Workers say major retailers suppress news of workplace COVID-19 cases

The coronavirus pandemic has upended life for many retail workers, who risk catching or spreading the virus as frontline workers. Compounding those fears are “gag orders” from employers, which require employees to stay silent, according to Business Insider. While anxieties over the coronavirus remain top of mind for frontline workers, retail employees feel they have little recourse when workplaces stifle discussion of COVID-19 cases. OSHA is powerless to take action against these “gag” rules because they are often completely legal.

Workplace gag rules, which cropped up as retailers began reopening this summer, prohibit or discourage workers from speaking with one another about positive COVID-19 diagnoses. Employers often cite healthcare-privacy laws in their rationale, giving employees little recourse. This murky legal and safety landscape has created a complicated workplace environment for retail employees working during the pandemic.

Employees at McDonald’s, Target, and Amazon have reported that their companies told them to stay mum regarding positive COVID-19 cases, according to Bloomberg.

Walmart employees worked with the labor activist group United for Respect to create their own COVID-19 tracker and found that 22 workers have died from COVID-19 so far. Despite those numbers, workers at some stores have alleged that they have been “coached” by management to never discuss positive cases, a representative for the group said.

At a Georgia CVS, after a pharmacy employee contracted COVID-19, the CVS district leader instructed employees not to tell patients that their medications had been filled by someone who tested positive for the virus, according to a leaked email shared with Business Insider.

Labor unions have slammed OSHA for its response to COVID-19. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations — the largest union in the US — sued OSHA over its failure to issue emergency workplace-safety rules.

OSHA does not require employers to notify other employees if one of their coworkers gets COVID-19. Instead, it recommends that employers take “appropriate steps” to protect workers from outbreaks. In the event of a “confirmed case,” the administration’s website advises measures like sanitizing work environments, notifying employees, and establishing screening tests for workers. But these measures are largely in the hands of the businesses to implement.

“To the extent that employers become aware that a person with COVID-19 has been in the workplace, employers can consider how best to identify workers who have been exposed, how to notify them of such exposure, and what leave and other workplace policies can be used to facilitate appropriate self-isolation and monitoring,” an OSHA spokesperson told Business Insider. “Employers should work with their state/local/tribal/territorial health department on issues related to contact tracing and notification.”

California law puts the burden of proving that a frontline worker didn’t contract COVID-19 on the job on employers, allowing affected employees more access to workers’ compensation.

Retailers have updated their stores with customers in mind during the pandemic, including mask mandates, one-way aisles, social distancing, and plexiglass dividers. These precautions allow shoppers to feel safer about entering an indoor space, where the virus spreads most easily, for a shorter amount of time. But employees are dealing with prolonged hours inside a store, which makes them more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

Certain areas of retail stores put employees at higher risk. For example, shared employee bathrooms have routes of transmission that might come from toilet flushing. Break rooms, lunchrooms and types of environments where you can get episodic crowding also present potential contamination threats.

While the shopping floor of a retail store might be revamped to focus on social distancing for customers, a break room where employees spend their breaks might not be. These conditions mean employees are assuming a certain amount of risk whenever they work.