The writer is a Walmart associate and member of United for Respect
In the nearly 32 years I have worked at my Walmart store in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I’ve seen a lot of changes — from the products we sell, to the associates I work with, to the customers who come through our doors. What has not changed is a management culture that refuses to listen to employees on the front lines.
We are the people who know our company best, who see at first hand what’s working and what isn’t, but when we make recommendations to protect customers and the brand’s reputation and long-term success, it’s still radio silence from the top. Walmart’s response to Covid-19 — slow, inadequate, failing to prioritise our health and public health — underscores why workers like me need a voice in shaping corporate policy.
A study by United for Respect found that it took weeks — in some cases almost two months — for Walmart fully to adopt Centers for Disease Control recommendations for employers. While most retailers started launching social-distancing strategies and protective partitions in February and March, Walmart didn’t start limiting customers in its stores or installing sneeze guards until early to mid-April.
And a survey of 1,500 Walmart associates nationwide conducted in early May found that only 9 per cent were able always to maintain at least a six-foot distance from other people at work in April. Only two in five said they trusted Walmart to keep them, their co-workers and customers safe. In my store, many associates are afraid to go to work. This makes the Black Friday-like crowds all the more difficult to handle, especially now that our state has started to reopen.
The refusal of Walmart’s board of directors and executive team to take our concerns seriously has had tragic consequences. Already we know at least 22 associates have died and thousands have become sick. We can’t afford to wait any longer for a seat at the table. A fellow Walmart employee and leader of United for Respect put forward a shareholder resolution that will be voted on at the company’s annual meeting onJune 3, to ensure hourly associates like us are considered for positions on the company’s board of directors.
Investors and stakeholders such as us rely on executives and the board to make decisions that ensure stability and protect our brand. With a seat on the board, frontline workers can make sure our concerns are effectively communicated and properly addressed.
Failing to maintain sanitary conditions and responding slowly to initial cases put Walmart at risk of outbreaks that force store closures. The regulatory and legal risks are growing. Congressional leaders are looking into the outbreaks at Massachusetts Walmarts and the family of Wando Evans, an associate in Chicago who died of Covid-19, is alleging Walmart failed to fulfil its duty of care to workers and customers.
The company’s owners, its chief executive Doug McMillon and wealthy board members are too far removed from what is happening in their stores to make sensible decisions. It comes down to this: there would be no hesitation in adopting policies such as comprehensive paid leave or hazard pay if executives had to put on their vests and face the battlefield as we do every day. If they had been coughed on by a belligerent customer refusing to wear a face covering, hazard pay would have been implemented swiftly. If they felt the loneliness of not seeing their kids and grandkids, for fear of contagion, paid sick leave would be guaranteed and generous.
While Walmart drags its feet and spends millions on feel-good advertisements, associates have been doing heroes’ work, providing leadership that is absent at Walmart’s executive level. We don’t need glitzy ads thanking us; we need greater protective equipment, hazard pay of 1.5 times our hourly wage, and greater transparency on cases.
We run Walmart — serving our customers, keeping profits flowing and leading safety efforts in a pandemic. But we desperately need change and that can only happen with changes to who is in the room when policies are made.