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An employee in her mid-20s at a Target near Nashville, Tennessee, began feeling sick late last week. By Sunday, she had a high fever and severe chest pain. On Monday, she wasn’t scheduled to work, so she called the hotline her doctor had set up to get tested for Covid-19. She got tested, then went home to put herself in quarantine and wait three days for the results. She tried to get through to her store’s HR department repeatedly, and when she finally talked to the store director, she was given no instructions, and no indication about whether she would be paid while taking time off from work. A few minutes later, the store’s HR director called the employee and told her to stop texting other employees to make them aware of her possible exposure and “causing a panic.”
“I honestly don’t know if I’m going to be paid or not,” the employee, who hasn’t received her test results and wished to remain anonymous over fear of retaliation, said. “Multiple coworkers who worked with me over the weekend have decided to self-isolate until I get my results back. I expect that I will probably be punished or let go once I return to work.”
Over the past three days, more than 50 Target employees have relayed similar stories of having to decide between keeping their jobs and risking their health and the health of their customers, or leaving the store, unpaid but safer from Covid-19.
Target did not respond to questions about employees’ concerns for this story, but in a statement the company said it was cleaning stores more thoroughly, waiving the absenteeism policy for some employees, and paying for employees who are confirmed to have Covid-19 to stay home for up to 14 days.
The problem, according to employees who work across the United States, is that the safety precautions vary significantly store to store, and employees below the management level are largely left in the dark about Target’s policies and procedures. And, most critically, the retailer has not offered paid sick leave for any employees unless they come back with a positive test for Covid-19. But with a shortage of Covid-19 kits in the United States, it is all-but-impossible for workers with mild symptoms, or who have been in contact with others who have symptoms, to get tested.
Wages at Target start at $13 an hour, and employees often have a hard time getting more than 20 hours of work each week. Many are not offered health insurance through the company. All of which leaves employees facing a hard decision: If they feel a cold coming on, or if they were in contact with someone who was confirmed to have the coronavirus, many say they have no choice but to keep working.
“There’s a lot of frustration and anger and anxiety and fear,” Adam Ryan, a Target employee in Christiansburg, Virginia, said. “We’re the ones who are being put at risk and being exposed. Should I have to be exposed to this virus so I can pay the bills?”
Ryan is a member of Target Workers Unite, a small group of employees who have tried to pressure Target long before the pandemic began to institute higher wages, paid sick leave, and give each worker more hours. Ryan said coronavirus is amplifying all the same issues that existed before.
Debbie Berkowitz, the director of the National Employment Labor Project’s Worker Safety and Health program, said the issues Target employees face are being seen across the retail sector, but singled out Target for its lack of sick pay.
“Places like Target need to be providing paid sick days and encourage workers to be honest when they are feeling sick,” she said. “As soon as workers report symptoms, they should be encouraged to leave. Target should have these things in place by now.”
A bill under consideration by the House and Senate includes provisions for paid sick leave, but any corporation with over 500 employees would be exempted. Without health care and paid leave, Target employees are frightened to go in to work.
“We have absolutely no protection,” a worker at a cell phone sales contractor inside a Target in Evanston, Illinois, said. “The bathrooms are halfway across the store and there’s no hand sanitizer…. At this point, I’m just assuming I’m going to get sick…. I’m terrified of who I’ll infect.”
One Target employee provided evidence that at least one higher-up was encouraging people to work, even if they were feeling sick, telling employees that it might just be allergies.
Another employee, at a Target in the Twin Cities area was directly exposed to a family member who was later determined to have the coronavirus. He worked at the store the next day. He immediately self-quarantined when he found out, but Target would not pay for his two weeks off. The employee said Target did not warn his fellow employees that they may have been exposed too.
“I know they didn’t explain to my coworkers at all, because I’ve had one text me asking why I’m gone,” the employee said. “Nobody in my store even knows.”
Even workers who present no symptoms and want to work say they are scared because Target has done little to prevent the spread of the virus—most of the workers who reached out to me said their stores do not have masks or gloves. The only protection for a cashier at a downtown Chicago Target, one employee said, is a large bottle of hand sanitizer.
Another employee at the same store summed up the anger and fear that dozens expressed over the last few days.
“Nothing is being done,” he said. “We’re just bodies to this corporation, not people. They don’t care about us and our well-being.”