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Coronavirus pandemic raises thorny issues in the workplace

While many employers are going to extraordinary lengths to accommodate workers amid the coronavirus pandemic, others have been less solicitous, at least according to some employees.

As concerns over community spread of the virus have grown, Publix Super Markets Inc. has adjusted store schedules and announced extra measures to disinfect carts and surfaces in its 1,200 stores across the southern United States.

Carolina Martinez was stunned, however, when she learned that her husband, who works at a Miami Publix, was being told he couldn’t wear gloves and masks that he brought from his house. Martinez’s husband, who declined to be named in this story for fear of retaliation, has psoriasis, a non-contagious skin condition.

“They’re saying that if you use gloves, merchandise will be even more contaminated,” Martinez said.

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(Note: Her husband was subsequently allowed to wear gloves after obtaining a note from his doctor.)

Publix is one of the 10 largest-volume supermarket chains in the country. According to the company’s website, it employs over 200,000 people in seven states. Publix corporate employees are working from home, but clerks are considered essential workers who must be present in the store.

For many office-based businesses, having staff dispersed to their homes is a fairly easy adjustment, with communication taking place through Google hangouts, texts and emails. But at retail outlets that are still operating, employees have to be present to serve the customers and stock the shelves.

This has created a dual system where executives function from home while front-line staffers deal with the public — and are exposed to the risks.

Some of those front-line employees are concerned that their bosses are not doing enough to protect them.

A spokesperson for Publix did not return several requests for comment from the Herald for this story. But then, on Wednesday, Publix made an announcement through spokeswoman Maria Brous. She said the chain will be putting plexiglas windows separating customers from cashiers at all checkout lanes, pharmacies and customer service desks. Chain-wide installation, set to begin this weekend, is expected to take two weeks.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, had claimed 20 lives in Florida as of late Tuesday and infected nearly 1,500 people. Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Many develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.

One of the ways for people to protect themselves is to wash their hands frequently. But a 20-year-old Publix cashier, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that he can rarely leave his station to wash his hands and relies on one bottle of hand sanitizer he was provided to keep himself clean throughout his shift.

He lives with his parents and his mother is a nurse who works directly with older people. He’s concerned about contracting the illness and unknowingly spreading it to her.

“We’ve had a lot of customers come in and ask us, ‘Hey, why aren’t you wearing anything?’,” the cashier said.

One recent day, he said he came to work wearing gloves at his mother’s suggestion, and was immediately told to take them off because “we want to look healthy for the customers,” he said. “But I said ‘well, if I don’t have any gloves or mask, then I won’t be healthy for the customers’.”

In four days, close to 1,500 people have signed a Change.org petition asking Publix to allow employees to work personal protective equipment.

In messages shared with the Herald, a text exchange between another employee and a supervisor at a different Publix store in Central Florida, refused to let a cashier use the gloves that relatives had purchased. “Per corporate, it scares the customers or something,” the text string read.

Publix has publicly said it is enforcing the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at its stores. When customers asked about increased measures on the company’s Facebook page, Publix replied that enhanced sanitation procedures include sanitation of the shopping carts and that only associates working in prepared foods are “required to wear gloves, but associates who don’t work in these environments should not wear gloves.”

Meanwhile, a woman and her two daughters, all of them Publix employees, filed a complaint late last seek with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, saying the chain refused to let them face masks while on the job. Svetlana Caro and daughters Angelique and Anastasia work at a store in Sandestin, a resort community in the Florida Panhandle.

Showing up to work ‘voluntarily’

Adding to the fears of job loss, as the state says it is overwhelmed with unemployment claims, some other South Florida employees believe businesses that have not fully closed down operations are needlessly exposing them to the virus. On Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Florida residents should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, following federal efforts last week to advance social distancing measures. But what is a gathering. Anyone who has been to Publix might think that qualities.

One employee for El Dorado Furniture, who also asked to remain anonymous, said there are over 50 people working in one of the chain’s offices in Miami, sitting in cubicles three to four feet apart.

“I have co-workers that are older than 60 that are afraid to work,” the employee said in a text message, adding that many coworkers believe the bulk of their duties can be performed from home and that they are not an essential business.

In a statement, El Dorado said workers who were showing up to work were doing so “voluntarily” and that management has emphasized that no employee who is feeling sick should come to work.

“All El Dorado Furniture employees have been given the option to stay at home and to still receive compensation along with job security,” the statement read. “No employee is being penalized for staying home during this pandemic.”

But in an e-mail communication from El Dorado’s human resources department shared with the Herald, employees at several showrooms, stores and corporate offices were still being asked to show up to work.

Any corporate employee who wished to work from home starting Monday through Friday, March 27, the e-mail said, would be compensated “at 50% of their salary,” according to the memo sent on March 20. The company also said employees who wished to use paid sick time, vacation time or personal time off could use it to “supplement earnings.”

“If at any time any [corporate employee] feels uncomfortable working their assigned hours or schedules in their current work environment they can choose to work less hours and/or less days, without pay, but without penalizing their tenure with the company,” said another page of the memo provided to the Herald.

As online trade surges

As much of the nation has become reliant on buying goods online to avoid large crowds, Amazon announced last week it was planning to hire 100,000 new employees and increasing pay to meet surging demand. The tech giant also announced it would honor sick pay and set aside $25 million to relieve workers that test positive for coronavirus, ranging from $400 to $5,000 per employee.

But according to a Miami-based employee who has been presenting symptoms since March 12, including a recurrent fever, it’s not enough. She has been sheltering in place but has not been tested due in part to a persistent shortage.

“I have been quarantining, and have not been able to work,” she wrote in an email to the Herald. I can ONLY get paid by Amazon, if I have a positive COVID-19 test. And I still can’t get a test.”

Amazon employees are circulating a public petition online asking the company to remove restrictions.

“We can still spread the virus before symptoms appear and we know to seek medical attention,” it states. “restricting sick pay to diagnosed or quarantined workers encourages us to work when doing so is unsafe for ourselves and our communities.”

The Miami Herald reached out to Amazon, which was not immediately available for comment.

Six Amazon workers in the United States — including one from Jacksonville — tested positive for COVID-19, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, at least five warehouse employees tested positive in Spain and Italy.

‘A bunch of lawsuits’

One of the problems is the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus measures. There is no playbook, no precedent.

“I’ve heard issues on both sides of the equation... It’s reverse for employers. There are some who are saying, ‘Look, we need our employees here and others who are mandating that they work from home,” said Miami-based employment attorney Michael Landen. “And I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong answer on any of those approaches.”

Landen said many companies are likely relying on policies that normally apply to hurricanes, as well as general leave policies.

“It’s business-specific, industry-specific, and even personal situation-specific,” Landen said. “When you don’t have written policies, or where this is being dictated because of the government.. the company is being shut down, or ‘I think I can work from home but I have to be there,’ or vice versa. ... It’s a very tricky situation.”

“I suspect there’ll be a bunch of lawsuits out of this,” he added.