At Gap stores across the country, employees have brought sanitizer from home because the company has been unable to restock supplies.
At Starbucks, employees serve coffee to long lines of customers picking up orders, including elderly people and some patrons suffering dry coughing fits.
At GameStop, customers purchase plastic disc cases that employees can't disinfect because they ran out of cleaning wipes.
At Spencer’s on Monday and Tuesday, coupons were sent out for “in-store” purchases that expire at the end of the month. Meanwhile, G-Star RAW held a sample sale for employees in Manhattan, leading one of them to tell BuzzFeed News, “It’s a pandemic — who’s shopping for jeans? You can’t eat denim.”
At Sunglass Hut, executives asked workers, in an email, to “purchase hydrogen peroxide from a local store” and make their own disinfectant for the products that customers place on their faces because their usual distributor is prioritizing medical facilities.
At a Best Buy in New York, a manager who’d developed a severe cough worked for most of the day before going home two hours before the end of his shift in the late afternoon.
And at Ikea, in-store employees encounter customers who drop in not to buy any furniture but simply to hang out because “everything else is closed,” as one employee at a store in the southwest recalled.
As major metropolitan areas shut down and the federal government asks people not to gather in groups of more than 10, many retail workers around the nation have heard a different coronavirus message from their employers: We’re still open, and you still need to come to work.
BuzzFeed News spoke to more than 75 employees who have been told to keep clocking in at workplaces that sell products and services they describe as “nonessential.” They expressed frustration at their employers, anxiety about catching or spreading the virus, and guilt over contributing to activities in direct opposition to guidelines issued by health officials in the US and around the world.
Many said their employers don’t have paid sick leave policies allowing them to stay home if they suspect they’ve been exposed to the virus, meaning they are left to choose between their paychecks and their safety. This dilemma is further complicated for some by their employers’ failure to supply critical cleaning supplies.
These employees fear going into work, but they also fear being told not to go into work, because their companies have no legal obligation to pay them anything if they’re not at their stations.
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“We are terrified,” said an employee at Spencer’s, who, like others interviewed for this story, requested that his name and location remain anonymous for fear of getting fired. “We are being forced to come risk our lives to sell sex toys and party supplies.”
Some retailers, such as Apple, Nike, and Urban Outfitters, have voluntarily closed their stores. Ikea, H&M, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, and G-Star RAW were among the companies that announced full closures by Wednesday morning, as more cities across the country, including San Francisco and New York, implemented stricter lockdowns on nonessential businesses.
“Our approach has been to follow the recommendations of the CDC and local authorities,” Ikea said in a statement, explaining the decision to keep stores open through Tuesday. “The situation is continuing to evolve hour by hour, state by state. There is no ‘one size solution’ fits all, which is why we were evaluating and taking decisions based on the local situation and in close cooperation with local authorities.” G-Star RAW has not responded to a request for comment.
But the closing of some stores may have created business opportunities for those still open. Spencer’s released its latest batch of coupons the same day its main competitor, Hot Topic, announced it was closing all stores. At GameStop, one store manager said, “We've had the best sales days we've seen in months,” thanks to the influx of customers in search of entertainment to last through a period of indoor living with no known end date.
For employees, however, more customers means more possible ways to catch and spread the virus. “I can't clean anything in my store,” the GameStop manager said. “I can't ensure my team isn't carrying it right now. I can't guarantee I won't accidentally contribute to some of my favorite regulars, who are highly susceptible, and end up making them sick.”
After BuzzFeed News contacted Spencer's for this story, a spokesperson replied that the company was shutting down all stores starting Wednesday at 7 p.m., through March 28, and would continue to pay its employees.
On Thursday, after this story was published, GameStop issued a statement to BuzzFeed News listing new "social distancing practices in our stores" intended to minimize exposure for workers and customers. The protocols include "in-store line management practices that create a 6-foot parameter between customers in checkout lines," "door service to allow customers to skip the line and pick up their purchases at the front door," and "suspending temporarily our video game and consumer electronics trade-in practices until Sunday, March 29th."
Several retail workers expressed guilt at their role in drawing people into stores at a moment when more and more people see the necessity of social distancing. “I see a lot of elderly people walk the mall in the morning,” said one employee at a Sunglass Hut, surrounded by many closed shops in a popular mall in Minnesota. “They wouldn’t be coming in if none of the stores were open.”
After BuzzFeed News contacted Sunglass Hut for this story, a spokesperson said that the company will be closing all of its branches in North America by 6 p.m. Wednesday.
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Other companies, including Forever 21, Michaels, Barnes & Noble, Godiva, Dillard's, Zumiez, Burlington, Marshalls, TJ Maxx, Guitar Center, JOANN, Marshalls, Cabela's, and Best Buy, have yet to act, as of the time this story was published.
“The store is still busy which is insane,” said a Michaels employee. “A big chunk of our shoppers are elderly or people with children.”
One Forever 21 employee said that their branch remains open even as 70% of the stores in the mall they’re in have already closed down.
“We have no hand sanitizer, no gloves, half a bottle of Lysol is all that’s left,” the Forever 21 employee said. “As a cashier, I am forced to just not touch anything until I go to the second floor to wash my hands, and pray I don’t bring something home after touching money and objects all day.” Forever 21 did not respond to a request for comment.
A Godiva employee in Illinois said that when they asked managers why the store remained open, “Their response was that since we’re an outdoor mall the germs don’t apply to us and that the mortality rate is too low to concern them … They’re telling us to continue pushing sales, discounts and to bring our conversion up. We’ve had calls daily to tell us to keep going.”
Godiva declined to respond to specific questions, saying only that “the health and well-being of our employees and customers are our highest priority. We are communicating with them now, and will issue a fuller statement later.”
On Thursday, a day after this story was published, a Godiva spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the company was "temporarily closing our stores" in North America.
Citing the “increasingly vital technology” they provide to help people connect during this period of lockdown, Best Buy said in a statement that it plans to keep stores open until March 23, at which point it will limit sales to curbside pickup. “We believe it makes sense to keep our stores open in those places where it is allowed and advisable,” the statement said. A spokesperson declined to answer specific questions.
Michaels, Barnes & Noble, Dillard’s, Burlington, Guitar Center, and Cabela’s didn’t respond to requests for comment.
On Wednesday night, shortly after this story was published, a spokesperson for Zumiez told BuzzFeed News that the company was closing all stores. Meanwhile JOANN announced new protocols for its stores, including curbside pick-up.
Starbucks has justified the decision to stay open by describing itself as an “essential business.” While it has limited its service to drive-thru and pickup in most locations, customers still fill the premises while waiting in lines. Employees in about a dozen states who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they believe the company has failed to implement safety protocols recommended by health officials, including keeping people more than 6 feet apart and discouraging customers from coming in unless they had to.
“People are bored, and will show up to get a coffee if it's an option,” an employee told BuzzFeed News. “There is no way to handle these transactions while keeping a safe distance from hundreds of customers a day.”
A Starbucks worker suffering from a dry cough, another who’d recently returned from an international cruise, another who is immunocompromised, and another experiencing mild symptoms similar to that of a COVID-19 infection all told BuzzFeed News that they were unable to take paid sick leave, despite public assurances, because the company requires proof of a positive test result for the virus or proof that the employee had been directly exposed to someone who’d been diagnosed — both of which are all but impossible to obtain.
While Starbucks told employees they would get paid leave if the company shut down their branch, an employee at a location in a mall that was shut down said that the branch’s staff was reassigned to another nearby branch.
“It feels like they don’t care if we live or die,” said the employee who’d been on a cruise. “More than catching coronavirus, I’m terrified I’m spreading it to people without knowing. However, I can’t afford to take unpaid time off work.”
Starbucks told BuzzFeed News that the company is managing branches on a city-by-city basis, including closing stores in “high–social gathering locations,” such as malls and college campuses, and reducing operating hours in communities with high clusters of cases. On March 11, employees over the age of 60, those who are pregnant, and those with health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, and weakened immune systems became eligible for 14 days of paid sick leave; those who exhibit symptoms but have no confirmed exposure to the virus got up to three days of unpaid leave before having to dip into whatever paid sick days and vacation time they had accrued.
“As we all know, the situation with COVID-19 is extremely dynamic and we will continue to review the facts and science and make the proactive decisions necessary to protect our partners, customers and communities,” a spokesperson said in a statement, declining to answer questions about sick leave policy.
Gap requires that workers show evidence they’d been directly exposed or tested positive in order to obtain paid sick leave, and its internal messaging forum exploded in recent days with employee demands that the stores close, according to a BuzzFeed News review of the messages. Like many companies, Gap closed stores only in areas where local governments required it, leaving 600 of its 700 branches still operating.
“This is disgusting,” one employee wrote. “If corporate employees are encouraged to stay home/can not even access their places of work, why must retail workers continue? So we can sell someone a pair of jeans?”
On Tuesday night, Gap announced it would close all stores for two weeks, starting Thursday.
“We have closed an increasing number of stores over the past few days, working in real-time with government officials to manage this situation,” a company spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “We are providing our full time and hourly employees impacted by the store shutdowns with two weeks of pay continuity and benefits and will reassess after that time.”
The frustration hasn’t been limited to low-wage workers in public-facing jobs. At Charter Communications, Dish Network, JPMorgan Chase, Mutual of America, and the Houston-Galveston Area Council, employees have been required to commute into the office this week unless they can prove they have childcare conflicts or are at high risk.
“During this time, continuing to maintain our operations, while applying the latest CDC guidelines, ensures we provide these vital communications which help flatten the curve and protect the country,” Charter Communications said in a statement. “We are reviewing our business and employee continuity plans daily, and will adjust accordingly.”
A spokesperson for JPMorgan said, “On Sunday, we instructed employees who have roles that can be performed from home to begin doing so until further notice," adding that the company would be temporary closing 20% of its branches and reducing the number of employees at sites while remaining "open for business in every one of our markets."
A spokesperson for Dish Network said, “We are fully operational and have adjusted to promote social distancing across the organization. Those who are able and equipped to work remotely are now working from home. This has reduced on-site headcount significantly.”
At Mutual of America, a retirement services company based in Midtown Manhattan, employees said they were confused as to why they were largely barred from working at home, even though industry competitors, such as BlackRock and KPM, vacated their offices days ago.
“Everything could be done remotely at this point,” said one employee. “Everybody’s scared and nobody really knows the true extent to all of this.” Mutual of America did not respond to a request for comment.
The employee estimated that more than half of the company’s 1,000 employees are over the age of 60, and most of the office workers commuted from suburbs on public transportation. Mutual hasn’t updated employees on additional precautionary measures since a March 9 message stating, “While the CDC expects to see an increase in the number of confirmed cases reported around the country in the days ahead, the risk of communal spreading remains low.”
At the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a public-private association of local agencies, managers resisted employees’ calls to lift the organization’s prohibition on working remotely. On Monday, as some state governments enforced bans on gatherings of 50 people or more, managers announced that employees were still required to come into the office, informing them by calling a meeting that gathered the staff of around 250 into a room, sitting shoulder to shoulder in rows of chairs.
“I don’t think they are taking this seriously at all,” one employee told BuzzFeed News. “I honestly think someone in our office will have to be diagnosed. It may even take someone dying.” The council did not respond to a request for comment.
By Tuesday, though, heeding the widespread concerns of its staffers, the organization announced that it would allow telecommuting starting Wednesday.
This story has been updated to include policy changes that companies have enacted since the story was first published, as well as additional details on sick leave pay for Starbucks employees with high-risk health conditions.
Katie J.M. Baker contributed reporting to this story.
The name of Sunglass Hut was misstated in an earlier version of this story.
Albert Samaha is Inequality Editor at BuzzFeed News and author of two books, "Concepcion: An Immigrant Family's Fortunes" and "Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City." He is based in New York.
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