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As businesses have shuttered around the US, Office Depot has kept thousands of employees in stores, bringing them face-to-face with customers who the company says need access to toilet paper, cleaning products, and equipment to work from home.
In reality, employees told BuzzFeed News, stores can’t keep household essentials stocked on shelves, and some customers are coming in just to browse. With limited access to supplies to sanitize stores and no masks or gloves, employees fear they’re putting their health at risk to provide a service that’s far from essential: ringing up a box of pens, desk accessories, or other trivial items.
“Everything that corporate said that makes us essential we have been either completely sold out of for more than two weeks or we’ve been getting like maybe one or two of these items on the truck and selling out of those within 15 minutes,” a store employee in Michigan said.
As officials in more than 30 states order people to stay home and nonessential businesses to close to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, the office supply company has argued that it provides goods and services that help keep essential businesses running. In general, officials have agreed, but at least one state, Pennsylvania, has specifically ordered office stores to close.
As of Thursday, BuzzFeed News called multiple Office Depot locations in the state and found they were still open for business. One employee said he was frustrated that his bosses were ignoring the law.
“They were very clearly outlined by the state as not being a life-sustaining business and to go against that and be like, ‘Oh sure we are. We have some water and hand sanitizer occasionally when we get it in,’ is — I don't know it just seems like they’re flouting the legal definition of what was established,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Office Depot did not immediately respond to questions. A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Governor's Office said anyone who believes a business is violating the order to close should contact law enforcement.
"All non-life-sustaining businesses in Pennsylvania should be closed if they do not have an exemption from the commonwealth," the spokesperson said. "Failure to comply with these requirements will result in enforcement action that could include citations, fines, or license suspensions."
Legal definitions aside, more than 20 employees in 13 states said they don’t think they’re providing essential services and worry they are only contributing to the spread of COVID-19 by going to work — putting themselves and their loved ones at risk of getting sick. The employees spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity because they feared getting fired.
“I'm dealing with 50+ customers a day, and handling their stuff. I don't know where they've been or who they've been around. I don't know if they're sick and if they're passing something onto me that I can potentially pass onto someone else,” an employee said in an email to BuzzFeed News. “I'm risking my health, the health of my family, and customers [sic] health every day.”
And, like workers at Costco, CVS, Amazon, Starbucks, and other major retail stores, associates and managers at Office Depot, which also operates Office Max stores, said the company isn’t doing enough to protect them from being exposed to the virus. They’re still coming into close contact with customers who ignore social distancing guidelines and insist that employees handle their personal devices for repairs and copies. They said they’re told by corporate that they’re not allowed to wear masks or gloves, though some are wearing them anyway, and the company has not provided adequate cleaning supplies for them to properly sanitize the stores.
“A lot of people will say retail workers are expendable because like, to most companies, people are expendable, but it's never just been so apparent in your face every day at work,” another employee in Texas said.
While some employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News have been calling out of work, most said they can’t afford to stay home because they don’t have any paid time off or paid sick leave. The company has said in communications reviewed by BuzzFeed News that employees will be excused from work if they have any concerns about COVID-19, but some said they’ve been told otherwise.
A manager in Oklahoma said he was pressured into coming in to work on a reduced schedule after requesting to use his PTO to stay home. He was concerned he could bring the virus home and expose his mom — who could then expose his elderly grandparents.
“My mom is one of the sole caregivers for them, so it’s really important I can’t let her or them get sick,” he said.
Despite the company’s written guidance, another manager in St. Louis said anyone who is refusing to work during the pandemic is supposed to be reported to human resources. She added she is trying her best “to make sure no one is having to come in sick,” but she is not allowed to require that her staff stay home.
Another now-former employee at a store in Canton, Ohio, told BuzzFeed News her store manager told her she had to resign last week if she didn’t come into work.
“I was like, ‘I can’t continue to keep putting my family in danger ... so she was like, ‘So you're resigning then?’ And I was like, ‘I guess so,’” said the former employee, who lives with her grandmother, who is in her seventies, and other extended family. “I gave her ... the lock for my locker and my name tag, and that was it.”
When it came down to it, she said she couldn't bear the thought of possibly getting her family sick and dealing with the guilt of that even though she has medical bills, a phone bill, and other expenses to pay.
“I have to pick and choose what I pay and hope for the best,” she said.
Health officials agree the best way to prevent the spread of the disease is for people to stay home as much as possible and to keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others when out in public.
But orders and guidance issued by state officials on the closure of nonessential businesses have been somewhat vague. For example, California’s list of essential workers does not specifically mention office supply retail stores, but a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Public Health told BuzzFeed News that Office Depot is considered an essential commercial retail business because its stores “supply essential sectors.”
In documentation the company sent to employees, Office Depot claimed it provides “necessary products and services to essential businesses, critical infrastructure industries, and other customers” because it sells household products and equipment, like laptops, phones, and printers. The company said it also provides necessary tech and shipping services that support an at-home workforce, the remote learning educational community, and other essential businesses.
But employees said they’re constantly out of stock of cleaning supplies and other items, like webcams, monitors, and headsets that people may use to work from home, and are seeing customers who come in to the store to buy nonessential items or just browse.
“We’re getting a bunch of people who are kind of just bored shopping,” an employee in Texas said in an email, adding that most of their store’s sales have been furniture.
In a March 27 letter to customers, Office Depot outlined a number of measures the company was taking in its stores to ensure employee and customer safety, including providing curbside pickup at most locations, reducing the hours stores are open, limiting store occupancy to no more than 25 people, and “enabling a six-foot distance requirement” for employees and customers.
Employees say it’s not enough, noting that many customers are still choosing to come inside rather than order online and pick up items at the curb. They also said they have been unable to enforce the 25-person limit and distancing requirements.
“It’s just words on paper just to prove that they wrote something down and said, ‘Oh no we gave the orders out, we gave the protocols and the guidelines — we laid everything out for them,’” the manager in Oklahoma said.
Employees said they want the company to offer them paid sick leave and hazard pay or a raise for continuing to work under these conditions, provide personal protective equipment and more adequate cleaning supplies to disinfect the stores, and switch operations to only curbside pickup orders, like Best Buy has done, or close the physical stores altogether.
“Any time the company sends like a message or an email, it just kind of seems like a slap in the face like, ‘Oh we’re so happy that you're risking your health and safety for us,’” a Texas employee said. “It feels like they don't care about us.”