Retail Revolution   /   April 30, 2020

‘Customers are not following social distancing’: Retail workers fear PPE isn’t enough

For essential retail workers, the fight to get proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is never-ending.

In early April, essential retailers from big-box retailers like Target and Walmart, as well as grocery stores and hardware stores, announced that they would start providing masks to workers, after the CDC issued new guidelines saying that people should wear masks in public. Some of these companies have been able to secure disposable surgical masks for their employers. Others have had to resort to getting masks made out of what is essentially t-shirt fabric. Many of them are limiting workers to one or two masks per shift in order to ensure that they have enough to go around.

A number of essential retail workers from stores like Target and Petco told Modern Retail that they feel current measures still put them at risk. There’s a concern that non-medical grade masks aren’t enough to protect workers, especially those who are still having to interact frequently with customers. One of the top concerns of retail workers remains customers not respecting social distancing guidelines, and access to PPE doesn’t make those concerns go away.

“Really I think that we should just be doing drive up [order pick ups],” said one Target worker in Virginia. She said that she has encountered many shoppers at her store who will still get in her and her coworkers’ faces, and worries that masks won’t protect her against these encounters. In order to promote social distancing in stores, Target has posted signage and floor markings encouraging customers to stand six feet apart, and also plays regular audio announcements in stores to remind customers to keep their distance.

These stories may be bellwethers for non-essential retailers plotting their grand re-openings. A few big issues stand out: for one, getting access to masks and PPE is no easy task; shipments may take weeks to arrive, and retailers are going to need to move quick to ensure they can replenish PPE as it starts to run low. Additionally, employees are going to have a lot of questions about how often they can replace PPE, as well as how supplies are being stored to ensure that as few of workers are touching them as possible.

Like all of America, we were surprised when the CDC revised their original stance on wearing masks and, like many retailers, had to move quickly to respond to the change in guidance,” said a spokesman for Petco in response to a request for comment for this story. Petco, along with other pet product stores, have been declared essential retailers in most states.

“Within two days of that change, we secured sufficient inventory and began shipping reusable, washable masks to all Petco stores. We prioritized markets where masks were mandated for essential retail employees and moved quickly to ship masks to all stores,” the spokesman added. 

The scramble for masks
Retailers of all sizes are experiencing a shortage of supplies. In one of the most extreme examples of the perils obtaining PPE, CNN reported in early April that Kroger had found a supplier to order masks from for its employees, only to find that the supplier decided to give those masks to the Italian government instead.

The bigger a retailers’ network of suppliers is, the greater the likelihood is that the retailer will be able to find a supplier who can get them the needed supplies. But with hospitals, essential businesses and companies who are preparing to soon send their workers back to the office all competing for masks, the shortage of PPE likely isn’t going to end anytime soon.

In mid-April, Kroger issued a joint statement with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union calling on federal and state governments to designate grocery store workers as first responders. That would allow their employers to get priority access to PPE for employees.

What workers say
There are some big disparities right now between companies in terms of what PPE they are able to offer employees — and the supply options change weekly. Two Target workers told Modern Retail that workers at their store are now getting access to two disposable surgical masks per shift. Meanwhile, a Petco worker in California said that at her store, employees got access to two fabric masks to change out on their lunch break. They are expected to wash them before returning to work the next day.

“They are really really flimsy, so a lot of my coworkers are still wearing their own masks,” said the Petco worker. A Petco spokesman said in response to this concern that “all masks we have provided to our stores are in compliance with CDC guidance.” 

One Target worker in Washington, who took a leave of absence the first two weeks in March over concerns about contracting the coronavirus at work, said that the supply of face masks and gloves were welcome, but “I am definitely not pleased with how long it took.” She also wished that Target would provide workers with sturdier protective equipment like face shields. She did praise her store for putting masks in individual ziplock bags for workers to grab, so that they are not reaching into a pile of masks with their bare hands.

The Washington Target worker returned to work after she was told that she could work overnight shifts that her store had recently added in order to fulfill online orders, so she wouldn’t have to interact with customers. She’s trying to work overnight shifts as long as possible, even though her store recently made those shifts shorter, and doesn’t know yet whether she would be comfortable working during the daytime if need be. Her top concern remains getting sick from a customer, despite the supply of PPE.

“From what I’ve heard [from coworkers]… customers are not necessarily not following social distancing,” the Target worker said.

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