This month marks my 20th anniversary as a Walmart associate. Over the last eight months, I’ve seen the panic on workers’ faces as people have called in sick with COVID-19 symptoms, while Walmart gives us no information about whether we need to be tested for the virus too. I’ve also seen coworkers with symptoms afraid to call in sick, because they don’t have enough protected time off and may lose a paycheck, or their job. That’s not right.
Since the pandemic began, the Walton family fortune has swelled by nearly $43.2 billion thanks to Walmart’s hefty stock-price gains. Walmart has notched $10 billion in revenue growth. Meanwhile, even after two decades with Walmart, I’m still paid less than $15 an hour. While associates like me are working on the front lines of this dangerous pandemic, making sure customers have groceries, pharmacies, home goods and more, Walmart has slow-walked its COVID-19 response and keeps secrets about virus outbreaks in our stores.
That’s why Walmart CEO Doug McMillon’s recent folktale in Fortune about having “open ears and an open heart” sounds out of touch to associates like me. What we need is for Walmart to answer our calls for basic protections—more PPE, enforced social distancing, and hazard pay at 1.5 times our hourly wage, to start. And we need a seat at the table shaping company policy at Walmart, with real representation on the board of directors.
More than a thousand of my co-workers have reported contracting the virus, including over 80 associates in one store in Massachusetts. At least 22 Walmart associates have died, that we know of—the real number is likely higher. I found out one coworker tested positive for COVID-19 because he posted it to friends and family on Facebook. To survive this pandemic, Walmart workers have had to look out for each other, because the company sure isn’t looking out for us.
Walmart, the country’s largest retailer and employer, doesn’t have its own end-to-end testing apparatus, doesn’t test asymptomatic workers and doesn’t share COVID-19 infection data for its roughly 1.5 million U.S. workers. For our CEO to trumpet his commitment to openness, while managers have coached workers to keep virus infections under wraps, is a slap in the face to associates like me who are risking exposure and putting our lives in jeopardy every day.
When the pandemic hit and our lives were on the line, it wasn’t Doug McMillon who took steps to protect us. Instead, associates around the country took matters into our own hands to fill the vacuum of leadership left by McMillon’s inaction.
When it became clear Walmart would rather sweep critical virus data under the rug, we created a COVID-19 tracker to paint a clearer picture of the risks. So far, we’ve reported at least 1,497 positive cases in stores. We’ve filed OSHA complaints to sound the alarm to regulators and the public. And, we’ve called for representation on Walmart’s board at this year’s annual shareholder meeting, explaining to investors why Walmart’s failed COVID-19 response justifies greater worker voice, not less.
Now more than ever, hourly associates need a seat on Walmart’s board, so that we can bridge the disconnect between headquarters and the shop floor, and make sure workers’ and customers’ safety are put first.
Walmart delayed up to seven weeks on implementing CDC guidelines around social distancing and protective measures, and took more than three months to ask customers to wear masks. Walmart management says it has prioritized associates’ physical, emotional and financial well-being through the pandemic. But for cash-strapped workers on the front lines, safety measures arrived too late and the company’s measly bonuses don’t add up.
Even up to this day, more than half a year after the coronavirus hit the country, we’re still forced to interact with unmasked customers, make do without proper PPE, and carry heavier workloads driven by the boom in online orders and curbside pickup—without any hazard pay. Walmart workers across the country are forced to do more with less, worked to death with poverty wages on part-time schedules. Associates have been vocal about the ongoing need for increased cleaning and disinfecting. Our stores still are not clean, our bathrooms not fully sanitized. The air filters at my store, for example, look filthy. These are all things Walmart can fix, but hasn’t.
Even more frightening, Walmart doesn’t accept doctor’s notes as justification for missing work, and just brought back a punitive attendance policy that incentivizes associates to come to work when we’re sick. It’s a dangerous policy to reinstate after a survey of 1,500 Walmart associates found 45% of respondents had gone to work sick, and 58% of those reported fear of retaliation as the reason. Now, if we need a day off but don’t have protected time, Walmart docks a point against us, and after five points over six months, we’re fired.
I have asthma and my son is immunocompromised. That’s not a sick time policy that keeps us safe. Walmart has also ushered in staff restructuring that will likely lead to layoffs for long-time associates at this time next year.
Walmart founder Sam Walton famously said: “If you want the people in the stores to take care of the customers, you have to make sure you’re taking care of the people in the stores.” If McMillon wants to posture as a humble “servant leader” who is collaborating with frontline workers to find answers, he can start by giving us a seat at the boardroom table, so associates who are building the company’s profits during a global pandemic have a real voice in shaping the company’s response to the virus, and a real share in the wealth our work creates. After all, associates have already been stepping in where Walmart’s management is failing, and their failures have already cost us dearly.
We Walmart workers remain on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis—we are scared, but we have solutions. McMillon, if you want to know what associates really think, it’s time to make associates part of the conversation where the decisions are made: in the Walmart board room.
Cynthia Murray is a Walmart associate in Laurel, Maryland and founding member of United for Respect, a national nonprofit organization and multiracial movement seeking better treatment of retail workers.
More opinion from Fortune:
- Why a very conservative Supreme Court will be bad for business
- How a Biden administration could reverse the four-decade decline of America’s working class
- America’s backwards privacy laws leave women vulnerable
- American capitalism needs equal-pay legislation. Canada is showing us how to make it work
- Are college degree requirements holding Black job seekers back?