Top supermarket chains across the United States are reporting their first COVID-19 employee deaths after at least four staffers at retailers like Walmart and Trader Joe’s died.
Uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic has fueled stress among workers afraid of contracting the disease from customers and unexpected store closures.
Two Walmart employees at the same Chicago-area store, a Trader Joe’s worker in New York, and a greeter at a Maryland Giant grocery store passed away in the last two weeks.
The Washington Post reports that thousands at grocery store staffers nationwide continue to work as 368,254 Americans were infected with COVID-19 and 11,000 died.
Those numbers include grocery store employees who have complained of not having protective gear – like face masks and gloves – during shifts. Dozens have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Experts said the influx of employee infections and deaths could likely affect grocers’ ability to both maintain and add new staff.
At the moment, Walmart, the largest private employer in the United States, announced they would hire 150,000 workers, while Kroger will boost staff by 10,000.
Several grocers’ are incentivizing potential workers with promises of masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and an extra $2 an hour.
But finding people willing to step onto the frontlines of the pandemic for minimum wage salaries might not be enough to close the deal, said supermarket analyst Phil Lempert.
He said: ‘One of the biggest mistakes supermarkets made early on was not allowing employees to wear masks and gloves the way they wanted to. They’re starting to become proactive now, but it’s still going to be much tougher to hire hundreds of thousands of new workers.
‘We’re going to start seeing people say, “I’ll just stay unemployed instead of risking my life for a temporary job.”‘
Grocers’ have tried to prove their commitment to health, including some stores that have installed plexiglass sneeze guards at cash registers and require customers to stand six feet apart in line.
Walmart and Kroger started checking employees’ temperatures at the beginning of each shift and said they will provide protective gear.
Other retailers like Trader Joe’s and Amazon have suffered employee strikes meant to pressure companies into protecting staff.
Analysts believe clashes between staffers and companies could become more dire as co-workers continue to fall ill.
Last week, Giant’s Campus Way South greeter Leilani Jordan, 27, died of COVID-19 in Largo, Maryland, on Wednesday.
Zenobia Shepherd, Jordan’s mother, told The Post: ‘She said, “Mommy, I’m going to work because no one else is going to help the senior citizens get their groceries.”‘
‘She only stopped going to work when she could no longer breathe.’
Jordan ‘s last day at work was March 16, said spokesman Daniel Wolk. She tested positive for the coronavirus in late March,
The company has since sanitized the Giant store and is providing counseling for staff members.
Walmart Inc. revealed in a statement that two staffers at the Evergreen Park store passed away from complications related to coronavirus.
Wando Evans, a 51-year-old overnight maintenance worker, died on March 25 after working for Walmart for 15 years.
Phillip Thomas, 48, died four days later on March 29 following nine years at the store. He was turning 49-year-olds on April 12.
Both men suffered underlying health conditions, Patch reported.
‘We are heartbroken to learn of the passing of two associates at our Evergreen Park store, and we are mourning along with their families,’ a statement from Walmart reads.
The company said neither employee had been in the Evergreen Park store ‘for more than a week.’
It’s unclear when the two men contracted COVID-19 or if it happened while on the job. Illinois has more than 12,000 confirmed cases and 307 deaths.
Mayor Jim Sexton of Evergreen Park consequentially suspended Walmart’s liquor license, but reinstated it on Wednesday.
An investigation into Evans and Thomas’ death was opened after Sexton learned of the deaths from Chicago Ald. Matt O’Shea, who saw Facebook posts about the mens’ deaths.
‘We started to investigate when we heard the rumors. I suspended the [Walmart] store’s liquor license on Friday night. We certainly got their attention,’ said Sexton.
In response, Walmart overhauled cleaning efforts in the past week with a ‘third-party safety and environmental compliance assessment as well as a health department inspection.’
This included decontamination of the front entrance, carts, registers, bathrooms and food areas.
‘This is in addition to the cleaning measures we have implemented in all stores, including installing sneeze guards at registers, placing social distancing decals on the floors and limiting the number of customers in a store at a given time,’ the statement read.
‘It seems like they’re trying to make a bad situation better,’ said Sexton. ‘The store is safe now for workers and shoppers. Everything is going to be changed now.’
The Illinois and Cook County public health departments are monitoring the Evergreen Park store for more COVID-19 cases.
But devastated family members are striking back at Walmart with a lawsuit filed this week.
The estate of Wando Evans alleged that Walmart failed to give employees adequate protective gear, lapsed in sanitizing stores and wasn’t transparent with employees.
The lawsuit also claims that Evans was ignored by managers when he alerted them of his symptoms.
Evans and other employees, according to the lawsuit, weren’t told ‘that various individuals were experiencing symptoms at the store and may have been infected by COVID-19 which was present and active within in the store.’
Tony Kalogerakos, the estate’s attorney, said deaths could have been ‘avoided if [management] was more transparent with teammates and customers,’ reports Market Watch.
Walmart is also accused of hiring new staffers over the phone or through ‘remote means’ without confirming if they have coronavirus. The company announced they would hire 150,000 workers amid a surge in sales.
Evan’s estate is seeking unspecified damages and was filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County.
On Monday, a Trader Joe’s employee in Scarsdale, New York, died of the disease. The victim’s identity has not been made public.
Spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel said the store where the victim worked is closed until Thursday to allow colleagues ‘time to process and grieve.’
Employees will be paid during the temporary closure and get two additional days of paid leave.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Lauren Edmonds