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Walmart will start taking workers’ temperatures and provide them with masks and gloves

March 31, 2020, 3:15 PM UTC

As health concerns mount among retail workers closely interacting with the public on a daily basis during the coronavirus pandemic, Walmart said on Tuesday it would begin taking employees’ temperatures as they report to work.

Over the next three weeks, the largest private sector U.S. employer with 1.4 million workers will implement a new policy turning back any employee at stores, distribution centers, or e-commerce fulfillment centers with a temperature of 100 degrees or more as measured by the infrared thermometers Walmart will provide its facilities. Such workers will still be paid but sent home and asked to seek medical help.

The company will also start providing workers with general surgical masks and gloves in the coming weeks if they want them, even though the Centers for Disease Control does not recommend them for healthy workers. Walmart will not provide workers with N95 masks, citing the urgent need for them among at-risk medical workers. The company expects to provide 7 million masks a week.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing that retail workers are being asked to do heroic work in order to keep America fed,” Walmart executive vice president Dan Bartlett told reporters on a conference call.

But U.S. workers clearly want more than accolades for heroism from employers or even the general public. Walmart’s move comes as many service workers are mobilizing to demand better protection from employers as they deliver food, stock shelves, and serve customers in stores.

Earlier this week, Instacart workers walked out, asking for $5 hazard pay, more sick pay, and more extensive safety protection. Some 60 Amazon workers walked off the job at a Staten Island, N.Y., center for similar reasons. And on Tuesday, workers at Whole Foods, an Amazon division, are planning a “sick out,” as they ask for hazard pay and more sanitation.

“We have an obligation to listen to our associates,” said Bartlett.

If a Walmart employee clocks a high temperature and is sent home, they can return to work only after three sub-100-degree days. Workers can receive up to two weeks’ worth of sick days while under quarantine.

As the largest U.S. grocer by far, with $190 billion in food sales last year, Walmart cannot afford to have an angry or sick workforce as people stock up on food.

What’s more, Walmart is in the process of hiring 150,000 temporary workers to help it handle the surge of stock-up shopping, and these measures will be key to filling those jobs. Bartlett said Walmart’s supply chain has adjusted to “this new normal” and just under 50,000 temporary employees have already been hired.

Other steps Walmart has taken include plexiglass dividers to minimize exposure for cashiers and taped markings on the floor to help people stay six feet away from each other. Bartlett said U.S. stores will test one-way aisles to prevent people from bunching up. He also noted that Walmart had extensive expertise in crowd control thanks to its Black Friday events.

Retailers normally prefer it when shoppers linger since it increases the odds of impulse buying, but Bartlett said Walmart is hoping customers will be efficient, minimizing their time at the store to make social distancing easier. “This is not the time to have a social gathering,” he quipped.

While Walmart will take employees’ temperatures, it has no plans to go a step further and do the same with customers. In that case, Bartlett said, it would have to be a directive from government officials.

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—It may be a while before many of America’s stores open again
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
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