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Demanding Greater Say in Covid-19 Safety Policies, Just 9% of Walmart Workers Report Ability to Socially Distance at Work

Labor rights group United for Respect released new polling data regarding Covid-19 precautions as employees demanded to be able to serve on Walmart's board of directors.

In this photo illustration a Walmart logo seen displayed on a smartphone with a COVID-19 coronavirus image in the background. (Photo: Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The labor rights group United for Respect on Thursday released survey data showing that months after public health officials issued imperative safety guidance to companies across the U.S., employees at Walmart still do not feel safe at work from the threat of the coronavirus.

A survey of 1,500 associates at Walmart stores showed that just 9% say they are able to socially distance at work, even after the company implemented customer limits and other safety measures.

"The store is still far too crowded and social distancing isn't possible," one associate in Long Beach, California told United for Respect on May 5. "It's a free-for-all. There's no system or enforcement...Customers don't always wear masks or they take them off."

Two out of five workers surveyed said they don't trust Walmart to maintain a safe environment at work, and nearly half of company employees reported that they would come to work sick. A majority of those respondents said they would do so for fear of being penalized or reprimanded by managers if they were to stay home.

The survey was conducted this month—two months after Walmart said it was temporarily changing its attendance policy to allow workers to stay home and receive pay if they feel uncomfortable coming to work, and to provide paid sick leave for employees who contract the coronavirus. Many of the workers said their managers had not communicated with them about the Covid-19 emergency leave policy. 

"Walmart is not protecting associates or customers. We're understaffed, our store is too crowded for distancing, there's not enough cleaning, and leave policies are confusing and unclear. There is a breakdown in delivering feedback up through middle and upper management," said Mary Pat Tifft, who has worked at Walmart for over three decades.

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When United for Respect released the survey results on Thursday, at least 21 Walmart employees had died of Covid-19. Thousands more have contracted the disease.

Although the CDC has called on employers to inform workers when an employee contracts the coronavirus, Walmart workers say the company has not been transparent about cases in its more than 4,000 U.S. stores.

Last month, United for Respect launched an employee-driven Covid-19 tracker, allowing workers to report cases in their stores as well as provide details about precautions managers are taking—or not taking.

"There's a huge disconnect between upper management and what's happening in the stores," said Cynthia Murray, a Walmart associate of nearly 20 years. "What we say doesn't go back up the chain—middle managers don't want to hear it and don't pass on what we report."

The survey was released as Walmart employees, supported by United for Respect and shareholder advocacy group Majority Action, is calling on the company's board of directors to adopt a policy of considering hourly employees as nominees for board positions.

Doing so, employees say, would force Walmart to confront the realities of day-to-day operations at stores, particularly during the current public health crisis,  and reconsider "misaligned executive compensation."

The organizations on Thursday pointed to a number of European companies on their boards, which pay higher dividends, respond well to economic downturns, and report greater or similar profitability compared with companies that have no employee board members.

"Board-level employee representation is a proven governance reform that will provide necessary insight into risks and promote long term shareholder value," said Eli Kasargod-Staub, executive director of Majority Action.  "The current pandemic demonstrates clearly that workplace management is fundamental to effective governance, and that failure is a material risk. Involving workers in governance is a key part of the solution."

The board is scheduled to vote on the matter on June 3.

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