As coronavirus spreads, so do reports of companies mistreating workers From nurses to retail salespe
She could wear her protective mask while seeing her patients. Many were, after all, elderly, with respiratory problems, susceptible to getting severely sick from the novel coronavirus. And so Laura Moreno, a nurse in Oklahoma City, wanted to protect them — as well as herself and her 12-year-old daughter, who has asthma and a thyroid condition.
She could not, however, wear her mask in the hallways, or the cafeteria or any of the hospital’s common areas, because her supervisors told her it would scare patients. “I was told if I wanted to wear a mask, I would not be working there,” she said. “So I said I’m not willing to put my life at risk, and my contract was terminated.”
Since the viral pandemic started ravaging the country in recent weeks, workers, unions and attorneys are seeing a dramatic rise in cases they say illustrate a wave of bad employer behavior, forcing workers into conditions they fear are unsafe, withholding protective equipment and retaliating against those who speak up or walk out.
Moreno’s case was one of many that her attorney, Rachel Bussett, and her colleagues at the National Employment Lawyers Association have been inundated with as workers grow increasingly fearful of retribution from, as Bussett said, “employers who value the economy over people.”
A handful of workers at a McDonald’s outside San Francisco walked off the job to protest the lack of safety measures. So did about 50 workers at a Perdue chicken plant in Georgia, as well as workers at Instacart and Amazon, while the companies said they were taking steps to ensure their employees’ safety and well-being. (Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
Meanwhile, employees at several major retailers have circulated petitions urging the companies to close their stores and protect workers. And some workers have said they were fired outright for speaking their minds and pushing companies to look after them.
The complaints come as the virus’s toll mounts and health officials warned that extreme measures, such as lockdowns, would continue. On Sunday, health officials said social distancing guidelines would remain in place through April, and President Trump said the nation “will be well on its way to recovery” by June 1, not Easter, as he had said previously.
“This is a situation we’ve never had to deal with before,” said Heidi Burakiewicz, a D.C. attorney and a member of the employment lawyers association. “We’re doing everything we can to help these employees — not just about protecting jobs. But people’s lives are at stake, and people should never have to be faced with questions about whether they need to risk exposing themselves and their families or losing their jobs.”
The designations for “essential” businesses can vary by state but generally include supermarkets, pharmacies, hardware stores, auto repair shops and the defense industry.
Workers at a number of large retailers — such as craft stores, video-gaming shops and office supply chains — have questioned their employers’ decision to stay open despite stay-at-home orders across the country.
“It is unnecessary and unsafe to be open during a PANDEMIC,” Staples employees wrote in a petition. “We are not an essential store and corporate is fighting and begging to stay open, claiming Staples is essential and putting employees and their families at risk. Staples should temporarily close stores and pay their employees for the time being."
Staples spokeswoman Meghan McCarrick said the company is “an essential provider of business and educational materials and products, household goods and cleaning supplies.” She said that an intensive care unit at a Baltimore hospital recently purchased ink and toner for a printer at Staples, while a hospital in Virginia bought webcams to set up remote telemedicine offices.
Last week, the Federal Bureau of Prisons turned away employees who said they had taken pain medications such as Advil, Tylenol or Motrin within four hours of reporting for work. That meant guards with balky hips or bad backs were forced to take sick leave, even if they had no fever or other symptoms of the virus, union officials said.
“You have unqualified people asking questions that are medically related,” said Sandy Parr, a union official. “They’re sending people home just because they took Motrin, which is decreasing the staff available to work — and that increases the danger.”
After guards complained and The Post inquired about the measure, the Bureau of Prisons said last week that it was discontinuing the practice.
Across the country, some health-care facilities are hoarding masks, goggles and gloves — forcing some workers to bring in their own, use the same equipment again and again, or go without.
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“It’s in cabinets locked away, collecting dust while people need it now,” said Rebecca Reindel, the safety and health director of the AFL-CIO, who said the union has raised the issue “in every avenue we can.”
Moreno’s concern wasn’t the availability of the equipment — only her ability to use it. A contract nurse at Select Specialty Hospital, she said she needed to wear a mask at all times, especially given that the patients she was treating were particularly susceptible to the worst effects of the virus. The hospital’s website says it provides “specialized care for patients with acute or chronic respiratory disorders. Our primary focus is to wean medically complex patients from mechanical ventilation and restore independent breathing.”
The state is under a “safer at home” order, which directs people over 65 and those with underlying medical conditions to stay home and limits gatherings to no more than 10 people, among other restrictions.
On Wednesday, however, Moreno was told her contract was being terminated because the hospital did not want her wearing a mask in common areas of the hospital, she said. But by the next afternoon, after The Post had contacted the hospital, she said hospital officials “had completely changed their tune” and decided to allow nurses to wear masks throughout the hospital and not just in patient rooms.
On Friday, she went back to work. In an email, a hospital spokeswoman said, “The nurse is still engaged with us and her upcoming scheduled shifts have been confirmed.”
The policy change “feels wonderful,” Moreno said, “because I know I will be protected and my friends and co-workers will be protected.”
Kevin Readel, another nurse in Oklahoma City, said he was fired for a similar reason — but in his case, it was for insisting on wearing a mask while with patients.
He said he was told “point blank that I can’t wear a mask” because it “could cause fear and anxiety amongst the other nurses and the patients.”
He filed a suit against Oklahoma Heart Hospital South for wrongful termination, claiming that “the hospital was more concerned about the perception of due diligence than actually performing due diligence.”
A spokesman for the hospital said he could not comment on pending litigation but said in a statement that the hospital’s “entire focus is on making sure we protect the safety of our patients and health care professionals in preparation for an expected surge in COVID-19 patients. As part of our preparation, we are strictly complying with the guidelines on the personal protective equipment set forth by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control.”
Lauri Mazurkiewicz, a nurse who lives outside Chicago, grew nervous when she was repeatedly exposed to patients diagnosed with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. “This is so contagious. It’s spreading so fast. I need an N95 mask,” she said, referring to a specialty mask worn by many health-care workers.
She happened to have an N95 and began wearing it during her rounds at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, she said, but was told the hospital was prohibiting the use of N95 masks and using regular surgical masks instead.
U.S. government has 1.5 million expired N95 masks sitting in an Indiana warehouse
She sent an email warning her colleagues that those masks were less effective. She was fired shortly afterward — the result, she alleged in a lawsuit against the hospital, of her attempts to “disclose public corruption and/or wrongdoing.”
A spokesman for the hospital declined to comment on the specifics of her complaint in the lawsuit, but said in a statement it is “committed to the safety of our employees who are on the frontlines of this global health care crisis.” He added that it follows “CDC guidance regarding the use of personal protective equipment for our health care providers.”
In a statement Monday, the American College of Emergency Physicians said it was “shocked and outraged by the growing reports of employers retaliating against frontline health workers who are trying to ensure they and their colleagues are protected while caring for patients in this pandemic. … Not only does this type of retribution remove healthy physicians from the frontlines, it encourages others to work in unsafe conditions, increasing their likelihood of getting sick.”
In the retail sector, employees at Michaels craft stores said they were told the company’s shops would remain open because they serve “people who are bored at home” and double as UPS drop-off sites, according to an employee at a Phoenix store who is awaiting results of a coronavirus test.
The worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has been home with a low-grade fever, cough and chest pain but said store managers have not been supportive.
“Every time I call in sick, there’s just an incredibly disappointed sound on the other end,” she said. “This is not an essential business — nobody in the history of mankind has ever dropped dead from boredom. They need to close their doors.”
Anjanette Coplin, a spokeswoman for Michaels, said its stores provide necessary products and services for parents and small-business owners. “We want to support and remain a lifeline for the teachers, parents and small businesses who rely on Michaels and our products to enable creative learning,” she said. Michaels is offering curbside pickup and has temporarily closed locations in certain states, including California, New York and Pennsylvania.
JoAnn craft stores, GameStop, Office Depot and Guitar Center have also come under fire for keeping stores open. A spokesman for Office Depot said the company is not requiring retail employees to come to work if they are not comfortable. Guitar Center, which furloughed 9,000 workers on Monday, said it is following state and local rules regarding store closures. JoAnn and GameStop did not respond to requests for comment.
In Plain City, Ohio, workers at a TenPoint Complete call center who administer automotive surveys by phone have been instructed to report to work even after the state issued a stay-at-home order, according to one employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared reprisal.
Her work, she said, consists of calling customers to ask about their experience at the body shop.
“This is not an essential job,” she said.
TenPoint Complete did not respond to a request for comment.
Even as other department stores, such as Nordstrom and Kohl’s, have temporarily shut their doors and kept paying their workers, Dillard’s has kept locations operating where government authorities allow it, making it one of the few remaining mall-based stores to stay open despite the pandemic, employees say.
That has sparked concern from employees, social media outrage by community members and a petition drive urging it to close that alleges, “Unlike other retailers who care about the safety and well-being of their employees and the guests they serve everyday, Dillard’s is choosing to run a blind eye in order to keep money funneling into their greedy pockets.”
Some employees expressed fear about the stores remaining open, saying that they have been offered no assurances of pay if their stores close and that they had to pay more for their health insurance as their hours were cut.
One full-time Dillard’s employee based in Colorado, who requested anonymity to preserve her job, said that before her store closed in the middle of last week, she tried to use the vacation time she has accumulated to take off two weeks but was told she couldn’t because the store was short-staffed. Her store has since closed because of local restrictions for nonessential businesses, and she said they were not being paid during the closure, other than for earned vacation leave. They have received little clear information about whether they would get their jobs back when the stores reopened, she said.
An employee in her 60s based in southwest Florida said she has not yet accumulated any paid time off, so if she were to get sick, she would have no paid leave. “They say you’re more than welcome to stay home, but that’s, of course, without pay,” at least for her.
She said the company has done little to directly encourage social distancing from customers making purchases. “They’re just telling us to relay to customers — politely — to stand back,” she said, but not putting up signage or tape to mark where customers should stand. “They are providing us at each register with a little, small bottle of hand sanitizer. Mine has about a quarter of it left.”
In an email, Julie Johnson Guymon, a company spokeswoman, said “direct communication” with associates began Monday. In an earlier statement, she said Dillard’s is “fully cooperating with any government directives in our markets and promptly closing under those guidelines. Importantly, we are strictly following CDC guidelines for the safety of our associates and the customers who choose to visit us where open. No associate who is uncomfortable working is required to do so. We believe continuing to operate using current safety standards is the best thing we can do long term for our associates and for the economy.”
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