Retail Workers Seek Vaccine Access, Citing Safety Concerns

As the U.S. vaccine rollout makes choppy progress, a group of retail employees at Walmart Inc., Amazon Inc. and other retailers said their employers and government agencies should prioritize them to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The workers, who said their jobs have kept them close to coworkers and customers throughout the pandemic, called for the retailers to facilitate vaccinations for employees by providing them with free vaccines at work, offering $500 cash incentives, as well as additional paid time off to receive doses of the vaccines.

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The workers, who are members of the worker advocacy group United for Respect, have also continued to push for the “Five to Survive” platform they launched in November, which included calls for at least an additional $5-an-hour hazard pay and stronger sick leave protections during the pandemic.

“We are the ones who are interacting with the public every day, we are at risk for getting the virus and spreading it, and this needs to be fixed now,” Drew Board, a Walmart worker in Salisbury, N.C., said on a United for Respect conference call Wednesday. Essential workers in the state were still not being prioritized to receive the vaccine, he pointed out.

Walmart has teamed up with federal and state government agencies to arrange to dispense COVID-19 vaccinations at its locations, but has said while it is “strongly encouraging” its employees to get vaccinated, it is not requiring them to do so or offering incentives, according to a web post in January by Cheryl Pegus, the retailer’s executive vice president of health and wellness.

Walmart has said it will make the vaccine “free and accessible to our more than 1.5 million U.S. associates,” and it is preparing its more than 5,000 pharmacies to administer the vaccines to customers. The retailer “will offer the vaccine to associates when it is available, and they are eligible,” according to the company, which has said it is also providing three days paid leave for employees to recover from any side effects of vaccinations.

The issue of whether employers can require their employees to be vaccinated is subject to some legal debate in a number of industries globally. Meanwhile, the administration of President Joe Biden has sought to speed up the pace of vaccinations across the country as supply significantly lags behind demand, a difficulty in part that’s a result of the Trump administration’s decision to leave vaccinations to state and local agencies rather than coordinating it at the federal level. The patchwork approach has led to differences in vaccine eligibility based on factors including age, geography, line of work and underlying conditions. Many states have prioritized vaccinations for older residents and health care workers.

“Vaccine prioritization is set individually by each state, and Walmart has no influence on prioritization,” Walmart said.

On Wednesday, the workers also said they want retailers to provide staff with N95 masks to guard against the spread of more contagious strains of COVID-19 that are spreading in the U.S. and elsewhere. The current guidance by official health agencies in the U.S. is still to limit the use of N95 to health care workers, amid shortages in protective gear as the virus persists. On Tuesday alone there were 110,679 new COVID-19 cases and some 3,389 deaths in the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins University tally. Overall to date, there have been more than 26.4 million confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. and some 446,744 deaths in the country, according to the tally.

For retail workers, the pandemic has also meant a substantial increase in workload without a corresponding wage raise or additional hazard pay, contended Board, the Walmart worker.

Board, whose work involves servicing online pickup and delivery orders, said the increased demand for those services during the pandemic has meant going from filling roughly 60 to 90 orders a day a year ago to roughly 170 to 200 orders a day now. In addition to meeting the increased demand of online orders, Board related encounters with irate, unmasked customers that he said he feared would expose him to the virus. He said he had raised such concerns to management.

“It just seems like they’re scared of everybody…they don’t want to offend any of their customers,” he said. “And they just want to keep everything as calm as they can, but it doesn’t really work.”

Allegra Brown, an Amazon Fresh worker from Newark, N.J., described working conditions that included 11-hour shifts and constant monitoring of productivity, an atmosphere of fast-paced physical work and proximity to coworkers that she said put workers at risk.

“People are constantly getting sick, and we are just constantly being overworked, and we are all extremely tired,” Brown said.

A representative for Amazon could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But the company has previously said it has implemented social distancing measures at its warehouses, and rolled out COVID-19 testing at its facilities.

Over the past year Walmart has distributed “incentive payouts” and “special cash bonuses” to its workers totaling roughly $2.8 billion, though United for Respect has said its calculations indicate those bonus payments amount to an average of $19 a week in additional pay for part-time associates, and $37 a week for full-time workers.

When the pandemic began last year, Amazon had temporarily offered a hazard pay of $2-an-hour, but the retailer halted that additional pay last summer. Target Corp. had implemented what ended up being a permanent $2-an-hour wage increase to $15-an-hour.

Overall, United for Respect said the workers’ “Five to Survive” platform has yet to receive serious engagement from retailers on calls for consistent hazard pay and more rigorous safety measures that match the reality of workers’ experiences on the job.

“They have been very unresponsive to the demands and requests of workers to correct deficiencies in the workplace,” said Bianca Agustin, research director at United for Respect, referring to the retail employers generally. “We have released our ‘Five to Survive’ petition, and we have communicated the issues contained in that platform to the employers at stores across the country, and have not seen decisive action on the part of these employers.”

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