Mendy Hughes, a cashier at Walmart in central Arkansas, says she has worked throughout the pandemic despite low pay and unsafe working conditions. Now she has a request for the company that has employed her for more than a decade: She wants an extra $5 per hour in hazard pay until COVID-19 is no longer a threat to herself, a diabetic, or her young son, who has asthma.
"We can get the virus at any time," Hughes told Cheddar. "I've had customers come through my line and say 'I'm positive.' I mean, what are they doing at the store when they're supposed to be at home? They're supposed to be in quarantine and they're at Walmart."
Rather than offer hazard pay, Walmart gave four one-time bonuses of $300 for full-time employees and $150 for part-time employees. Hughes said she's gotten all four, which equals roughly 71 cents per hour extra on a full-time schedule, according to an analysis from United for Respect, a national nonprofit seeking to organize non-union retail workers.
The threat Hughes faces daily is hard to quantify. Unlike Amazon, which revealed the number of cases at its facilities after significant public pressure, Walmart has kept that number under wraps. Hughes believes several employees are currently out due to COVID, but it's hard to know for sure given the lack of any official notifications. In most cases, co-workers simply stop showing up.
"We're not told when people have the virus," she said. "We have to find out through other people. Some of them just haven't been here in a while, and they usually don't miss work. Then you find out from someone else that they're out because of the virus."
While companies generally don't name individual employees who have contracted COVID for legal reasons, many notify employees when there is a case in the store or even reach out directly to those who may have been in contact with the infected.
Without these protocols, employees are left guessing.
"I just wear my mask and try to wash my hands. It's all I can do," Hughes said.
When you look across the landscape of U.S. retailers, safety protocols and compensation vary widely from state-to-state, store-to-store. While major big-box stores have thrived during the pandemic, workers have faced a sometimes chaotic work life, which has only gotten worse with the holidays and a second wave of COVID that's quietly proving more devastating than the first.
Amid this uncertainty, workers like Hughes have spoken out, despite the risk to their jobs, to demand more from their employers. Cheddar spoke with a handful of these budding employee activists as they prepared for retail's busiest season.
'People are Frustrated'
Adam Ryan works as a closing expert at Target in rural
Christiansburg, Virginia. The position basically means he's a jack-of-all-trades for Target, where he shuffles between home decor, bedding, and other departments as needed.
This, and Ryan's role as an unofficial employee organizer, gives him a big-picture view of the store's COVID response, which he said has been lacking since the start of the pandemic.
"All of the safety measures are very superficial and performative to give people the impression that the company is doing something, but in reality I think they're doing the least they possibly could to keep us safe," he said.
Early in the pandemic, Ryan was involved in pushing Target to require masks, which initially were optional for both employees and customers. Since then, the store has mandated mask-wearing, but it has not always enforced this for customers. Ryan said about a quarter still don't wear masks in the store.
As for social distancing, there are occasional reminders over the loudspeaker, but measures such as metering foot traffic or spacing lines have long since fallen by the wayside, even as the holiday rush has led to a fresh surge in customers.
"Generally people are frustrated," Ryan said of his colleagues. "People are frustrated with the way customers behave. As much as we've been touted as essential workers or even heroes, none of us really feel that. It just feels like the same-old, same-old."
The lack of adequate pay has added insult to injury, he said. Since March, employees have gotten just two one-time $200 bonuses. Over the same period, Target reported a 20 percent increase in sales in the third quarter of 2020 and shares hit an all-time high.
A spokesperson for Target said the company has distributed four $200 "recognition bonuses to its frontline team members." They also noted that from March 20 to July 4, "all store and distribution center hourly full-time and part-time team members received a $2 temporary wage increase."
Yet for some Target workers, unemployment still looked like a better deal.
"A lot of folks are resentful of the fact that those who are unemployed got $600 a week while those of us who have been working through this whole thing have never been able to accumulate that amount of money on a weekly basis," he said.
Culture of Amazon
For Courtenay Brown, a process assistant at an Amazon warehouse in Avondale, New Jersey, the holiday rush is pushing her workplace to the brink.
"It's chaos," she said. "Before it was chaos, but it was a little bit more controlled because there wasn't much going on."
The holiday rush and second outbreak have combined to put massive pressure on the already overworked staff. Brown said she gets messages every other day about a new COVID case at the facility, a pattern that has held since at least October.
"We had cases when the pandemic first started, but it wasn't as bad as now," Brown said.
She blames, in part, the rapid turnover among staff. As Amazon has stated publicly, the e-commerce giant is in the middle of an unprecedented hiring spree to keep up with customer demand and build out its nation-spanning network of fulfillment centers.
At the Avondale warehouse, Brown said, it's "literally a revolving door," and those who do stick around are stuck in "mandatory overtime."
"The culture of Amazon is always 'let's go, let's go, let's go' as much as you can, regardless of whether you're going to get hurt or not," she said. "They say it's not, but everything that happens on the inside says otherwise."
The situation at work has spilled over into Brown's holiday planning. She said she hadn't done any Christmas shopping as of last week and had only halfway decorated her house. In all likelihood, she said, everyone will be getting gift cards across the board.
"It's the easiest thing to do because I don't have the time. The rest of the world, if you don't work at Amazon, enjoy your holidays. As for those of us at Amazon, we're not able to enjoy the holidays."
As for Christmas Day itself, she's planning to hang back. Her mother, a type-4 diabetic, wanted both her and her sister, who also works at the Amazon facility, to come over for the day, but Brown refused, saying it's "too dangerous."
"I'd rather be safe than sorry," she said. "We all have iPhones, so we can FaceTime."
Back in Arkansas, Hughes is keeping it simple this year with a small gathering at her mother's house. However, she plans to keep her mask on except for when she's eating, and then she'll make sure to social-distance from her family members.
"There's only like five of us," she said. "We're off Christmas Day, so I'll just go down there and come back in one day."