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WASHINGTON — Every day, as Sarah leaves work, she washes her hands and sprays the soles of her shoes with Lysol. When she gets home, she reaches one arm into the house and grabs a bag with a change of clothes she left that morning on the table by the front door.
Then, she changes her clothes outside, sprays her work clothes with Lysol, and puts them in a plastic bag. Once she gets inside, she immediately washes her work clothes and takes a shower.
As an employee at Walmart in Texas, Sarah is considered an essential worker, staffing a store that’s among the rare US businesses still open during the coronavirus outbreak.
Several weeks ago, during the first week of March, she approached her manager about having hand sanitizer at the cash registers.
“She told us no,” said Sarah, who asked that only her first name be used because she is concerned about retaliation for speaking publicly about the conditions at her store. “[The manager] said there's some in the cash office, which is locked. … You can just ask them, but that's not really feasible. We can't stop and ask somebody to come up there [and] unlock a door so we can use hand sanitizer. Turns out, there wasn't even any in there.”
By the second week of March, Walmart had provided some gloves for employees at her store, but Sarah said the supply ran out quickly. She added that though stores have started closing early to make more time for cleaning, the focus at her store is instead on restocking, and extra cleaning only happens if employees take it upon themselves.
“We're asking for these things, these necessary things, to keep us safe [and] keep the store clean, and we're not being provided with them,” she told BuzzFeed News.
To make matters worse, Sarah’s husband has diabetes, putting him in a high-risk category for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. That’s why she’s so vigilant about cleaning and washing whenever she comes home.
And she isn’t alone. Eleven Walmart employees from across the country told BuzzFeed News that as the coronavirus outbreak worsens in the US, their stores don’t have standard sanitary supplies, employees lack basic protective gear, and customers and corporate managers alike are not taking the problems seriously enough. Other employees said they were concerned about their safety in the break rooms and during trainings for the thousands of new workers hired to help keep the stores up and running during the pandemic. The employees all asked to speak anonymously or use only their first names because they were worried about getting in trouble at work for speaking to the media.
A 23-year-old Walmart employee in Southern California said he takes care of his grandmother, who, at 86, is at a high risk for COVID-19. A Tennessee employee said she lives with her dad, who has diabetes and heart problems. Both said they don’t have some vital protective gear at their stores, and what they do have is in increasingly short supply.
“Cleaning supplies are basically out. We ran out of gloves the other day and we had to, like, basically buy gloves that came into the store as products for customers,” the California employee said in a recent phone interview with BuzzFeed News. “There's no hand sanitizer left for customers. … I always tell people, ‘Don't use a cart. We don't have the people to clean them.’ … You’re touching all the hands of the people who touched it over the past few days.”
Cashiers are calling out frequently, he said, and the store is short-staffed in the midst of the crisis. Though the store is technically restricting its capacity, he said, the limits aren’t being enforced, and sometimes hundreds of people are in the store at once.
“They haven't enforced anything safety-wise,” he said. “I haven't gotten an email or a directive from above, saying, ‘Hey, I need you to clean all the registers, all the touchscreens, and PIN pads.’ That's all been on my own doing.”
As of last Wednesday, he said, he had heard that the company would be sending masks and gloves, installing plexiglass barriers, and placing stickers near checkout lanes reminding people to social-distance, but that it could take up to three weeks for the installation.
The Tennessee employee said her store had received gloves but no masks, and because she has a disability, the gloves don’t fit her.
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Tiffany Wilson, Walmart’s director of communications, said in a phone call with BuzzFeed News on Wednesday that the company is consistently sending cleaning and protective supplies to stores and is not aware of any widespread shortages of supplies. If stores are running low, she said, they can place an emergency order, use products from store shelves, or move products between stores.
Wilson also said that the company has begun sending masks and individual hand sanitizer containers for employees to all stores and expects all locations to have masks and sanitizer in the coming days. Wilson also said stores should have plexiglass and decals in one to two weeks.
Already, many Walmart employees have contracted the virus. On Sunday, a company spokesperson announced that two employees from one Chicago-area store had died from COVID-19.
“We are heartbroken to learn of the passing of two associates at our Evergreen Park store, and we are mourning along with their families,” the statement said. “While neither associate had been at the store in more than a week, we took action to reinforce our cleaning and sanitizing measures, which include a deep-cleaning of key areas of the store.”
It’s particularly frustrating, many employees said, because Walmart originally announced it would waive their entire attendance policy for the month of April. (Workers get “points” when they call out of shifts. Getting five points means the worker will be fired.)
But later, workers noted, they received information from the company that said employees who take more than two weeks work during the outbreak will not have their job protected.
“If you choose to self-quarantine you can use paid time off in order to receive pay but you’re not required to,” reads the policy, a copy of which was shared with BuzzFeed News. “You'll receive a maximum of two work weeks of pay if you're required to quarantine by a government agency or by Walmart or if you have been diagnosed with COVID-19.”
Employees diagnosed with COVID-19 “may be eligible for additional pay replacement for up to 26 weeks,” according to the policy, despite the fact that tests remain in extremely short supply across the country and public health experts are encouraging people without severe symptoms to avoid getting tested.
Wilson told BuzzFeed News there are instances where employee leave can be extended. “We encourage the associates to speak with their management team to make arrangements for their particular situation,” she said.
Asked about the test shortage and whether an employee’s leave can be extended without a test, Wilson later added, "A confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis by a physician is sufficient to activate our COVID-19 policy, including up to 26 weeks of pay replacement, even without a test. In addition to our COVID-19 policy, Walmart offers paid sick leave to ALL hourly associates in the U.S., including part time, through protected paid time off (PPTO) in addition to standard paid time off (PTO)."
One Arizona employee told BuzzFeed News she recently had to train 13 new employees in a small room. Her store has started taking employees’ temperatures when they arrive for shifts — but for safety reasons she decided she would begin holding a series of smaller trainings.
“Maybe I'm being selfish,” she said during a recent phone interview. “I don't know, but I'm still exposing myself to 12, 16 people, even though they're not all together, but I figured that’s probably the best option that I have right now.”
Her store has gloves for employees but no masks, and no sanitizing wipes for customers to wipe down their carts.
“I'm able to stay in my office in the back. I've set up kind of a barrier so that you know my associates can't get into my actual little cubbyhole in an office,” she said. “And I still don't feel 100% safe. … I don't want to be here.”
Another employee at a Massachusetts store said she works at a service desk that’s less than 2 feet wide, and recently she had to train another employee to work the desk, forcing them into close proximity for hours.
“I am literally within spitting distance of customers in front of me,” she said. “When I told my supervisor that coughing children had given me a panic attack, she said, ‘Well, you don't have to be here.’ … I really wanted to be like, ‘Well, are you going to pay my bills?’ I'm not there for fun.”
She keeps her own hand sanitizer and said she’s washing her hands so often and they’ve gotten so dry that water hurts her skin.
Meanwhile, the bargain DVD bin at her store is still open, she said, and they continue to accept returns, something some other essential retail stores have shut down.
“[At the DVD bin,] they reach in where 90 people have reached in in the last three days. And then they take it out with everything that's on it. Then they bring it to the register,” she said. “So the cashiers got it. And it's on the belt, so it's on there. And when you really start looking at it, it just— If I focus too much, it will literally make me sick to my stomach.”
Another employee in Texas, who has worked for Walmart for 19 years, said that break rooms are a major issue.
“If it's been a rough day and you're going to take a break and you want to sit down, you're pretty much forced to sit next to somebody,” he said. “There are some people that work at the store [who] are self-quarantining themselves because they were around somebody that was diagnosed later. They don't know if they have it or not but, you know, they're just trying to be careful about it. But you hear that and you think, Wow, I was sitting next to that guy like two days ago.”
Wilson said the company has recently instituted new standards in break and meeting rooms to make more space for social distancing, including setting up break areas outside the store where possible. Additionally, she said, Walmart has called off as many non-essential meetings as possible to avoid employee gatherings.
The longtime Texas employee has a daughter who has had pneumonia and could be at a high risk if she contracted the virus, he said, making the situation particularly scary. He has had a cough for a few weeks; after talking to a doctor, he learned it’s likely bronchitis, not COVID-19. Still, his manager recently sent him home from work out of an abundance of caution.
“Even my store manager said, ‘I don't think you have it,’ but with what's going on these people are gonna be panicky. You know, I agree,” he said.
The problem for him, though, is that because it isn’t the coronavirus, he has to use paid time off — and he’s already very low on days. “I have to use my own time, which only has, like, three days. I’ve already used two of those days,” he said. “I still have my cough. If I go back Saturday and he sends me home — after that, I cannot afford to stay home.”
He said customers at his store have not been following social distancing guidelines and there have at times been as many as about 250 people in the store at once.
“I am trying not to be panicky about it, but I'm really just kind of waiting to catch it, to be honest with you,” he said.
A few days after the phone call with BuzzFeed News, he followed up and said the store had just received face masks for employees; he also shared the questions Walmart is now asking staffers before shifts:
“Do you have any of the following symptoms?: Fever/feverish, chills, dry cough, difficulty breathing or digestive symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting or abdominal pain.
“Have you traveled via airplane internationally or domestically in the last 14 days?
“Have you had close contact with a confirmed/probable COVID-19 case?”
The worker said the store was not checking employees’ temperatures, however. (Wilson, the Walmart director of communications, said the company is still in the process of sending thermometers to every store. Once stores receive thermometers, she said, it will be the standard for them to check employee temperatures.)
The employee in Tennessee whose father has diabetes and heart problems said she recently overheard her manager telling another employee that a worker in the store had contracted the virus — though there was never an official announcement to the rest of the staff.
“If I didn't happen to be in the break room, I wouldn't have heard it directly from the manager, but I went in and told everyone,” she said. “I work as a cashier, so I went and I told everyone in the front as I could. A lot of them hadn't even heard about it yet.”
Another Illinois employee told BuzzFeed News last week the store was running very low on hand sanitizer and that workers at her store have been required to buy their own masks if they wanted them.
The day after a phone call with BuzzFeed News, she followed up, writing in a text message, “somebody at our store has been confirmed to have the coronavirus. they have not told us who, nor what department. … i officially started my leave of absence and will no longer be going. … im almost certain they’re not gonna handle it well.”
Many employees also described daily stress with customers mistreating employees while they stock up on food and household products.
“The last three weeks have been some of the toughest I’ve ever dealt with. It’s basically like Black Friday plus a snowstorm or hurricane prep, with 60% of your staff calling out,” one Pennsylvania employee told BuzzFeed News.
The Tennessee employee said a customer recently threw a package of Honey Buns at a store manager, hitting her in the face, and that another customer hit her in the leg with a pack of Clorox wipes.
“The amount of people that are just cursing us out right now,” she said. “There have been times [when] I've not only feared for my safety from the coronavirus but my safety from the people who are trying to shop there because of all the worry, all the stress that this pandemic is causing right now.”
The Arizona employee said she doesn’t think higher-ups at the corporation really care.
“It’s more like, ‘We know you’re scared, but serving our communities is more important’ — which I know it's important, but it's hard to kind of reconcile that with that [being] more important than myself or the people I work with,” she said during a phone call with BuzzFeed News.
In an email, she said that on a recent conference call, she was struck when an employee asked what to do when a customer says they are positive for COVID-19 but still want to shop.
“Why should we have to prepare for that?” she wrote. “I doubt the presidents and chief executive officers have anyone showing up in their corner offices asking that question.”
Additional reporting was contributed by Albert Samaha.
This story was updated with additional comment from a Walmart spokesperson, who said the company's employees can get additional weeks of paid leave with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis and do not necessarily need a positive test.