Walmart’s inadequate paid sick leave cost lives. It needs to change

June 3, 2021, 7:00 PM UTC
Walmart should create a pandemic task force to prevent future COVID-19 outbreaks in its stores, write William J. Barber II and Cynthia Murray.
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

This week at its annual shareholders meeting, Walmart celebrated the record profits it raked in during the pandemic. It certainly was a good year for the company and its owners. The Walton family saw their personal wealth increase by over $48 billion, and the company’s top six executives saw their total compensation reach nearly $80 million

As money flowed to the top of the company, though, the coronavirus pandemic spread across the bottom, and Walmart refused to institute commonsense policies like universal paid sick leave for its workers. Instead, it stiffed them on hazard pay and dragged its feet on masks, distancing, and limiting crowds. The company failed to take basic actions to stem outbreaks and even pushed back against health and safety complaints from workers and customers. 

Early in the pandemic, 22 employees died of COVID-19 and, as the virus spread throughout its stores and warehouses, at least 151 Walmart facilities in 10 states reported outbreaks, according to United for Respect. In New Mexico, COVID-19 hit nearly every store. In Oregon, over 20 OSHA complaints were filed by workers and customers about one store’s lack of COVID-19 safeguards. In Massachusetts, Walmart challenged an OSHA investigation into the death of one of its associates and contested her family’s claim for workers’ compensation, while at least 16 other workers also contracted COVID-19 at the same store. 

This is why during the shareholder meeting, we called for the creation of a pandemic task force: a committee made up of frontline associates and executives to guide the company’s public health response moving forward. Workers need to be part of the decision-making process to make sure stores are safe for customers and employees and to have a say in shaping policies that affect them, including those related to critical issues like wages and lifesaving benefits, without fear of retaliation. (Walmart has been notoriously anti-union since its founding and has routinely broken the law to keep employees from organizing.)

Walmart has opposed the creation of a task force (it attempted to exclude the proposal from the shareholder meeting, but the Securities and Exchange Commission declined the request), claiming it is already doing enough to improve wages and benefits, support health and safety, and advance racial equity. But for workers on the ground, the company’s recent announcements on progress are riddled with fine print, and Walmart’s numerous store closures, OSHA investigations, and multiple lawsuits, as well as criticism of inadequate safety measures from the attorneys general of 11 states and the District of Columbia, point to gaping problems. 

Indeed, the profits that Walmart made over the past year came at an unbearable cost. Many of Walmart’s workers were already vulnerable to COVID-19 outside of the workplace, due to income disparities, racial discrimination, or language barriers. Although the company has refused to publicly release any data to confirm or deny the toll of the virus on its own facilities and employees, a recent report from Human Impact Partners estimates that at least 125,000 Walmart employees contracted COVID-19 between February 2020 and February 2021, with over 2,000 deaths among its associates. The report also shows that if Walmart had an adequate paid sick leave policy in place before the pandemic hit, at least 7,618 people probably would not have become sick and at least 133 lives could have been saved. 

Given that the company is the largest corporate employer of America’s Black workforce, its failure to provide living wages, adequate paid sick leave, and hazard pay early on in the pandemic stands in stark contrast to the company’s public campaign saying “Black Lives Matter.” These words are meaningless when Walmart openly campaigns against a federal $15 minimum wage, a concrete policy that would help undo structural racism

Beyond the racial component, it is morally indefensible for Walmart to profit from policies that keep its workers poor and unsafe. Given the company’s leading position in American business, investors must realize that these policies are not just hurting workers; they’re impacting the health of the economy as a whole. 

The research is clear: Living wages and a safe and healthy workforce are not only right for workers, but also for a healthy economy. When workers in this country are able to earn at least a $15 wage and to afford health care, food, and housing, our entire society benefits. More than seven in 10 Americans across both political parties intuitively understand this and support a minimum wage increase. 

Walmart and its shareholders have a clear choice: continue to drag their feet, or raise wages and give frontline workers a stronger voice in shaping the direction of the company. After the year we’ve had, this shouldn’t be a hard decision.

William J. Barber II is president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and the national cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

Cynthia Murray is a 20-year Walmart associate and shareholder, and member leader of United for Respect. 

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