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Deaths of Walmart Workers Intensify Demands for Real Protections and Paid Time Off in Face of Pandemic

New York, NY – Walmart associates are calling on the mega-company to start providing protective equipment and enforce social distancing in its 5,000 stores nationwide, after associates Philip Thomas and Wanda Evans both perished after contracting the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Frontline Walmart workers across the nation are demanding Personal Protection Equipment [PPE] and paid sick leave and family leave.

Five associates spoke to the media on Friday, April 10, to tell their individual stories about why they’re having anxiety and feeling scared about going to work.

“We’ve got a simple message to our CEO, Doug McMillon: Our health and safety — and [the] health of our families and our customers need to be your priority right now. Everyone at Walmart, especially those of us who are getting up there in age and are high-risk are scared to go to work. We’re scared because Walmart is not serious about keeping us safe,” said Cindy Murray, a 19-year Walmart employee in Laurel, Maryland. 

Angela McMiller is Philip Thomas’ older sister, who worked at the Evan Green Park, Illinois Walmart for nine years. She wonders if her brother and Wanda Evans would still be alive today if better precautions were taken.

“The Walmart where he worked is always crowded, but my brother [and] others didn’t have masks or gloves to protect themselves. There was no social distancing at the store. I’ve been to this store and they are not keeping six feet apart,” McMiller said.

Maya Smith, 21, has been a cashier at a Walmart store in New Orleans for almost a year. She, like other associates at the store, said that Walmart seems to be doing the bare minimum to keep employees safe during the pandemic. 

For starters, there’s no plexiglass in front of her register and there’s a lack of Personal Protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves and face masks.

“I interact with hundreds of people a day and we go above and beyond the call of duty — but Walmart is putting our lives at risk and customers’ lives, too, by refusing to give us the protective gear we need to do our job safely,” Smith said.

Similarly, Zach, a Walmart associate who works as a pharmacy technician at a Walmart in the Midwest, said that cashiers in his store aren’t provided PPE — instead, they have to bring their own.

In addition, the store’s management set up a blue tent in the parking lot to provide customers with COVID-19 testing. Zach acknowledged that it’s well intentioned move, but said he and his fellow co-workers fear that customers getting tested might have already been infected with the coronavirus and spread it around the store.

“That just seems crazy to me. These are people who are showing symptoms….they just walk around the store and show up at the pharmacy and potentially spreading the virus to everyone inside,” said Zach. 

The associates speaking out are members of United for Respect, a multiracial organization advocating for better working conditions in the retail sector. 

It’s co-executive director, Andrea Dehlendorf, also said that Walmart isn’t comprehensively offering PPE and isn’t following social distancing guidelines. 

According to Dehlendorf, Walmart executives apparently knew about the need for social distancing for a whole month — but didn’t take adequate steps to protect associates and customers. 

“The Centers for Disease Control [CDC] began communicating to the business community in February, by mid-March they recommended people avoid crowded places,” Dehlendorf began.

“Even as late as the end of March, Walmart executives were reporting Black Friday-like crowds in stores across the country. While families across the country were sheltering in place, Walmart associates were working in crowded stores and continued to work in crowded stores without adequate PPE.” 

LaborPress asked whether cashiers have the option of refusing to ring up items when a customer without PPE approaches their shopping lane.

Apparently, the installation of plexiglass at the pharmacy counter and cashier’s lane is uneven across Walmart’s 5,000 U.S. stores. 

“There are some customers that come into our store with a mask on and gloves, some are really scared, you can see it on their faces, it’s actually an eerie thing, but, no, we cannot say we don’t want to take care of them,” said Walmart associate Cindy Murray.

Dehlendorf acknowledged that there is a shortage of PPE around the country because the demand is greater than the supply — but stressed Walmart employees shouldn’t be docked pay or threatened dismissal because they are afraid to go to work during the pandemic. 

She also noted that Congress exempted large corporations like Walmart and Amazon from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires businesses provide emergency paid sick and family leave to their workforces. 

“Consequently, retail employees with United for Respect are calling on Congress to ensure that the fourth stimulus package includes the P.A.I.D. Leave Act, which guarantees comprehensive, permanent paid leave for all working people,” said Dehlendorf. 

An online petition sponsored by the digital news website Daily Kos, along with United for Respect, is calling on Congress to pass legislation to protect workers with guaranteed paid sick leave. To date, the petition has 90,000 signatures. 

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