At Office Depot, employees have been told that they cannot wear masks in the store. Some Walgreens workers say they were also discouraged from wearing them. Many other large retailers, including Target, have started to allow masks, but are leaving it up to employees to procure their own supplies.
Federal health officials appear ready to recommend that Americans of all ages start wearing masks for protection against the coronavirus, but millions of retail workers have been interacting with the public for weeks without them. Sometimes, they have been told that wearing masks could scare shoppers. Now many are scrambling to find available gear.
The retailers’ different positions on masks, which follow those of the government, are indicative of how the industry has been fumbling through the fast-moving pandemic, potentially endangering workers. The restrictions could also increase the risk that their stores, which are virtually the only places where the public can still congregate, could be contributing to the spread of the virus.
Protective gear has become a point of contention in the increasingly tense environment at grocery and big-box stores. This week, workers at Amazon and Instacart staged protests over working conditions during the pandemic, and walkouts are planned at other major retailers in the coming days. Many retailers are being pressured to take even more precautions than regulators have advised.
“Frankly, we had a fight with some employers because they didn’t want their employees wearing masks,” said John Grant, president of Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which includes 20,000 grocery store workers in California. “Many workers are having to come up with them on their own.”
At some grocery stores, customers and even a fire department were donating extra masks to employees, Mr. Grant said.
In resisting calls from workers to provide them with masks, retailers have cited guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which continues to recommend masks only for health care workers and people showing symptoms of the virus. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says high-volume retailers should “consider” supplying masks to ill employees and customers, but does not mention healthy workers.
Now experts are increasingly saying there is probably some benefit for people to cover their faces, even with homemade masks, while venturing out to visit the grocery store or pharmacy.
Companies’ policies toward protective gear can vary widely. Stop & Shop, the regional grocery chain, is supplying protective shields that cover employees’ faces. The store is not providing masks, though employees are allowed to wear their own.
Walmart said on Tuesday that it would begin supplying masks to its employees in the United States, but acknowledged that delivering them to all its stores and distribution centers could take as long as two weeks.
None of the retailers are supplying workers with the N-95 masks that health care workers need desperately.
When the waves of panic buying started in stores three weeks ago, many retailers resisted employees’ requests to wear masks, saying customers might find them unsettling.
A Target employee in Suffolk County, N.Y., who has a relative with respiratory issues said she had tried to wear a nonsurgical mask to work two weeks ago as panic buying surged. The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job, said her supervisors had told her that the mask would frighten people and make it look as though Target was allowing sick people to work. She was sent home.
Target said on Wednesday that it told store managers on March 19, after the employee’s experience, that its workers could wear their own masks, as well as company-supplied gloves. A representative said the chain was taking a range of safety measures, including installing plexiglass partitions for checkout lanes and in other departments, like the pharmacy.
Walgreens, which draws customers for its over-the-counter and pharmacy medicines, heightening employee concerns of contracting the virus, has also discouraged at least some staff members from wearing masks and gloves, said two employees in different states who spoke on the condition of anonymity. It has been criticized on Facebook and Twitter, and a Change.org petition asks Walgreens executives to give workers gloves, masks, hand sanitizer and hazard pay. A separate Change.org petition is asking for hazard pay and paid family leave.
A Walgreens representative said that the chain had instituted safety measures around cleaning, social distancing and hygiene, and that workers who wished to wear masks could do so.
“In a targeted fashion, we are also undertaking employee health screenings and additional personal protection measures for our work force, and we are actively considering additional steps for personal protection equipment for our employees,” the company said. “We are strictly adhering to C.D.C. pandemic guidelines for safety and precautions and will continue to do so.”
Office Depot, which has said it is an essential retailer, recently sent a memo to store managers saying customer-facing employees were not allowed to wear masks and discouraged managers from sending workers home if they had symptoms of the virus.
Symptoms “mirror those of the common cold,” making it hard to identify, the memo said. Referring to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, it added, “The likelihood of an associate having Cov-19 is very low.”
An employee at a store in the Midwest who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job said that the guidance had not changed as of Wednesday, but that some managers were allowing employees to wear their own masks.
Office Depot didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Walmart said it had decided to start providing “general medical” masks to employees only after concluding that the company’s massive order, which could total seven million masks a week, would not interfere with the supply for health workers. The company is not supplying the N-95 masks that are needed at hospitals.
“We’re in constant communication with state and federal government leaders, as well as the supply-chain manufacturing community, to make sure that the type of volume we would need in order to sustain masks at every store doesn’t put undue pressure on the rest of the chain,” Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, Dan Bartlett, said on Tuesday.
There are also worries that masks could give workers a false sense of security, Mr. Bartlett said. He added that the company continued to stress to employees that handwashing and social distancing from customers and one another remained the primary protections against the virus.
Large retailers have demurred on identifying how many of their workers have received a coronavirus diagnosis, citing privacy reasons.
Essential industries employ between 49 million to 62 million workers, according to an estimate from the Brookings Institution that relied on Department of Homeland Security designations. About seven million of those workers are employed in grocery stores, pharmacies and big-box stores.
While health care practitioners and support workers face the greatest levels of exposure to the virus, “it’s harder to precisely measure the risks that workers face in grocery stores, trade and logistics, and other establishments,” Brookings researchers wrote in a report this week. “It’s clear that many could potentially be exposed to Covid-19 and will require closer monitoring.”