Maya Smith works as a cashier at a Walmart in New Orleans. She is 21 years old, the breadwinner in her household, and she just walked out in protest of her workplace conditions.
Maya needs the paycheck to support herself and her family, but she worried she was putting her life and loved ones at risk every time she went to work.
“We’re just open. We interact with everyone. We touch everything," she said. "It’s really unsafe and unsanitary to be working in those conditions, knowing what’s going on.”
Last week, the stakes were raised even more when one of Maya’s co-workers tested positive for coronavirus. According to Maya, her supervisors did little to ensure that others didn’t become infected. They did not disclose the name of their sick coworker or provide any testing to those that came into contact with them. And, she said, several workers were sent home without pay for wearing masks.
“Our managers told us to be safe and stay healthy,” she said, “but they still didn’t allow us to wear masks and gloves.”
Responding to questions from New Orleans Public Radio, Walmart’s corporate office said the company is trying to provide masks and gloves to employees, but admitted that the effort has been slow in reaching stores across the U.S.
In the meantime, Walmart is not allowing cashiers to wear protective gear from home, Maya said, or supplying them with sufficient cleaning products.
“My manager said customers saw our masks and kept asking if we were sick, so they banned us from wearing them in the store,” she said.
Two Walmart employees in Illinois, Philip Thomas and Wando Evans, died last week from COVID-19, and their family members say the store is to blame. When Maya heard news of the deaths on Monday, she decided to walk out.
“Before I left, I said I might stop coming because we’re risking our health to come to work. And they’re not even worrying about the safety of us if we get sick. All they care about is if we clock in and clock out.”
Walmart would neither confirm nor deny any coronavirus cases at Maya’s store, but hours after our inquiry, the retailer announced the closure of that location and two others in the area for a “deep clean.” This response comes more than a week after the case was first reported, Maya said. She wonders how many of her coworkers and customers have become infected since then.
“It doesn’t even make sense, because the virus takes two to 14 days for you to even notice if you have any symptoms or not. And by then it’ll be too late.”
Angela McMiller, sister of the late Walmart worker Phillip Thomas, said Walmart didn’t even disclose to its employees that her brother had coronavirus. McMiller said Walmart never called when Thomas did not show up for work, or report his death to coworkers.
“To my brother, Walmart was family. But to Walmart, my brother was just a number,” McMiller said. “They didn’t follow up on him. No one knew he was sick until I called.”
Hundreds of Walmart employees have expressed concerns about hazardous workplace conditions, said Bianca Augustin, a researcher for the labor advocacy group United for Respect.
“We have heard from stores across the country that Walmart has not been doing enough to make associates feel safe,” she said.
One of those employees is Jennifer Suggs, who works as a Walmart cashier in South Carolina. Suggs said she’s seeing way more activity in the stores now than before the pandemic, and that social distancing markers are just for show. Currently, she said, she’s selling $11,000 worth of merchandise per day.
“Walmart’s profit margins matter more than us. We’re not essential. We’re sacrificial. I will be replaced if I die from this. I don’t have a mask or gloves. The only thing I have is a stupid blue vest.”
Zach A., who works in the pharmacy at a Walmart location in the Midwest and didn't disclose his last name for privacy purposes, said his boss made him sign a liability waiver saying that if he got sick or died from coronavirus, he was at fault and, therefore, could not sue the store.
“I signed the waiver,” he said. “But I don’t agree with it.”
At the end of March, Walmart announced new safety measures in response to the pandemic, including imposing a limit of five shoppers per 1,000 square feet of space — or 900 total — at any given time. Augustin said there’s no way to enforce social distancing when dealing with that volume of people.
Additionally, Walmart is now offering paid sick leave to those that test positive for coronavirus. But that policy doesn’t encourage workers who may be infected to stay home, Augustin said.
“The concerns that have been raised are having store managers disclose that someone is sick and not providing the associates who may have come into contact with that person any added protection or days off,” she said.
Low-wage essential workers across industries — from grocery store employees to bus drivers and delivery workers — find themselves in a similar situation to Walmart workers. They cannot work from home and aren't afforded the health precautions that the CDC is advising Americans to take. And the majority of those workers are people of color, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. Walmart, for example, is the largest employer of African Americans and Latinx workers in the country.
Dr. Rebekah Gee, the former Louisiana health chief, said that’s one of the reasons a disproportionate number of low-income people and people of color are dying from COVID-19.
“Individuals who have these jobs don’t have the ability to make choices that individuals with more resources can,” she said. “And it is unacceptable that there hasn’t been quicker movement to protect our essential workers. We need a plan, and for some people this could be the difference between life and death.”
Gee said there need to be top-down measures like standardized safety protocols to ensure that workers on the frontline aren’t sitting ducks.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the largest food union in the U.S., is fighting to get its members designated as first responders to guarantee that they’re supplied with necessary personal protective equipment.
And, for her part, Maya has teamed up with Walmart workers around the country, including Jennifer Suggs and Zach A., to demand that Walmart offer hazard pay, paid sick leave, healthcare and protective gear for all employees. She’s afraid that she’s going to be fired for staying home until these changes are made. But, she says, it’s unfair that the people who need the most protection are getting the least.
Update, 12:30 p.m. April 10: Charles Crowson, Walmart’s senior manager of corporate communications, told New Orleans Pubic Radio that Walmart employees are being given screening questionnaires, temperature checks and masks at all locations as of today. Citing HIPAA, he said the retailer would not disclose any information to the public on coronavirus cases in their stores. When asked whether employees were being notified about sick coworkers, Crowson said, “We have policies for the protection of our associates,” but declined to share specific policy information, citing legal reasons. He also declined to comment on questions about liability waivers.
This story has been updated throughout, as additional workers have spoken to New Orleans Public Radio. Additional updates were made to protect the the privacy of sources.
Want to take a breather and catch up later? Sign up for our New Orleans Public Radio newsletter and we'll send you a news roundup at the end of each week.
Or, if you're in Baton Rouge, sign up for WRKF's weekly newsletter.
We can't do this without you. Your support is vital for the news you rely on and the programming you love. If you can't imagine New Orleans without New Orleans Public Radio, please donate today. And if you can't imagine Baton Rouge without WRKF, donate here.