Fear, skepticism follow Memphians back to work during reopening phases

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Kroger warehouse union rep: ‘I was scared. There are so many bodies up in there.’ PLUS: Tips on easing back into the thick of it.

By Tammy Joyner, for MLK50

As Tennessee moves through the second week of trying to revive its economy during a pandemic, Memphis workers and their loved ones are expressing fear and reluctance about working in the post-shelter-in-place era.

Workers say they get too little information from employers about exposure to the virus and they have little control over their working conditions as the number of coronavirus cases and deaths continue to rise in Shelby County.

  • Cartavius Black is afraid that at Carrier Corp., where his mother works on the assembly line, is rushing workers back in too soon just “for the bottom line.” The air conditioning supply firm reopened Monday after a week of being closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Black’s mother took Monday off because she didn’t feel comfortable going in, but she returned Tuesday.
  • A Memphis healthcare worker nearly lost her job recently after a family member complained to the worker’s employer about the family member not having proper protective gear.
  • Kroger warehouse employee Aaron Washington said there is a sign at the Delta Distribution Center telling workers to stay 6 feet apart to guard against the coronavirus. But that is hard to do, he said, because even more workers have been hired to meet higher demands in the stores.

The virus has claimed more than 87,000 lives in the United States and 82 in Shelby County as of Friday, where 3,569 cases have been reported. The pandemic is reshaping the way Americans will work for the foreseeable future, experts say.

Tennessee is among 45 states that have partially reopened businesses, such as hair salons, barber shops and restaurants. Other businesses, identified as essential, were never closed, including grocery stores and warehouses.

Some workers, many in low-wage jobs essential to these businesses, fear they are being sacrificed to jumpstart corporate America’s finances.

“It’s really a strain,” said Washington, an order selector and trainer at the Kroger facility, near Hickory Hill and East Holmes Road. “It’s not just all the hard work. There are attendance issues. Some don’t have babysitters. Schools are closed, and they were penalized by the company for that. That’s still going on.”

Workers face disciplinary actions, he said, if they don’t meet production goals and for other perceived breaches at the warehouse, one of few in Memphis that are unionized.

Kroger had planned to eliminate its $2-an-hour hazard pay on Saturday. But the company said in a press release today that the final “Hero Bonus” payment would stretch to May 23, and employees would receive a one-time “Thank You Pay” of $400 for full-time and $200 for parttime employees, with payments made in two installments.

That decision comes as the grocery giant announced this week that it had given its Chief Executive Officer Rodney McMullen a 21% pay hike for fiscal 2019, for a total compensation package of $14.2 million, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Kroger was among the last companies to give hazard pay, said Barry Brown, business agent for Teamsters Local 667, which represents more than 3,700 workers, including Kroger, in Memphis and parts of Mississippi.

“I appreciate them extending the $2-an-hour hazard pay but they could have just kept it going,” Brown said. The company instituted the hazard pay in early April, after giving workers a $300 bonus in mid-March, he said.

According to Indeed.com, an employment search engine the average pay for Kroger employees in Memphis is $7.79 per hour for courtesy clerks and $14.90 per hour for order pickers.

Refusing to remain silent

Union members are not afraid to go to work, but they want to make sure they’re safe, Brown said. They want a workplace that is being cleaned and sanitized regularly. They also want proper protective gear and to be able to practice social distancing.

Other workers are asking for the same. Some workers and family members contacted by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism asked to remain anonymous because of fear of retaliation by employers, including being fired. Others who initially agreed to talk backed out for the same reason.

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Nonetheless, many workers refuse to remain silent.

In the last two months, the state has fielded hundreds of complaints from workers concerned about COVID-19’s impact on their lives and work environment. Between March and April, the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA) received 532 complaints about businesses. Some 60% — 333 — were COVID-19 related, according to Chris Cannon, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which oversees TOSHA.

Complaints varied but seemed to center around infringement of social distancing regulations and not enough personal protective equipment, Cannon said.

“In my more than four years here, I’ve never seen one particular issue that has created or generated these numbers of complaints,” Cannon said.

Meanwhile, many companies are unsure of how to proceed without hurting their performance or profits. How, for instance, do you create a safe work environment during a pandemic?

“We are in uncharted territory,” said Cindy Ettingoff, a 30-year labor and employment law attorney who now leads Memphis Area Legal Services as chief executive officer and general counsel. “We’ve not had anything of this nature affect this huge number of people before. There’s an illness we don’t have an antidote or vaccine for. We have some really good ideas, but we don’t have absolutes.”

The four intake workers at the agency, which services Shelby, Fayette, Lauderdale and Tipton counties, field a combined 40 to 80 COVID-19-related calls daily from workers concerned about their health and safety now that they’re going back to work. Some say if they don’t return to work, they risk losing their job and unemployment benefits.

“We’ve been crazy busy and we’re about to get busier because of all of the things that have resulted from this pandemic: job loss, wage garnishments, evictions,” Ettingoff said.

“It’s such a balancing act,” Ettingoff said of the new company-worker pact being carved out during this pandemic.

“We need businesses to reopen because people need money. If they stay closed too long, they lose money and their viability to stay open. From a long-term perspective, if they don’t reopen, there’ll be job loss. It affects the economy at a grand scale and a small scale.”

‘There are so many bodies up in there.’

Kroger Distribution Center has hired about 90 new workers in the last month, according to Washington.

“I have to train them all,” he said. “Expectations and productivity have doubled. Training that used to take two weeks is now expected to be done in two to four days.”

In the bigger picture, Washington said, the influx of new hires has made it “virtually impossible to practice social distancing.”

People work in the same area and often have to “pick cases from the same pallets that other workers are taking from, so that makes it difficult to stay 6 feet apart,” Washington added.

Union agent Brown spent three days this week observing operations at the distribution center and was disturbed by what he saw.

“I was scared. There are so many bodies up in there,” Brown said. “They’re totally ignoring the 6-feet apart rule. They were basically shoulder to shoulder.”

In the distribution center’s grocery department, for instance, there are now 90 to 100 people working. “It would have been 50 to 60 people before the virus hit,” Brown said.

Kroger, however, said employee and customer safety is a priority. The company has “invested over $700 million to reward our associates and safeguard associates, customers and our communities during the pandemic,” spokeswoman Teresa Dickerson said in a statement.

“We have also provided new career opportunities to more than 100,000 workers nationwide, including those from the hardest-hit sectors like restaurants, hotels and food service distributors, to support our retail, ecommerce, manufacturing and logistics operations.

“In the coming months, we know that our associates’ needs will continue to evolve and change as our country recovers. Our commitment is that we will continue to listen and be responsive, empowering us to make decisions that advance the needs of our associates, customers, communities and business.”

Dickerson said the average hourly wage is $15 an hour, and with benefits, is over $20 an hour.

Among safety measures implemented at Kroger facilities, Dickerson said, are testing based on symptoms and medical needs, emergency leave, paid time off, mental health resources, physical distancing floor decals and $5 million for workers experiencing hardship, such as childcare, due to the virus.

Meanwhile, the pace has picked up tremendously at the warehouse, which is operating around the clock, Brown noted. Between January and March, people were typically working 40-hour weeks. Now they’re logging, on average, 80-plus hour weeks to keep stores stocked, he said.

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“But we understand people are trying to stock up their homes during this pandemic. It’s wearing the workers out. Some workers are enjoying it. They’re making money. But you have ones who have families and they’re stressed and tired.”

Kroger recently began providing masks for workers and monitoring employees’ temperatures after the union sent Kroger management a letter, Brown said. The company had imposed mandatory overtime but that has since been relaxed.

Afraid to work, afraid to stay home

Black’s mother reluctantly returned to her job as an assembly line worker at Carrier.

“She didn’t want to go but she had to for financial obligations,” said Black, a 27-year-old Memphis middle-school teacher who began teaching online from his home in late March after the pandemic hit and schools closed. His mother’s stimulus check recently arrived, providing a bit of good news, but she’s unsure if she’ll get the unemployment benefits for which she’s applied, Black said. She was paid last week for the three days she worked before the plant closed.

Black’s mother’s job involved assembling air-conditioning parts on a line with 80 to 120 people, he said. She wore a face mask made of cloth that she brought from home.

“The company didn’t provide any,” he said. “Several people weren’t wearing face masks [at her job].”

On May 1, Carrier told WREG-TV News Channel 3 that 22 workers had tested positive since the first case in March.

In preparation for the reopening, Carrier instituted safety measures, including enhanced social distancing, mandatory face coverings, safety coaches, more cleaning kits and safety signage, the company said in a press release.

“We have gone to additional lengths to maintain strict hygienic conditions to help limit the spread of the virus,” Carrier officials said in an email to MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.

At the time, the plant closed, it was running three eight-hour shifts a day, up from two shifts a day, Black said. Social distancing was nonexistent, his mother told him.

His mother has health issues, has lost a lot of weight and has a mean cough that she’s had for as long as he can remember. His 17-year-old sister is about to graduate from high school.

Black worries that his mother and her coworkers returned to work too soon, putting their lives in jeopardy.

“She needs the money. She has a mortgage and other bills,” he said.

‘Companies really are showing their true colors.’

A relative of a local healthcare worker, who did not want their names revealed to protect the worker’s job, expressed alarm after learning the family member was working on a hospital floor with a newly confirmed COVID-19 patient and did not have N95 respirator masks, deemed the most effective in filtering out the virus. The relative called the hospital to try to rectify the situation.

Hospital officials summoned the employee and threatened to fire her.

“My main concern is that all workers are given the necessary PPE (personal protective equipment),” the relative said. “It just blew my mind. I find it hard to believe that other people haven’t had to tell family members. The only reason she told me is that I’m immunocompromised, and she didn’t want me coming home and getting sick.”

The hospital has been “entirely reactive this whole time because employees on that floor didn’t have the proper gear, to begin with. They became unwittingly exposed when this person wound up with COVID-19.”

That experience and those of friends who’ve recently lost jobs have exposed the underbelly of corporate America, the relative said:

“Companies really are showing their true colors. It’s really sobering to see how poorly so many people are being treated and how people are callously being let go from positions they’ve held for so many years.

“I hope other people are protected. I hope that the healthcare system gets into gear and gets more proactive because everybody deserves to be protected.”

Where do we go from here?

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.

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