Walmart employees worked in “quiet” fear of both the COVID-19 pandemic and retaliation by the company for complaining about working conditions in its wake, a social justice activist told the corporation’s board of directors and shareholders at its virtual annual meeting Wednesday, The Guardian reported.
The Rev. William Barber II, president of the social justice group Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, asked the board to establish a workers advisory council to give a voice to the concerns of rank-and-file associates.
He said the workers “feared for their lives every day” during the pandemic.
“There are hundreds of your workers who are not alive today, because of this vicious coronavirus that was allowed to spread through your stores, largely in secret, as your workers feared for their lives every day,” Barber said, while presenting the proposal in a recorded statement, The Guardian reported.
According to the story, Barber said many employees became infected during the pandemic and spread the virus to family members, all “because they were too poor to stay home from work, too afraid of retaliation to get the time off, too beaten down by this system to be truly supported by this company and by our government in this dire hour for our nation.”
A nonprofit public health group, Human Impact Partners, released a report in April that estimated some 7,500 employees contracted COVID-19 and 133 deaths could have been prevented had the employees been able to take the time off work without retaliation, The Guardian reported in April.
According to the report, the group used the U.S .national COVID-19 rate to estimate that 125,000 of the corporation’s 1.6 million employees contracted the virus in the last year.
The company has not disclosed how many employees had the disease.
Even though there were some policies in place during the pandemic for employees to take time off for quarantine or caring for sick family members, employee Cynthia Murray, who heads the workers advocacy group United for Respect, said that many employees found the system and policies confusing and workers were worried that calling in sick would lead to disciplinary action, the article said.
Walmart was one of a handful of businesses that were considered “essential” and were allowed to stay open during the worst part of the pandemic.
“It really makes it hard, so you have a lot of workers who come to work sick because they don’t want to be fired,” Murray said, adding that workers also “don’t really have any kind of money that they can take [an unpaid] day off.”
Shareholders voting at the meeting voted down the idea of the workers council, according to The Guardian.
In a statement, Walmart said it opposed the council.
“Walmart remains committed to the safety and well-being of our associates and customers, and we believe the many initiatives, policies, and procedures that were implemented across the company’s extensive business operations in a short period of time demonstrate that we are responsive to the needs of our associates and customers,” the statement said. “In addition, our associates already have many well-established and longstanding means by which feedback can be provided, including suggestions or concerns related to COVID-19. Therefore, we believe the adoption of this proposal is not necessary.”
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