Fear, heroism and wrongful death lawsuits in the age of coronavirus

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/zoranm
Apr 10, 2020
George Anderson

Not being heroic myself, I imagine that true heroism involves facing down the prospect of some type of personal harm to do the right thing in a given situation. We’re used to seeing examples of that in frontline responders — EMTs, firefighters, military, police — and lately we’ve become acutely aware that it applies to lots of others working in the health field and in retailing, as well.

I’ve gotten used to, on the occasional trip to the local Trader Joe’s, being warmly greeted by crew members wearing masks as they hand me a newly sanitized cart to take into the store. At the checkout, as with other stores, tape marks where I should stand while the cashier behind a plexiglass screen empties my cart and gets me ready to check out.

On a recent trip, I made a mistake. As I saw the last item being placed in the bag by the cashier, I took a step forward. It only took an instant, but in that moment I saw fear in the eyes of the young woman at the register, even though much of her face was covered by a mask. She gathered herself and asked me with only a hint of alarm in her voice to wait until she had a chance to back away before approaching the POS terminal. She never raised her voice, but I know I frightened her, and I had also frightened myself as I understood the mistake I almost made. I apologized, but it felt inadequate.

I’ve been struck by news coverage of Leilani Jordan, a 27-year-old associate with cerebral palsy who worked at a Giant Food store in Maryland. Ms. Jordan, who worked at the store for six years as part of its program to employ workers with disabilities, died last month after being infected with COVID-19.

Her mother, Zenobia Shepherd, said the young woman felt she needed to be at work, particularly to help the senior citizens who shopped at the store.

“She said nobody was showing up to work,” said Ms. Shepherd. “She said, ‘Mommy, I’m going to go to work. I’m going to still go to work. I want to help.'”

Thinking back to my Trader Joe’s experience, I’m thankful that the young woman at the checkout didn’t exhibit anger towards me that day. She could have. There is often a very short distance between fear and anger. I’ve thought about that recently with reports of workers demanding that companies do more to protect their safety. They’re scared and want to know that their employers are serious about keeping them safe. Anger will be the inevitable outcome if they do not think they’re being heard.

Earlier this week, the estate of Wando Evans, a 51-year-old associate who worked at a Walmart in Evergreen, IL, filed a wrongful death suit against the retailer. The suit alleges that various people working in the store were showing signs of COVID-19 infection and that Mr. Evans’ death could have been avoided if store management had been open with employees and customers. Another employee at the store also died from COVID-19-related complications.

“We are heartbroken at the passing of two associates at our Evergreen Park store and we are mourning along with their families,” said Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove. “While neither associate had been at the store in more than a week, we took action to reinforce our cleaning and sanitizing measures, which include a deep-cleaning of key areas.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How effectively are retail industry employers responding to the emotional aspects of managing their workforces in the current environment? Do you expect to see a lot of lawsuits and renewed pushes for labor representation as a result of the way employers are addressing worker safety through the pandemic?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Retail workers are responding tremendously to this crisis. The ones still working are out there every day making sure the rest of us can eat and get the essentials we need. "
"It is important for retail companies to communicate in a transparent way, to customers and associates alike, and make plans for new processes going forward."
"Of course there will be lawsuits when there is opportunity. There is also the mob mentality that is driving illogical behavior."

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11 Comments on "Fear, heroism and wrongful death lawsuits in the age of coronavirus"


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Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

This is a very slippery slope. Even the best retailers who have exemplary processes on how to manage social distancing and cleanliness have had people get infected or, unfortunately, pass away. I would hope retailers in general have assistance for those that need emotional support but I also hope that retailers are proactively prepared to face these lawsuits as there could very well be a lot of them.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Absolutely true. And the sad thing is, there are far too many law firms which make their money chasing ambulances (and viruses). What we’ll likely see is a bevy of lawsuits of which a tiny number are entirely valid and the remainder are frivolous. We need to hope that courts are wise in telling the difference and NOT reaching into the deepest pockets just because they are deeper.

Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust
Suresh Chaganti
Co-Founder and Executive Partner, VectorScient
5 months 8 days ago

Clearly retailers were ill-prepared in terms of workplace safety. Equipment, processes and protocols were designed and implemented on the fly. Unfortunately workers are affected, and they had a horrible choice to make between safety and being out of work. While the deaths are probably not due to negligence, lawsuits are legitimate in these circumstances, and the retailers have ample strength to pay out.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Retail workers are responding tremendously to this crisis. The ones still working are out there every day making sure the rest of us can eat and get the essentials we need. It is the job of employers to protect them as much as they can. However as this crisis is fast-moving and as supplies like masks and protective equipment can be hard to come by, some mistakes will be made. The cost of those mistakes is high and I expect there will be more lawsuits.

Some retailers, mainly the non-essential ones that insist on opening despite rules and guidance, are behaving recklessly. However I do not believe that the majority of retailers are deliberately putting employees in danger or treating them as expendable resources.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

These frontline workers are heroes. It is important for retail companies to communicate in a transparent way, to customers and associates alike, and make plans for new processes going forward. Ahold is making aisles one-way, for instance, to keep customers apart. It’s important.

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

There will be a lot of reflection and changes coming to the retail industry as a result of COVID-19. Since we’re still in the middle of the crisis, I doubt that retailers have yet to fully come to grips with the emotional impact this is having on employees, now and in the long-term. We shouldn’t be surprised if some retail workers suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of this experience. I fully expect to see lawsuits as from the deaths of retail workers, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an increase in employee representation as a result.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

There will undoubtedly be many lawsuits arising from these deaths, both from those families who lost a loved one and from other employees who felt more could have been done. Part of the issue will be that in some cases the person with the virus may not have yet shown any symptoms while at work (which appears not to be the case in the Walmart suit).

Yesterday there was an article regarding securing temporary status for grocery workers as first responders. I am sure if more deaths occur this issue will get far more attention.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
People rushing to work retail jobs in the face of pandemic, and often for minimal pay, exhibit bravery beyond measure and/or financial desperation. It seems to me that retailers were slow in responding, not because nobody ever thought about pandemics before – they’ve been a least a “Wild Card” in every scenario plan I’ve written for over 20 years — but because few of us can actualize the “worst case scenario” until we are in the middle of it. Let’s be honest, while many employers sincerely want to take care of their people, the retail industry simply isn’t equipped to take on cases of deep stress and possibly PTSD which will a permanent part of COVID-19’s legacy. That isn’t anybody’s fault, but it is the truth. Of course there will be lawsuits. What retailers can do is stop being tone deaf. I’m sure the families of Wando Evans and his co-worker are happy to hear that following the death of their loved one Walmart stepped in and deep sanitized the store, but it is way… Read more »
Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

Anyone who is NOT impressed by (hourly, minimum-wage) store associates should be banned from buying TP! Grocery, pharmacy and food service teams are stepping up big time! But we’re in the midst of the crisis and it is evolving rapidly, so I expect significant legal fallout once the pace of infections slow down, more workers get infected and employees have time to regroup and reflect on what they’ve been asked to do.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Of course there will be lawsuits when there is opportunity. There is also the mob mentality that is driving illogical behavior. Without clear, concise and persistent direction, there will be diversion from the standards given by leadership.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

George, this is a fantastic piece today. It is a perfect description of what life is like “out there.”

In the NYC transit system they are having an issue with their workers and benefits. If a worker is killed on the job because of an accident, their family is entitled to benefits. There is no question about that. But now we have a situation, mostly with bus drivers, who have contracted COVID-19 and many have died, if that applies. Drivers are among the group with the highest incidents of infection.

I don’t know the statistics for the brave ones working in essential retail. But I do believe anyone who is essential should be treated as if they were soldiers going to war. I don’t see this as anything different. The worst consequences are precisely the same.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Retail workers are responding tremendously to this crisis. The ones still working are out there every day making sure the rest of us can eat and get the essentials we need. "
"It is important for retail companies to communicate in a transparent way, to customers and associates alike, and make plans for new processes going forward."
"Of course there will be lawsuits when there is opportunity. There is also the mob mentality that is driving illogical behavior."

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