Walmart Inc. will provide masks and gloves for its workers and take their temperature before shifts, the latest moves by the nation’s biggest private employer to ensure the safety concerns of its front-line employees.
The company will begin supplying “high-quality” masks and gloves to associates who request them starting this week, and will conduct temperature checks on them at its warehouses and stores. It’s also trying to reduce crowding in stores by implementing procedures like one-way aisles that are normally reserved for high-traffic events like Black Friday. The personal protective equipment will go to warehouses first and then reach stores in the coming weeks, beginning in areas hardest hit by the coronavirus.
“This is voluntary but from listening to associates, we felt that this was a necessary step, a prudent step to take,” Dan Bartlett, executive vice president of public affairs, said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “This is a work in progress.”
The moves come as the workers who pack, deliver and stock everyday essentials grow increasingly vocal about their safety and issues like paid sick leave. Amazon.com Inc. and Instacart Inc., which handles grocery deliveries for thousands of U.S. supermarkets, suffered walkouts yesterday and a “sickout” is planned at Amazon’s Whole Foods Market chain on Tuesday. Walmart has fended off attempts to organize its massive workforce over the years, but is increasingly caught between addressing their concerns and the need to satisfy shoppers’ unslakeable demand for basic goods.
Bartlett said the retailer might need as many as seven million masks a week eventually, and did not specify where they would be sourced from. He said the masks and gloves should not substitute for frequent hand-washing, social distancing and other sanitary guidelines already in place. Many associates are already taking their temperature at home before coming to work, he said, with anyone registering 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher advised to not work.
While it’s hard enough to keep employees safe, an even bigger challenge for Walmart is managing the flow of customers eager to stock up on food, toilet paper and disinfecting wipes. Grocery sales rose 68% over the past two weeks, according to Nielsen data included in a note from Jefferies analyst Christopher Mandeville. Walmart is experiencing “astonishing volume,” Bartlett said, and is working with local officials to test and implement “crowd-management protocols.” Still, he said that it’s hard for employees “to have to be enforcers of social distancing.” Walmart has already begun mandating one-way aisles in the U.K. and Canada, he said.
The unprecedented stresses on cashiers and shelf-stockers have resulted in more of them than normal missing or skipping shifts, said Bartlett, who described the situation as “manageable.” Walmart has also hired nearly 50,000 new associates as of last night, he said, part of its pledge to bring on 150,000 and increase its U.S. workforce by 10%.
Regarding Walmart’s plans to test for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in its parking lots, a Walmart spokeswoman said there were no new sites opened beyond the two outside Chicago that began testing last week. “We don’t know where the next sites will be,” she said.