Amid Coronavirus Panic, Why Millions of Retail Workers Would Probably Go to Work Sick

Retailers rely on store associates to stock shelves, run cash registers and otherwise keep business moving from day-to-day — but unlike most in the head office, many of these hourly workers aren’t able to take paid time off when they’re sick.

The U.S. has no federal law requiring employers to provide paid sick leave, and only 60% of U.S. service industry employees have access to it, according to a 2019 Labor Department report. That share shrinks as you look farther down the income scale, where workers are also less likely to be able to afford to miss a day — let alone a week or two — of pay. As the coronavirus outbreak worsens and the U.S. prepares for a possible pandemic, this group of workers is in a particularly vulnerable position, public health experts say.

Sales associates may come into contact with dozens of customers per day and spend much of their workday handling merchandise that others have also touched. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 is mainly spread person-to-person through droplets from coughing or sneezing, but it may also be transmissible by touching a contaminated surface.)

Currently, the CDC recommends that people with symptoms of the virus — including fever, coughing and difficulty breathing — stay home from work and self-isolate. But for 33.6 million workers, doing so would mean sacrificing their wages, even before factoring in additional potential costs like testing and ongoing health care.

Many of the country’s biggest companies are taking measures to reduce the potential for exposure among their workforces, but it’s mostly higher-paid employees that can reap the benefits. Companies like Amazon, Twitter and Google have already restricted non-essential travel within the United States and internationally, and many businesses are asking employees to work from home as a precaution if they have traveled to a heavily affected area. (With Italy now reporting more than 3,000 cases and 107 deaths, this includes buyers, editors and others returning home from Milan Fashion Week.)

According to the Labor Department, though, only 29% of workers are able to work remotely, and most of those who can are high earners and highly educated. It simply isn’t possible for store associates to organize a stock room or help customers check out at a register without being physically present.

For retailers, this could pose a challenge if the outbreak progresses. The National Retail Federation has directed its members to the CDC’s advice: First, “Develop a plan to monitor and respond to high levels of employee absenteeism,” which may include training other employees to fill in for other roles as needed. Then, encourage sick employees to stay home and avoid contact with others. “Sick leave policies need to be flexible and consistent with public health guidance,” the organization said. “It may be necessary to develop an emergency sick leave policy.”

Other measures include cleaning and disinfecting the workplace regularly, making products like hand sanitizer readily available and considering ways of limiting close physical contact between customers and employees.

For major retailers, these precautions will affect thousands or even millions of workers. Several states and municipalities have passed legislation in recent years guaranteeing some level of paid sick leave to some or all workers, but wide swaths of the country remain uncovered. Most policies also top out at about a week’s worth of sick days — not enough to cover, for instance, the 14-day quarantine recommended by the CDC for those who may have come into contact with the virus.

Neither Target nor Macy’s responded to FN’s request for comment about their sick leave plans during the outbreak.

Walmart, which has 1.5 million store associates in the U.S. alone, says it is prepared to respond to the evolving situation.

“Anytime there are extreme events or natural disasters, we closely monitor what’s happening in our communities, and adjust business operations and policies, such as waiving absences, as appropriate — the coronavirus is no different,” said Walmart spokeswoman Jami Lamontagne in a statement.

“Anytime our associates are not feeling well, we want them to stay home and get healthy, and we have PTO options to support them,” she continued. “If an associate believes they might have contracted COVID-19, they should not come to work. We want associates focused on their health — the last thing we want associates worried about is their job.”

Last year, the retailer announced a new policy providing sick leave for all part-time and full-time hourly workers, allowing them to accrue an hour of leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 48 hours (or six days). This “Protected Paid Time Off” is distinct from standard vacation days and can be used even for unplanned absences. As part of the new policy, Walmart reduced the number of attendance infractions it permits in a six-month period from nine to five, though the retailer also pointed to the flexible scheduling it introduced last year, which lets associates swap shifts as needed via an app.

While the policy gives Walmart associates more paid sick leave than most of the industry’s hourly workers, some of the company’s employees are pushing for it to go a step further in light of coronavirus concerns.

“As it stands, my coworkers and I are scared to call out sick because we don’t want to lose our chance at a bonus or put our jobs at risk,” said Melissa Love, a four-year Walmart employee and the leader of the nonprofit labor group United for Respect. “Walmart should publicly commit to associates that we won’t be fired or receive points for calling out sick to take care of ourselves and our families.”

Walmart’s policy announcement last year followed a wave of guaranteed sick leave laws passed in several states and municipalities, including California, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Massachusetts, Oregon, New York City, New Jersey, Chicago and Seattle.

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