Warehouse Workers See Themselves As Reluctant Heroes Of Coronavirus Pandemic

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PENNLIVE — Inside the Syncreon distribution center outside of Carlisle, business – which involves getting shipments of Apple computers, tablets, iPhones, watches and more to Walmarts, BestBuys and all the other major retailers that are selling through the coronavirus crisis – it’s business as usual, workers say.

And that’s exactly what has them spooked.

While much of the nation is in a mandated economic lockdown, they are being asked to keep coming to work with scores of shift mates, mixing in a workplace – or more importantly, the biome of that workplace – that is shared by hundreds of people a day, at times in fairly close quarters, at a time when every message they see from the president, the governor and the TV tells them to stay home.

It’s like this, said Stephania Severe, a 19-year-old Fayetteville resident who quit her job at the Syncreon plant in Carlisle last month over a bout of coronavirus anxiety.

“They had meetings and they told us to stay three feet apart,” Severe, who has the cushion of living with her father, told PennLive this week. “But when you’re there, you’re stacking boxes on a pallet with everybody, the pallets are where they are. You can’t just put these boxes anywhere.”

Workers around the midstate told us similar stories featuring details that wouldn’t have mattered so much a month ago, but that fill their conversations now: empty hand sanitizer dispensers, cafeterias that require use of touch screens to place a food order; not enough janitors to properly sanitize the building.

To be clear, these are not the voices of people who are arguing about unfair workplace conditions, low pay or lack of benefits. Many of them are longtime staffers who stressed that they like their jobs, and take pride in doing them well.

Their beef, they said over and over again, is that in this current instance, they felt that employers were putting interest in the bottom line over their workers’ safety.

And in some cases, they are choosing to quit, seeing it as a matter of choosing physical health over financial health.

“I see all of these big corporations advertising on the television to stay safe, stay home, and order online,” Jacqueline Minarick, a worker at the hbc.com distribution center near Pottsville, Schuylkill County, said Friday. “I don’t know if people realize that it’s human beings that are filling those orders, not robots.”

Gov. Tom Wolf’s working list of essential businesses that are permitted to operate under his public health emergency includes “electronic shopping and mail order houses,” as well as the more general category of warehousing and storage.

“Warehousing and most merchant wholesalers are considered life-sustaining. Also generally, warehouses (but not warehouse construction) have been aligned to any online sales / e-commerce they may support,” Casey Smith, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development said Friday.

“Mail order and online fulfillment may continue with essential staff but telework should be employed whenever possible, and social distancing must be observed,” she added.

Those classifications appear to have given these firms the legal justification they need to stay openit has many of the workers scratching their heads, especially those moving product that’s not food, pharmaceuticals or medical supplies.

Another Syncreon employee said he understands the need to keep supply lines open for those kinds of goods. iPhones, to him, are another matter. Especially, when Apple – his company’s sole client at this center – has closed its own retail stores, and is taking bows for donating two million masks to New York state when he’s working without one while moving its product.

“Is the world paying attention to this?” the Harrisburg resident, who like many speaking for this report asked not to be identified by name, asked. “How do you have hundreds of people working at a warehouse all mingled up and working right next to each other, and then going back out into the community?”

Like Severe, he said he has decided to quit the job after Sunday – Syncreon’s temporary $2-per hour raise notwithstanding – for the safety of his 95-year-old grandmother who lives with him.

“What it comes down to, their making their money is coming before peoples’ lives. There’s no other way they can dress that up.”

PennLive reached out Syncreon and hbc.com, but had not heard back as of Friday evening.

There were no known confirmed cases of COVID-19, the name for the disease associated with the coronavirus, among workers at either of those sites. But there were six confirmed cases, as of Tuesday, at another of the region’s largest distribution centers, the Defense Logistics Agency base in Fairview Township, York County.

The base has since stopped releasing specific counts.

Base Commander Col. Marchant Callis said in a statement this week that the affected facilities were closed and employees in contact with those infected had been notified and directed to self-isolate. But some DLA workers who reached out to PennLive this Friday said at least four staffers in one of the affected buildings had since been moved to their worksite, and that was very unnerving to them.

“We don’t know if one of them was exposed, and now we might be exposed,” one of the workers said.

They weren’t calling for a total shutdown, of the base, necessarily.

“The military is still protecting us, and they need supplies,” one of the DLA staffers said. But she said she did wish the base’s leaders would provide more information, and consider reducing the workforce, or putting some of the staff on an every other week schedule.

The workers’ complaints come at a time, ironically, when job losses in other sectors of the economy are mounting because of pandemic-related lockdowns. In Pennsylvania alone, more than one million new unemployment claims have been filed since March 15. Workers are many of those firms are irate because their businesses have been forced to shut down.

Adding another layer of irony, Amazon announced last month that it wants to hire 100,000 additional workers in its fulfillment centers and delivery networks as its remote shopping channel has been the only game in town for millions of home-bound Americans.

But that is part of the great quandary of this particular crisis; the anxiety level, and the causes of that anxiety, varies greatly from person to person depending on where their risk lies. Some – out of work but safe at home – are more concerned about their economic well-being, and others – with steady paychecks still available – find themselves wishing they could be safe at home.

Minarick, 51, summed up the dilemma.

“I love my job. I love going to work. I love trying to provide excellent customer service. But right now I feel like I’m disobeying what the nation is trying to do by keeping people separated at this point…. I honestly don’t see how shipping shoes is life-sustaining.”

At work, she said, even though the company has taken steps like propping doors open to minimize repeated touching, and many workers are wearing face masks and gloves, the picking of merchandise constantly brings workers into close proximity with one another and there are certain choke points that everyone has to pass.

HBC, like Apple, has closed its brick-and-mortar retail stores, which include the top-flight chains like Saks Fifth Avenue, Saks Off Fifth, and, in Canada, Hudson’s Bay department stores. It also also closed the distribution centers that service those stores, she noted. The e-commerce fulfillment center in Pottsville, is the only facility that’s operating.

She’s not quitting. But she did use some of her leave time to take off this weekend to relieve some stress.

“All day long I see the reason why the governor ordered businesses to close,” Minarick said. “It’s almost as if you’re in a PacMan game. Someone turns a corner and you want to quick turn around and go the other way.”

State government is not turning a deaf ear to the workers’ concerns.

On Sunday state Health Secretary Rachel Levine issued a new order under the state’s public health emergency declaration that will require operators on most of the state’s essential businesses, including warehouses, ” to clean and disinfect high-touch areas routinely in accordance with CDC guidelines, in spaces that are accessible to customers, tenants, or other individuals.”

Levine’s order will also obligate business owners to make sure they are employing enough workers “to perform the above protocols effectively and in a manner that ensures the safety of occupants and employees.”

The local workers’ concerns are echoing across the land as the COVID-19 case count has climbed over the past month.

In perhaps the most highly-watched case nationally, a worker at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, N.Y. was fired March 30 after leading a group of colleagues in a lunch hour protest of what they saw as that company’s inadequate response to the pandemic. They wanted their building to be temporarily closed and deep-cleaned, and for workers to be paid during the hiatus as several had become sick.

Amazon said Christian Smalls was fired because he returned to work to lead the demonstration while he supposed to be observing a paid, 14-day quarantine after coming into contact with someone at the facility who was sick. “We terminated his employment for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment,” a spokeswoman said.

Many companies, like the supermarket and pharmacies with their public-facing clerks, have bumped up worker salaries in the short-term to reward workers for sticking with it.

But higher wages don’t wash the worries away.

“I was one of the ones who didn’t see the coronavirus as a big deal at first, this too shall pass mentality,” said a grocery selector at United Natural Foods, a York-based wholesaler that supplies chains like Giant and Wegmans. The company has given staff a $2 per hour raise while placing everyone on mandatory six-day work weeks.

“Now that it (COVID-19) is in York County and working with 500-plus people, it’s a little unsettling knowing anybody could have it and not even know. I’m more worried about bringing it home to my children at this point.”

Severe, who walked away from Syncreon shortly before it raised pay for its shippers by $2 an hour, said she has no regrets, even if quitting costs her unemployment benefits. “That pay raise isn’t going to pay for your hospital bill when you have to go get treated for coronavirus,” she said.

 

PennLive  and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.