Fear, heroism and wrongful death lawsuits in the age of coronavirus
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.”
- Grocery workers are beginning to die of coronavirus – The Washington Post
- Giant grocery store employee in Largo dies after being diagnosed with coronavirus – WUSA 9
- Grocery store worker insisted on helping seniors, disabled before coronavirus death – The Associated Press/KGO-TV
- Walmart hit with wrongful-death lawsuit by estate of worker who died of coronavirus – MarketWatch
- How can stores get social distancing right? – Retailwire
- How will this change us? – RetailWire
- Should working in retail warehouses be safer than stores? – RetailWire
- Should retail associates be treated like frontline health responders? – RetailWire
- How should retailers guide staff through the coronavirus crisis? – RetailWire
- Retailers act to protect seniors from coronavirus shopping chaos and contamination – RetailWire
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?