Workers Are Trying To Prevent A Deadly COVID-19 Disaster

Photo: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Walmart workers had warned for weeks that someone like Wando Evans could die. Before the 51-year-old stocker succumbed to COVID-19, activists in the company workforce had repeatedly tried to raise the alarm. Through United for Respect, a national advocacy group, they said the company’s emergency sick-leave policy was inadequate and late, announced after a Kentucky worker had already fallen ill. They needed protective gear in all stores. They needed comprehensive health insurance. They needed better sanitization at work. They needed better paid-leave policies, and they needed it all now, before more people got sick. “There are over 1.5 million workers at Walmart who are trying to get ahead. But they have nowhere to turn during this crisis,” activist and part-time Walmart worker Melissa Love wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times.

Walmart executives eventually conceded a few points — though not on the subject of paid leave. On March 31, the company’s spokesperson, Dan Bartlett, told CNN that Walmart would purchase 7 million masks for its workers; anyone who already owned protective gear could wear it if they chose. There’d be temperature checks for workers, who would be told to stay home if they had fevers.

But Wando Evans was already dead by then. So was Phillip Thomas, who worked for the same Chicago-area store. And according to a wrongful-death suit filed by the Evans family this week, Walmart could have done more to prevent their deaths. Evans, a 15-year Walmart employee, told his manager he had COVID symptoms two weeks before he died. He was ignored, the suit claims, until March 23, when managers finally sent him home. Two days later, he was dead. The suit also blames Walmart for failing both to enforce social distancing in stores and to provide protective gear to workers. The company may have even set itself up for further deaths. An attorney for the Evans family told ABC News that the store didn’t tell his co-workers he had symptoms of the virus until after he died.

There are others. Some were sanitation workers and others drove buses. One was a Giant store greeter in Maryland; another, a UPS worker in Kentucky. Week by week, the coronavirus is killing America’s essential laborers. Others, sensing danger, are staging protests. The fight to prevent the nation’s next major workplace tragedy is here.

Work has always been deadly for some people, even before the onset of COVID-19. Employers who want to flout safety regulations often do, and the consequences can be fatal. In West Virginia, survivors marked the tenth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster just this week. Twenty-nine coal miners were killed in an explosion that the United Mine Workers of America would later call an act of “industrial homicide.” They were betrayed to death, victims of a conspiracy within the erstwhile Massey Energy Company to skirt safety regulations designed to keep people alive. (Massey was purchased by Alpha Natural Resources a year later; Alpha merged with Contura Energy in 2018.) Massey’s former CEO, Don Blankenship, served a scant year in federal prison for his role in the scheme, but not before retiring in a $12 million deal.

The pandemic might not erupt in a single disruptive event, like the Upper Big Branch explosion or even the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. (CUNY professor Dave Unger first noted the parallel to Triangle last week, in a piece I missed while dealing with what turned out to be my own probable case of COVID.) The women who worked for Triangle burned to death in public, and explosions are difficult for even coal barons to hide. Evans died at home, away from the eyes of the world. The effects of the novel coronavirus may be less immediately visible than other established workplace risks like fire, but the threat is real, and it grows by the week. Employer negligence may become as deadly for workers in grocery stores and warehouses as it is for miners; as it was for factory workers over a century ago. Protective gear, hazard pay, and sick leave won’t entirely remove the threat of infection, but the consequences of employer inaction are nothing more minor than life or death. Workers know it, and their protests are spreading.

On Thursday, workers at 30 California-based fast-food restaurants went on strike, demanding basic protective gear, soap, and hazard pay from Burger King, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and others. Two other McDonald’s locations in the state had already gone on strike the previous week, an indication that slow and inadequate corporate responses may be fodder for a nascent strike wave. Some Instacart workers are still on strike. Walmart workers in North Carolina joined workers from Food Lion, Family Dollar, and McDonald’s for a digital protest in late March, and workers for Shipt, Target’s delivery-service app, held a walkout on April 7.

Meanwhile, Amazon is boiling. The nation’s second-largest employer may have undermined its own anti-union campaign by bungling its response to the coronavirus. When workers demanded protective equipment, better sick leave, and the shutdown and sanitization of facilities after someone tests positive for the virus, Amazon responded with measures that activists have described as belated and piecemeal. When workers began to protest, Amazon appeared not only aloof but punitive. It fired warehouse worker Chris Smalls hours after he led a demonstration at a warehouse on Staten Island — which didn’t exactly quell further outbursts. Neither did the revelation, published by Vice, that Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky, announced to a meeting of company executives that Smalls was “not smart, or articulate.” Walkouts continue, and Amazon executives now face pressure from above as well as from below. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is investigating conditions in a Pennsylvania warehouse after employees complained that the e-commerce giant wasn’t doing enough to protect them from the coronavirus, and the firing of Smalls is under investigation by New York attorney general Letitia James.

But workers say corporations are still cutting corners. United for Respect told members of the press on Thursday that activists “called out” rather than report to work at a New Orleans Walmart “after learning that there was an active COVID-19 case not being handled appropriately.” On a Thursday press call organized by members of the Athena Coalition, an advocacy campaign that says its mission is to hold Amazon to account, warehouse workers said they still don’t have enough masks, that social distancing is still impossible at work, and that anyone who registers a fever on the job but does not later test positive for COVID gets only five hours of guaranteed paid time off. Under those conditions, employers give workers no choice but to protest. Losing a job is preferable to death.

“The scientific nature of the ordinary man,” the late John Prine sang, “is to go on out and do the best you can.” Maybe to some bosses, that quality makes a man look like a mark. A person with rent to pay or children to feed might suffer a great deal before he cries foul. But tenacity is a weapon, too. American employers are about to find out precisely how sharp it can be.

Protesting Workers Are Trying To Save Lives