Walmart Workers Are Dying From the Coronavirus. Now They Want a Seat at the Table.

Somebody has to sanitize those carts. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

When Cyndi Murray comes home from her shifts at Walmart, she always has the same routine. “I have a little front room,” she told Intelligencer. “I get undressed and I put my clothes that I wear to work in a bag. I take them down to the basement and then I get in the shower.” This is how Murray hopes to ward off the novel coronavirus. For her family, the stakes are particularly high. She has asthma, her husband is at high risk because of his age, and her son is immunocompromised. “I’m really scared,” she added.

Murray is not alone in her fear. Mary Pat Tifft, a 32-year Walmart employee in Wisconsin, lives by herself. By her own choice, she said, she hasn’t seen her children and grandchildren in person for weeks, except for one brief respite last week: They stood in her driveway for a visit. Cat Davis, who works at a Walmart in New Bern, North Carolina, worries that she’ll bring the virus home to her 5-year-old granddaughter. “I’ve always washed my hands constantly,” Davis said. “But now I make sure I sanitize everything that I’ll be using, like my personal equipment for my job.”

The pandemic has forced new rituals on everyone. But for essential workers like Murray, individual actions can only accomplish so much. Their safety also depends on decisions made by their employer. And Walmart, they said, has moved too slowly, and too unevenly, to keep them and their co-workers safe. That refrain is familiar, and not isolated to Walmart; the same basic complaints have inspired multiple protests among workers for Amazon and other large chains and corporations. Walmart workers have been part of the pandemic protest wave, participating most recently in a sickout that affected several stores across the country. But Murray and her fellow activists believe they have a permanent solution to their problems.

Alongside Melissa Love — another member of Walmart’s hourly workforce — Murray, Tifft, and Davis have introduced themselves to Walmart investors not just as associates but as potential members of the company’s board of directors. The effort, which is backed by United for Respect, an advocacy group that supports Walmart associates and other retail workers who are not unionized, and Majority Action, which encourages shareholder activism, accompanies a proposal introduced by Murray ahead of June’s annual shareholder meeting. Modeled loosely on the NFL’s Rooney rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for open coaching positions, Proposal 7 would force Walmart to consider associates for seats on the board. “We would be able to bring to the board the things that we see inside the store,” she explained. “We would be independent. We’re not the Walton family, and we’re not their investors.”

This isn’t the first time that UFR members have floated the idea of putting associates on Walmart’s board. At last June’s meeting, Senator Bernie Sanders spoke in support of a similar floor resolution. But that resolution worked mostly as a harbinger for activism to come: It wasn’t presented to investors until the day of the meeting itself, and there was no behind-the-scenes campaign for its passage. This year’s proposal was filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission beforehand, which gave workers like Murray a chance to plead their case directly to Walmart’s investors. A joint report from UFR and the Center for Popular Democracy further outlines their case: Walmart’s current overlords waited “two, and in some cases seven weeks, before fully adopting major Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations for employers.” And on Thursday, UFR activists will rally other associates around the proposal at an alternative shareholder meeting.

Murray aired the premise of her proposal at a congressional hearing last year, and it has the support of several prominent senators. The Reward Work Act, twice introduced by Senator Tammy Baldwin and co-sponsored most recently by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand, would not only restrict corporate stock buybacks, but would also require corporations like Walmart to allow workers to elect one-third of their governing boards. If passed, the bill would give Walmart associates like Murray the opportunity they’ve been fighting for. Baldwin will join Representative Chuy Garcia, who co-sponsored the House version of the bill, for Thursday’s virtual meeting.

But workers need more than congressional support if they’re ever going to sit on Walmart’s board. They need the backing of institutional investors, too. Eli Kasargod-Staub, the executive director of Majority Action, told Intelligencer on Monday that the organizations have either engaged or confirmed votes in favor from investors “representing about $1.5 trillion in assets under management.” Most engagement, he added, targeted the owners of assets like public pension funds. That still might not be enough to pass Murray’s proposal this June. The Walton family owns half the company’s shares, which creates an obstacle for reformers; a majority of shareholders must vote for a proposal in order for it to pass. But according to Kasargod-Staub, the campaign around Proposal 7 did stir some support from institutional investors. “They are really connecting the dots between frontline-worker safety and long-term shareholder value,” he said.

For frontline workers, investors can’t have their epiphanies quickly enough. “We go to work every day. We feel like we’re actually putting themselves at risk,” Tifft said. “So it’s very important to have representation on the board by an hourly associate. I don’t really know if they realize what’s going on in the stores.”

Walmart has not released a formal count of associates who have become ill or died from COVID-19. But a tracker created by UFR has documented 805 self-reported positive cases of COVID-19 among Walmart’s 1.5 million strong U.S. workforce to date, and the organization says that 22 workers have died. The family of Wando Evans, one of two workers in the same Chicago-area Walmart to die, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company. In a new UFR/Majority Action survey of members, only 9 percent said they could consistently maintain social-distancing in stores, even after Walmart began restricting the number of customers allowed in a store at a time.

And customers don’t always respect instructions meant to keep them — and associates — safe. Stickers meant to direct foot traffic “are just a waste,” Davis said. “I think it was just eye candy for the media. To me, if they really wanted to force customers to shop one way, to keep them from clustering in the aisles, they should have made the signs eye level.”

Walmart didn’t respond to a request for comment by publication, but in a statement submitted later, spokesperson Jami Lamontagne told Intelligencer, “People working in retail are providing a critical service to this country in the midst of a historic crisis. We’ve recognized the extraordinary work of our associates are during this time by approving two special cash bonuses for all full and part-time associates and pulled forward a quarterly bonus to get more cash in their hands. In less than three months, we’ve invested nearly $1 billion in our associates. We are proud of the important work our associates are doing to ensure people have access to necessities like food, medicine and cleaning supplies.”

Though Walmart did distribute a round of bonuses in April, and has said that part-time associates will get another $150 in June, workers don’t get hourly hazard pay. Walmart also waited until March 31 to announce that it would provide protective gear to workers, well after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the wearing of masks in public. Now that masks have become a divisive political issue, Walmart associates are forced to deal with the fall out, which can become violent. As Tifft prepared to clock out of a recent shift, she encountered a customer who wasn’t wearing a mask. “He kept coming closer to me,” she remembered. When she backed up in order to stay six feet away from him, he threatened her. “He said, maybe I’ll just cough on you. And then he started coughing on me,” she said. “It was awful.” After Tifft refused to serve him, the man left.

Walmart has no control over the public at large. It can’t force states to keep responsible lockdown measures in place, and it can’t always prevent customers from becoming violent inside stores. It did take some measures to reduce crowding in stores. On its website, it says stores will allow no more than five customers per 1,000 square feet of space. But UFR members say that there’s still crowding in stores despite the restrictions. They believe the company could require customers to wear masks, and make protective gear more readily available to workers. Beyond this, associates say there are permanent reforms the company should undertake. Its byzantine paid-leave policies have long been a source of conflict between workers and management, and the pandemic only intensified hostilities. Workers can only qualify for Walmart’s new emergency paid-leave policy if they’ve tested positive for the virus. If they need time off to take care of a sick relative, or if they are worried about their own health, they can stay home, but they won’t get paid.

Of the associates who responded to UFR’s survey, 45 percent said they’d gone to work sick. Fifty-eight percent of that number cited a fear of retaliation from management as the main reason they’d decided not to stay home. Murray has taken four weeks of leave, half of it unpaid, but Tifft told Intelligencer that she’s worked straight through the pandemic. “I need to have a paycheck,” she explained. Davis said that her team at work is already understaffed, and feared that if she did take leave, there would be backlash. “I say that because I’ve had a co-worker who has taken a leave of absence and all of a sudden, after she came back, she’s not getting the hours she used to get,” she said.

Walmart’s policy decisions have consequences that can reverberate far outside its physical stores. The company is the nation’s largest private employer, a massive enterprise that turned the heirs of its founder, Sam Walton, into billionaires. In rural areas especially, Walmart might be the closest — and sometimes the only — grocery store around. If it puts associates in danger, it can put customers and entire communities in danger too. In an SEC filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, UFR and Majority Action both note that Walmart stores have been connected to several COVID-19 clusters. Officials in Worcester, Massachusetts, closed a Walmart for cleaning after 23 associates there fell ill with the virus; 81 eventually tested positive for COVID-19. A Quincy, Massachusetts, store also temporarily closed after an associate died of COVID-19. Thirty-two of her coworkers tested positive. A third store, in Aurora, Colorado, closed for precautionary deep cleaning after three people died from the virus. One was a subcontracted security guard, reported. Another was a 72-year-old associate. Her husband also contracted the virus, and later died.

Absent a company-wide union, shareholder activism is one of the sharpest tools a disgruntled Walmart associate may have at her disposal. In conjunction with direct action, like the recent sickouts, it may also be one of the best ways an associate can force the company’s business practices to change. “It’s absolutely necessary and completely insufficient. Both are true at the same time,” explained Lenore Palladino, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a fellow for the Roosevelt Institute. (In 2017, Palladino co-wrote a piece with Davis defending worker representation on corporate boards.) “Corporations are successful because of the work of multiple stakeholders, including workers,” she said.

Workers who sit on a corporation’s board of directors can’t collectively bargain for better company-wide conditions the way a union can. But they would have new influence over the way the company is run, and Palladino said that could benefit Walmart over the long term. Its institutional investors would develop a more informed perspective on a company’s most basic workings. “Most of the time those investors are not hearing directly from the workforce of a company,” Palladino said. “That’s one of the reasons why I think worker representation on boards and shareholder activism is so important. It’s not just about making things fairer and more just for workers. It’s about the resilience and long-term health of companies.”

Board membership could also lead to real institutional change. At Walmart, a board member may sit on the audit committee, which reviews company transactions and oversees its outside auditor. Or the compensation and management committee, which helps shape Walmart’s overall pay and benefit structure for executives and associates alike. As far as the average hourly worker is concerned, those decisions may as well take place in the stratosphere. The power gap between an associate and a board member is massive.

Even before the coronavirus struck, Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting was a prize opportunity for activists like Murray, Davis, and Tifft. The meetings are spectacles: Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, and Mariah Carey have all entertained shareholders in the past. But that star power co-exists uneasily with the darker realities of Walmart’s business model. If associates can puncture Walmart’s careful corporate glamour, they can — in theory — reveal its true face to the world. Walmart itself gives them the chance to try. Associates can purchase shares in Walmart through the company’s stock program for employees, and if they have held $2,000 for longer than a year, they can file a resolution on the proxy, which functions like a ballot for shareholders. And they can have their say at the annual meeting. Associates have used the meetings to raise concerns about low wages, sexual harassment, and pregnancy discrimination. Davis herself castigated Walmart for its paid-leave policies in front of shareholders in 2017. The same year, UFR member Janie Grice called on Walmart to release a company-wide racial breakdown of which associates get full-time hours, and which do not. In 2018, associates introduced a proposal that would have required the company to match contributions to its associate stock program with those it makes to its shareholder buyback program, dollar for dollar.

But shareholders rejected each proposal. Walmart opposed them all too, just as it opposes Murray’s proposal this year, and has taken steps that UFR characterizes as attempts to limit the opportunity for public dissent at its annual meetings. Nevertheless, the public pressure ginned up by activists has resulted in some change. The company did raise wages to $11 an hour. But the pace of change can be slow. On the phone with Intelligencer, Tifft expressed frustration with the company’s intransigence. “We don’t expect to get a million dollars, but I think that the percentage should be a little bit higher. I mean, if Walmart’s making money, then I think that the people that are making them the money are the ones that should be compensated,” she said.

“Without retail workers, people wouldn’t eat,” Murray said. “People wouldn’t have clothes on their back. You think about it. We’re the ones who put all this merchandise out and keep it going. That’s why it’s so important for workers to be on the board.”

This piece has been updated to clarify details of United for Respect’s mission and Majority Action’s work.

As the Pandemic Rages, Walmart Workers Bid for Power