Long lines at the checkout. Closed changing rooms. Empty shelves. Shortened shop opening times.
Plus the fear of catching the coronavirus and another season of skirmishes with customers who refuse to wear masks.
An exhausted retail workforce is experiencing the effects of the recent wave of pandemics, with a rapidly spreading variant cutting staffing levels.
While data shows that people infected with the Omicron variant are hospitalized much less often than people with the Delta variant, especially if they are vaccinated, many store workers are grappling with new increases in disease and exposure rates and struggle with changing policies on isolation and juggling childcare. At the same time, retailers generally are not extending hazard reimbursement as they did earlier in the pandemic and have been reluctant to issue vaccine or test mandates.
“We had reached a point here where we were comfortable, it wasn’t that bad, and then suddenly this new variant came along and everyone got sick,” says Artavia Milliam, who works at H&M in Hudson Yards in Manhattan. which is popular with tourists. “It was overwhelming to only have to deal with too few staff and then twice as many people in the store.”
Ms. Milliam, a member of the retail, wholesale and department store union, is vaccinated but contracted the virus while on vacation and has mild symptoms. She said that fewer people were working at the cash register and organizing clothes, and that her shop closed the dressing rooms in the morning because no one was there to monitor her.
Macy’s announced last week that it would cut store hours from Monday to Thursday across the country for the remainder of the month. At least 20 Apple stores have had to close in the past few weeks because so many employees have been infected with Covid-19 or have been exposed to someone who has it, and others have shortened opening hours or restricted access to the store.
At a Macy’s in Lynnwood, Wash., Liisa Luick, a longtime sales representative in the men’s department, said, “We have misses every day, and lots of it.” She said the store had already cut staff in 2020 to save costs. Now she often cannot take breaks and has complained from customers about a lack of sales aids and unoccupied checkouts.
“Morale couldn’t be lower,” said Ms. Luick, who is an administrator for the local unit for the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Although Washington has a mask mandate for indoor public spaces, “we get a lot of resistance so morale is even lower because there are so many people who, as it can not be easily said, just don’t believe in masking,” she added.
Store workers navigate the changing nature of the virus and try their best to assess new risks. Many say that with vaccinations and booster shots, they’re less afraid for their lives than they were in 2020 – the United Food and Commercial Workers union has tracked more than 200 retail worker deaths since the pandemic began – but they remain nervous about the contagion and spread of the virus.
At a stop and shop in Oyster Bay, NY, Wally Waugh, a front-end manager, said the checkout lines are getting longer and grocery shelves are not replenishing on time because so many people call in sick with their own positive tests or those of Family members.
This has forced the remaining employees to work more hours. But even with overtime pay, many of his colleagues don’t want to stay in the store longer than they have to. Mr Waugh has started taking off his work clothes in his garage and immediately putting them to the laundry before entering his house – a routine he hadn’t followed since the early days of the pandemic.
“People aren’t as nervous as they were when Covid started,” said Waugh, an administrator for the retail, wholesale and department store union. “But we are seriously concerned.”
At a QFC grocery store in Seattle, Sam Dancy, a front-end supervisor, said many coworkers called in sick. The store, which is part of a Kroger chain, has closed prematurely several times and customers are helping with packing their own groceries. There are long lines and some of the self-checkout counters are closed because staff are not available to supervise them.
“Some people are so tired of what is going on – some are exposed and some use it as an excuse not to have to work to face these circumstances,” said Mr Dancy, a member of the local food and trade union commercial worker who has worked in the chain for 30 years. “I’m scared until I come home and think, ‘Do I have that or not?’ It’s a mental thing that many of us have to endure. “
The shift in isolation policies is also causing confusion in many stores. While H&M has directed employees like Ms. Milliam to isolate themselves for 14 days after a positive Covid-19 test, Macy’s said in a memo to employees last week that it would adopt new guidelines from the centers for disease control and prevention who recommend shortening isolation for infected individuals to five days out of 10 when they are asymptomatic or their symptoms resolve.
But even if retailers reduce isolation times, schools and daycare centers can have longer quarantine times for exposed families, which puts working parents in a bind.
Jan. 11, 2022, 6:15 p.m. ET
Macy’s Ms. Luick said she felt the guide was aimed at “constantly trying to get people to work,” and she didn’t feel safer.
Although Omicron is spreading faster than other varieties, employers have shown unwillingness to reintroduce previous precautionary measures or raise wages, said Kevin Schneider, treasurer of a United Food and Commercial Workers unit in the Denver area.
Like many retailers, Kroger has not made any dangerous goods payments nationwide since the early stages of the pandemic, despite the union negotiating their reinstatement. The chain has also stopped measures such as controlling how many customers are allowed in stores at the same time. The union is calling for armed guards at all of its branches in the Denver area as incidents of violence increase.
“The company says it will provide workers with a safe environment in which to do their work,” said Mr. Schneider. “We don’t think so.”
In a statement, a Kroger spokeswoman said: “We have been managing the Covid-19 pandemic for almost two years, and in line with our values, the safety of our employees and customers remains our top priority.”
The company added that every frontline employee received up to $ 1,760 in extra salary to “reward and recognize them for their efforts during the pandemic.”
Some workers have reached another breaking point. In Jacksonville, Florida, an Apple Store employee staged a brief strike on Christmas Eve to protest labor conditions after witnessing a customer spit on his coworker. Dozens of people in other stores also attended.
“That was my last straw,” said Daryl Sherman II, who organized the strike. “Something had to be done.”
In some cases the municipalities have intervened to get workers to pay for dangerous goods. In Seattle, Kroger had to pay an additional $ 4 an hour to grocery store employees like Mr. Dancy due to local law.
In general, staff shortages have shed new light on a potential vaccine or testing mandate from the Biden government that large retailers have resisted. The fear of losing employees seems to be great right now.
While retail initially led the Christmas rush for opposition to such rules, more recently it has drawn attention to the burden of testing unvaccinated workers. Following oral arguments in the case on Friday, the Conservative majority in the Supreme Court expressed skepticism about the legal power of the Biden government to require large employers to require workers to be vaccinated.
The National Retail Federation, a major industry lobby group, said in a statement last week that it “continues to believe that OSHA has exceeded its authority in proclaiming its vaccine mandate.” The group estimated that the order would require 20 million tests per week nationwide, based on external data on unvaccinated workers, and that “such testing capacity is not currently available”.
When the top executives of Mr. Waugh’s Stop & Shop business began asking employees if they were vaccinated in preparation for the upcoming federal vaccination regulations, many expressed concern about the request to disclose this information.
“It was worrying to see so many people in despair,” he said, although all staff adhered to it.
Ms. Luick of Macy’s near Seattle said she has worked with several vocal opponents of the Covid-19 vaccines and believed that at least some of her colleagues would step down if asked to provide vaccination status or evidence of negative tests .
Still, Macy’s was one of the big employers who started asking their employees about their vaccination status last week before the Supreme Court hearing on Friday, saying that evidence of negative tests may be required as of February 16.
“Our primary focus at this stage is preparing our members for a potential mandate to ensure they have the information and tools they need to manage their workforce and meet the needs of their customers,” said Brian Dodge , President of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which includes companies like Macy’s, Target, Home Depot, Gap, and Walmart.
As seasonal Covid-19 increases become the norm, unions and companies are looking for consistent guidelines. Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for the Northern California Food and Commerce Workers Union, said the retail industry needs to provide more sustainable support to sick workers.
For example, a trust fund jointly managed by the union and several employers could no longer offer Covid-related sick days for union members.
“We have to start treating this as endemic,” said Mr Araby. “And find out which structural problems we have to bring up in order to deal with them.”
Kellen Browning contributed to the coverage.