Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“As the pandemic has risen, so has the need for essential workers,” wrote Juel J., a Walmart worker. “Unfortunately, I don’t believe we are given the respect granted for a worker on the ‘front lines.’”
This is the story of many workers we’ve heard from across the country: you say we’re essential, but you treat us like we’re disposable. Or, in Juel’s poignant words, “Customers and salaried managers still treat regular workers as if we are machines made by Walmart.” While working to ensure the store is stocked every morning, Juel is constantly stopped by customers with questions about the next shipment of toilet paper or “being talked down to by customers who aren’t finding the bread they want.”
Though the workers have been told that Walmart is limiting the number of shoppers allowed into the store at one time, Juel wrote, “I still see the same amount of people come into the store for unnecessary items. We are still stocking and selling items like bathing suits, grills, video games, TVs.” The store has also put up signs to direct shoppers to socially distance and make aisles one-way to facilitate that process, but, Juel wrote, “they still tend to go wherever they want, six feet away or not.”
Juel’s store isn’t requiring customers to wear protective masks, and that leaves the workers feeling as though “the safety of the customer is more important than the safety of its hourly employees.” And when it comes to sick leave if the workers do catch the virus at work, the situation continues to be unequal: “While salaried management is guaranteed paid sick leave, one of my coworkers (whose husband had the virus and tested positive) was still not paid for the two week quarantine she was told to take by corporate managers.”
The situation is getting to them all, Juel wrote:
I feel the need to express how unmotivated and depressed my co-workers and I have become since this situation started, because it has become even more clear that lower class workers are not important and easily replaced. I have worked for the company for six years and have always felt a struggle just to stay afloat, but now my anxiety is getting worse, especially when Georgia’s governor has said the shutdown will end in less than a week.
All of Juel’s family are also “essential” retail workers, and thus all of them are putting their safety at risk, even before the state’s forced reopening. “I’m at a loss for what I can do for my own anxiety and the safety of my family.” Writing in to Belabored was a way of attempting to communicate to customers and others that there are ways they can help retail workers.
“I hope people can learn to live without certain things until the virus is under control. Please tell people not to go shopping for things you can absolutely live without,” Juel wrote. “Please stop coming to the store just because you’re bored and have nowhere else to go. Some of us can’t stay home with our family right now. I’d like to urge people to go without some unnecessary beauty products, household items, and clothing if possible.”
Most importantly, though, the Walmart workers were tired of the hollow words of praise without improvements in conditions. “Please tell people to stop thanking grocery workers for working. We don’t have a choice. You can thank us by staying home, keeping six feet away, and only shopping when you really need something.”
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.