One California Lululemon Store Shows How Difficult It Can Be For Retail Workers In The Pandemic

Facing uncooperative customers and what they say are unrealistic cleaning expectations, California Lululemon employees are highlighting the toll the pandemic is taking on retail workers.

Each Lululemon shift begins with a “clearing” by employees — a chance for staff to speak about anything keeping them from being “present” at work. When the massively popular athleisure brand’s new Los Angeles location opened in June, employees said nearly everyone’s clearing involved airing concerns that they were not prepared for customers as the coronavirus pandemic continued raging.

Lululemon had been set to open its doors at the Grove, a high-end outdoor shopping mall, in May, but that plan was delayed when nonessential businesses were shuttered in LA County in March. So employees said they were surprised to be called back in mid-May from their paid furlough to prepare the store for a June opening, even as COVID-19 cases continued to tick upward in Los Angeles County and California as a whole.

During the store’s setup period, three Lululemon employees at the Grove location who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they were instructed to wear masks while working, remain 6 feet apart at all times, and wash their hands every 30 minutes — guidelines they say were impossible to follow given the nature of their work, the small retail space, and the time frame Lululemon had set for preparing the store by early June.

“That fell apart before my shift even started,” said one Grove employee who asked, like most interviewed for this story, to remain anonymous in order to speak freely about their employer. “We were carrying racks, had to hand things off to each other. There weren’t enough work stations. Nobody was washing their hands every 30 minutes. People are busy. I can’t think of one rule that was followed to a T.”

“We were picking up boxes, opening products, doing so many things, there was no way in hell that we were doing it 6 feet apart,” a second Grove employee said.

When the Grove’s Lululemon store opened on June 8, with up to 20 people inside at a time, fitting rooms remaining open, and employees instructed that they could not require customers to wear masks, workers told BuzzFeed News they were no longer able to ignore their concerns. Staff were stressed and fearful for their health. Then a Grove store employee tested positive for COVID-19.

“I have two immunocompromised people at home, so it scared the living shit out of me,” the second Grove employee said. “We have never felt that we were a threat to each other; we feel it’s the guests who are posing an unnecessary threat to our lives and their own.”

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With California now leading the nation in confirmed cases of COVID-19, the state’s initial success in controlling the virus as it raged on the East Coast unraveled rapidly and with deadly consequences. Experts told BuzzFeed News that California officials reopened businesses too quickly and without enough strict guidance initially from state agencies, instead leaving many critical health and safety decisions, especially on the subject of masks, up to counties, cities, and individual businesses.

The situation has been no different in the state’s retail sector. Stores and malls reopened without clear orders mandating customers wear masks and with no controls on fitting rooms, leaving businesses to navigate the uncertainty — and their employees to sound the alarm.

The confusing results have left retail staff concerned. When Gov. Gavin Newsom walked back the state’s reopening in mid-July, ordering indoor shopping centers to close in 29 counties, the order didn’t apply, as Lululemon employees soon discovered, to their indoor stores situated at outdoor malls. While Lululemon stores at indoor malls in Los Angeles County are temporarily closed, employees at the Grove had to keep showing up to work — despite their Lululemon stores also being indoors.

“[After Newsom’s orders,] they immediately told us, ‘We’re not shutting down because your county says so,’ but it’s still a small enclosed space,” said a Lululemon employee at a second outdoor mall in Southern California. “As soon as you enter a door to a store you’re in the same kind of space. We have one entry and one exit.”

“We shouldn’t be open right now,” the employee said.

In response to inquiries about why outdoor malls were allowed to remain open, a spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health cited its general COVID-19 guidance, referencing evidence that transmission risk is “exacerbated in indoor spaces particularly when lacking appropriate ventilation.”

Health experts say ventilation is key in limiting the transmission of the coronavirus, as studies have shown that aerosols can remain suspended in the air indoors for several hours, Dean Winslow, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told BuzzFeed News.

But Winslow said he could see no difference between an indoor mall and an indoor store.

“My personal opinion is that there is not a lot of difference in terms of risk being in a store in an indoor mall versus outdoor mall,” he said. “Us healthcare workers are on the front lines, but we have PPE and things like that. Folks working in retail and public transportation are every bit if not more on the front lines.”

Presented with a detailed list of the concerns from the half a dozen employees who spoke with BuzzFeed News, a Lululemon spokesperson provided the following statement for this story: “We adjust our operations based upon the guidelines within each state and jurisdiction, including in California. As the situation within the state continues to evolve, we will adjust every step of the way.”

Another unpredictable variable that retail employees have had to contend with are the customers who enter their stores. Lululemon employees who spoke with BuzzFeed News said they’ve had to face angry shoppers who refuse to wear masks and who downplay — or outright deny — the existence of COVID-19.

“We’ve had customers come in and say, ‘I just had COVID. It wasn’t that bad. You seem pretty healthy. I hope you actually get it and get it over with,’” the second Lululemon Grove employee said. “Customers break the 6-foot barrier constantly. I have to have the ‘Can you please put your mask over your nose?’ conversation every shift.”

California issued an order broadly requiring face masks in public on June 18, but included no guidelines as to who was responsible for enforcing the mandate, leaving individual jurisdictions and businesses to decide how they enforce the order. Some cities, such as West Hollywood and Santa Monica, have instituted fines for those caught not wearing masks in public. Though the Grove required masks two days before the state did so, Lululemon employees at that mall said they were only allowed to “kindly suggest” that guests wear masks.

According to California’s state retail guidance, face coverings are required for employees but “businesses that are open to the public should be cognizant of the exemptions to wearing face coverings” and “may not exclude any member of the public for not wearing a face covering if that person is complying with the guidance.” By comparison, New York requires that businesses must refuse entry if a customer is not wearing a mask, so long as the refusal is not discriminatory.

Lululemon has created a “director of first impressions” role, essentially an outdoor greeter designed to remind guests to socially distance and wear masks before they enter the store, but employees said that until recently they were not allowed to deny service to customers who refused to wear masks or were hostile toward staff. “My store is in an area that is predominantly conservative, white, very pro-cop, anti-BLM, ‘this virus isn’t real’ mentality,” said the Lululemon employee at the second Southern California outdoor mall. “It’s not possible to keep 6 feet of distance because you get these aggressive people; they just don’t listen. You can’t ask them to leave. We don’t feel supported.”

According to Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, mask requirements are the number one issue retailers must address if they choose to remain open during the pandemic. The burden of enforcing mask-wearing should not fall on hourly employees, he said, but rather on managers or security personnel.

“The biggest thing is that people need to be wearing masks and someone needs to be enforcing it other than the worker,” Appelbaum said. “I think that it’s a terrible mistake for stores not to be enforcing that policy. Otherwise they are not creating a safe environment from their customers. If you say you require masks and do nothing to enforce it, then it’s not being required.”

Lululemon employees in California have also pressed the company to close fitting rooms, which are enclosed spaces in which many customers remove their clothes, shoes, and masks, and which must then be cleaned by an employee after every use. The company closed its fitting rooms at locations including the Grove and the Americana, another outdoor mall in Los Angeles County, for two weeks, but they have since been reopened.

A woman wearing a face-covering walks past a boarded-up Lululemon storefront with a poster attached to it featuring a heart and "NY"

Lululemon has taken measures to protect its employees. The company contracted an epidemiologist, Howard Abrams, to help formulate extensive hourly cleaning guidelines and checklists. It also reduced store capacity based on square footage and has required employees to sign health declarations at the beginning of each shift stating they have not experienced symptoms or been exposed to COVID-19.

But with Republicans in Congress working to ensure that businesses are shielded from employee lawsuits related to the pandemic, some Lululemon staffers who spoke with BuzzFeed News said they felt these rigorous standards were impractical. An employee at one Southern California Lululemon store said their team was blamed when a staff member contracted COVID-19. “They brought up the cleaning stuff and basically shamed us,” the employee said. “They said ‘after reviewing footage of your cleaning and health and safety checklist we cannot determine whether you were totally following Dr. Abrams’ guidelines.’”

As for ensuring that employees are not symptomatic when they start their shifts, union president Appelbaum said this enforcement must go beyond signing a daily health declaration and include measures such as temperature checks. “Just signing a declaration would be like asking everyone at airport security, ‘Are you carrying any prohibited items with you?’” Appelbaum said. “Of course that’s not going to happen.”

Temperature checks are not currently a part of Lululemon’s health and safety protocols, leaving some employees to feel uncertain about who they’re working alongside. “It creates an atmosphere where you don’t want to work with your coworkers as if they’re potentially deadly,” said David Miller, an employee at Lululemon’s Grove location.

The employee at the second Southern California outdoor mall told BuzzFeed News that when they raised concerns about asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread in the store, they were told by a Lululemon senior manager that the existence of asymptomatic spread was a matter of “personal opinion,” and that the virus could not spread on surfaces if employees followed cleaning protocols set forth by Abrams. (The latest data from the CDC estimates that 40% of people diagnosed with COVID-19 in the US are asymptomatic and that the chance of those people transmitting the virus to others is 75%.)

The company’s approach to cleaning, employees said, leaves little room for human error by employees — or disregard by customers.

“The people who are out shopping right now don’t give a shit,” said an employee at Lululemon’s Americana mall location. “Anyone who is willing to go into Lululemon when you can shop online doesn’t care about social distancing or if their mask is sliding down their face. If they’re reading the news, you’d be crazy to go out, especially at the Americana.”

“All of these mandates are in a perfect world,” the employee added. “If everyone did everything as they’re supposed to, then fine, but the reason we’re so anxious is because we come across people every day who are not.”

Five people, most wearing masks, walk down an otherwise empty outdoor street at the Grove outdoor mall

For Lululemon employees who have voiced concerns about working in a customer-facing role, they told BuzzFeed News they are being left with few options. Online sales have boomed during the pandemic, staffers said, and they’re more than happy to continue working for Lululemon to fulfill internet orders. “I’m in no way asking to be paid to do nothing. I can work on online orders, phone sales, buy online, pick-up-in-stores sales,” the second Grove employee said.

Employees who are not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms are not allowed to opt out of customer-facing roles, they said, and are instead being asked to use their personal sick time to call out — or face repercussions.

The second Lululemon employee at the Grove location asked to be placed on the team answering phone calls and emails without interacting with customers but said they were denied the option. The employee was told that their options were notifying the company that they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, using vacation time and sick pay for their absence, or simply missing shifts unexcused, in which case the company would “make decisions accordingly.”

“I have no other options but to show up and expose myself,” the employee said. “I have no other option. I need my health insurance.”

In response to employee concerns, Lululemon has allowed staff at all its stores to require that customers wear masks as a condition of entry, and implemented a “virtual waitlist” so customers can check in when they arrive at the store and are notified when it is their turn to come back and shop. Since BuzzFeed News began reporting this story in July, employees have also been notified that they can apply for non-customer-facing roles, with priority given based on tenure with the company.

For some Lululemon employees, the changes are welcome — if overdue — but they’re still fearful to be in enclosed spaces with strangers for hours on end.

“The only way I’d feel safe is with a one-to-one guest ratio. Every guest is assigned an [employee] educator that walks them through the store — they point to what they want, grab items for them, we are touching everything. That is the only way we can have 100% control in the situation to uphold the standards,” Grove employee Miller said.

Nearly every Lululemon employee who spoke with BuzzFeed News also emphasized the toll that interacting with the public during a pandemic has had on their mental health, something they see as contradictory to Lululemon’s emphasis on mental well-being as a company.

“I just turn off my thinking at work. You have to compartmentalize or deny that you’re in the middle of an outbreak just to get through it,” another employee said. “It’s just a microcosm of larger issues in the country — the economy or human lives, and most people seem to be choosing the economy.”

Miller, one of the Grove employees, believes the problems at his store are reflective of bigger industry issues amid the pandemic.

“I challenge them to get involved, use their voice as a company, push for legislation to protect us,” Miller said. “This is beyond me, beyond Lululemon. It’s retail as a whole. We’re being asked to choose between our health and safety and our paychecks and health insurance.”

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