As major retailers across the U.S. announce temporary store closures to help slow the spread of COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of workers are in a precarious position.
While companies like Nordstrom, Gap and REI have pledged to pay workers for at least the initial two weeks of closures, it’s unclear what the situation will look like when they next reevaluate.
There are a few pockets of the retail sector, however, that are looking to staff up to meet scorching demand. Amazon, for one, announced plans on Monday to hire 100,000 delivery and warehouse workers in the U.S. and Canada to handle the surge in orders it has seen since the crisis began. Kroger, the country’s largest supermarket chain, has hired more than 2,000 workers and has another 10,000-plus positions open across its network of stores, plants and distribution centers.
Grocery stores and big-box chains like Walmart and Costco have been inundated with shoppers in recent weeks as the coronavirus pandemic has escalated. In response, many have placed restrictions on high-demand items like toilet paper and household cleaning products and limited store hours to give employees time to sanitize the environment and replenish shelves.
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Amazon, meanwhile, accounts for 39% of all U.S. online orders, according to eMarketer, and has been overwhelmed with demand from the tens of millions of Americans now staying home from work and school. To attract talent during the pandemic, the e-commerce behemoth is spending $350 million on a pay raise of $2 per hour for workers in the U.S. and Canada and the equivalent in Europe through the end of April. It also announced an expanded paid-sick-leave policy and unlimited unpaid time off for employees without penalties through the end of March.
The retail industry is counting on e-commerce to keep it afloat in the coming weeks. According to research by the analytics company GlobalData, more than 10% of U.S. stores are closed as of March 18, representing combined sales of $15.9 billion.
On Monday, former Trump administration economist Kevin Hassett warned that the U.S. could shed up to 1 million jobs in March, with many of the initial cuts coming from the hospitality sector and from small businesses that can’t afford to pay employees without revenue coming in. The retail industry employs nearly 4.8 million sales workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making a median wage of $11.70 per hour.
The Trump administration is in talks to send direct payments to American taxpayers as part of a $1 trillion economic plan that also includes a relief program for small businesses, The New York Times reported Wednesday. Under the plan, companies with 500 employees or fewer will be able to receive loans covering six weeks of their payroll up to $1,540 per worker. They must also promise to keep paying their employees for eight weeks after receiving the loan.