complain about items being in short supply, and beyond that the mental stress,” the employee said. “And what happens when we get a head cold and stay home ‘just in case’?”