As the omicron variant spreads across the country, a wave of retail workers are calling out sick, with some forced to use earned sick time to recover and quarantine — or working hours of overtime to cover for their ailing colleagues, according to NBC News interviews with nine workers across six states.
“It’s worse than the beginning of the pandemic,” said one grocery store worker in California who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of losing her job. “I’m trying to work, but we’re just so strapped for help.”
A grocery worker with Safeway in California, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of losing her job, told NBC News she called the company’s benefits center in November when she was exposed to the virus. She said she called several times and stayed on hold for four hours until she was able to connect to someone.
“We deserve more,” she said.
Kirby Nardo, a spokesperson for Albertsons, which owns Safeway, told NBC News “the nationwide surge in omicron cases has put a strain on businesses.”
“We appreciate our associates ongoing commitment to serving customers,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to keep our associates safe and ensure stores are appropriately staffed.”
Some retailers have rolled back policies introduced earlier in the pandemic, including enforced social distancing and mask wearing, and companies such as Rite Aid dropped hazard pay. At the same time, grocery and retail trade groups are reluctant to support widespread vaccination requirements across their work forces. Unionized Kroger workers in Denver walked off the job Wednesday after talks with the company broke down about increased pay, benefits and safety.
“Employees want to feel safe; they want to feel protected,” Debbie Berkowitz, a labor fellow at Georgetown University, told NBC News. “This is going to be with us for a long time, so employers need to change how they do things instead of fighting science.”
On the ground, workers say they are flailing as cases rise and people call out sick nearly every day. Mike Hendrick, a Shoprite worker in Shelton, Connecticut, told NBC News that last Saturday he worked collecting shopping carts in the parking lot from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. to cover for a colleague who was out sick with Covid, and another who was quarantining after being exposed. With both workers out, it left Hendrick alone to gather carts for the day. The store had to pull another worker from the store to help, he said.
“We’re working short handed,” he said. “The main issue for me is pulling long hours.”
ShopRite spokesperson Karen O’Shea told NBC News in an emailed statement that “like most in the retail sector we have experienced some staffing and supply chain issues.” She added shoppers will find stores are “open, stocked and staffed accordingly.”
Everyone in the store is frazzled. At this point I’m so burnt out. I come home and fall asleep.
The grocery worker in California with a major retail chain said that over the last few weeks between four and six workers a day have been out sick. Around 50 to 70 people work at the store each day. She said she spends her shift jumping from checking out customers to restocking shelves to receiving inventory from delivery trucks. She sometimes works an extra one to three hours with pay after her shift to help pick up the slack.
“Everyone in the store is frazzled,” she said. “At this point I’m so burnt out. I come home and fall asleep.”
In addition, the store has largely abandoned cleaning protocols it rolled out at the beginning of the pandemic, she said. At first, sanitation crews regularly cleaned the store, members received alerts if they may have come in contact with a worker who tested positive for the virus and workers received a $2 an hour raise as hazard pay. But that all went away by summer 2020.
“We’ve had to deal with Covid head on,” she said. “Just because we’re here serving and working at a grocery store doesn’t mean we aren’t of value — and it’s important that the company values employees and values people who are out there risking their lives.”
As cases surge, Walmart continues to temporarily close stores across the country for deep cleaning. Gloria Song, a Walmart associate in Laurel, Maryland, and a member of the nonprofit worker advocacy group United For Respect, told NBC News that the company shut down the store as a crew in hazmat suits sprayed disinfectant throughout the building overnight while night workers restocked. The only way workers learn about new cases is by word of mouth, which leaves many of them on edge about their own exposure, she said.
Just because we’re here serving and working at a grocery store doesn’t mean we aren’t of value.
“We have to live in fear and assume the worst,” she said.
Walmart and Sam’s Club have been shutting down stores since the beginning of 2020 as a proactive measure, said Charles Crowson, a Walmart spokesperson. A third-party sanitization company takes a day and a half to clean, he said, adding that the company works “closely with these providers to help ensure the cleaning is carried out with the safety of our associates as a priority.”
The wave of sick call-outs has also led to jammed Covid benefits lines. Dozens of workers in Facebook groups that include grocery and retail workers have complained about long wait times to reach a human resources representative about their virus testing results. Some workers in these groups said they were on hold for as long as five hours waiting to reach someone about their Covid leave.
“It’s hard to get through to anyone,” said Cynthia Murray, also a Walmart associate in Laurel and founding member of United for Respect.
Albertsons is seeing “a significant increase in calls to our Covid help line” and is working to add resources to handle the increased demand, Nardo said. Brian Harper-Tibaldo, a spokesperson for Target, told NBC News that the company is aware of increased call volumes to its benefits center as Covid cases at its stores follow national trends.
In the last couple of weeks, Target added a text and chat option to address benefits questions and it contracted a third-party business to handle overflow. Walmart gives callers the option of requesting Covid leave online or receiving a call back from its benefits center if the wait time is longer than five minutes, Crowson said. Amazon also acknowledged higher call volume, saying it was working to increase phone staffing and also encouraging employees to use online options instead.
Still, workers fall through the cracks. For the last three weeks, Murray said she has had a fever and symptoms consistent with Covid-19, but has tested negative. Walmart’s Covid-19 emergency leave policy provides one work week paid time off for associates who test positive for coronavirus or mandated to quarantine by a health care provider, government or Walmart or fail a health screening, Crowson said. Any associate who is feeling unwell and fails the Walmart health screening is able to take paid leave under Walmart’s Covid-19 Emergency Leave policy, he added.
But with wait times so long to reach someone at the company’s benefits center, Murray said she decided to use her earned sick time to stay home. She exhausted her paid sick leave and was given one and a half points for the days she didn’t show up to work because she was sick. Under Walmart policy, workers are fired if they accrue five points. Walmart declined to comment on Murray’s case, citing company policy not to address personnel matters among associates.
“There is nothing in place for workers to be able to be sick,” Murray said. “I don’t care if I was positive or not. I shouldn’t be around any workers if I feel contagious. I can’t and I won’t do it.”
I shouldn’t be around any workers if I feel contagious.
A Walmart worker in New Jersey told NBC News her manager required her to return to work two days after testing positive for coronavirus. The worker, who is unvaccinated, took time off from work beginning Dec. 29 after she was exposed to the virus. It took days to track down a health worker-administered test required by the company to receive paid leave. On Jan. 3, she tested positive. But her manager said she was required to return to work within two days, despite the company’s internal system warning her not to return to work until Jan. 13, according to an NBC News review of the internal notification.
“When it did happen, I was so angry,” she said. “Because this is so wrong.”
The worker refused to return to the store and called out sick every day since she first received a positive test last week. She quit the job on Wednesday.
“I was just like, ‘No, that is just morally wrong for me,’” she said.
Walmart said it could not comment because it was unable to investigate the situation, as the worker asked to remain anonymous out of fear that speaking out would impact on her ability to find a new job.
Industry groups won a Supreme Court challenge Thursday against a new federal vaccine-or-test rule. President Joe Biden’s new Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule would have required businesses with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccines or weekly testing for workers. A separate mandate could be enforced that requires vaccinations among health care workers in facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements.
Retailers said a vaccine-or-test requirement would make it harder to hire and keep employees amid a labor shortage. The retail industry, represented by the National Retail Federation, called the OSHA standard “onerous" and urged, in a statement released Thursday afternoon, that the Biden administration "work with employers, employees and public health experts on practical ways to increase vaccination rates and mitigate the spread of the virus.”
“Employers in the workplace can decide whatever they want to do unless there is a government standard like you have to pay a minimum wage. But with the coronavirus there really is no requirement,” Berkowitz with Georgetown University said. “Workers really are on their own [without a standard.]”
Murray at Walmart in Maryland said the company should adopt a pandemic task force that includes workers to provide their insight into how stores are operating on the ground to help stem the spread of the virus.
“We’re dealing with a deadly virus that is killing people every moment,” she said. “We need a better solution.”