Nine Barnes & Noble workers in a single New Jersey warehouse have tested positive for Covid-19, Motherboard has learned. Workers there are staging a protest at the factory Tuesday because they say the company hasn't given them sufficient protections.
Workers are demanding the closure of the warehouse for two weeks, paid time off, and full disinfection of the facility during those two weeks. They are also asking for hazard pay, along with better safety protocols and personal protective equipment in return. The action is being organized by Movimento Cosecha, Warehouse Workers Stand Up, and the Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board (LDFS Union).
On April 1st, the company confirmed one case of coronavirus and closed the warehouse for quick overnight disinfection in time for a “delayed” opening at 9 AM the next day. In an update it sent to workers on Tuesday, Barnes & Noble said nine workers there have confirmed cases of Covid-19:
“Barnes & Noble is focused on the safety and security of all our workers and is closely following CDC guidelines at the Monroe, New Jersey facility,” the company said. “We appreciate your efforts to keep working and your assistance in keeping our facilities safe for everyone. We wanted to let you know that, at this time, we have had nine employees contact us with confirmed cases of COVID-19.”
Workers at the warehouse told Motherboard the company has not followed CDC social distancing guidelines at the warehouse and said that they believe dozens of workers have shown symptoms. They also say it’s been difficult to take time off, and that workers have been refusing to come in.
"On March 12th, they gave us a memo listing many things: wash your hands, cover your face when you sneeze and cough … clean frequently touched surfaces with alcohol-based wipes, but they never did that until today,” said Elsa Rodriguez, who has worked at the facility for the last 16 years. “When I came back on March 16th, there were no changes. We all touched the same scanners to clock in, they gave us no rubber gloves, no wipes, we all had meetings in the same room.”
News stories have contradicted each other; some say that book sales are up because people are quarantined because of coronavirus, while others say they have fallen. Many Barnes & Noble stores have closed because of coronavirus, but it continues to sell books online. In March, the company told employees that it was in a “devastating situation” and that it expects to have to do layoffs.
Rodriguez says she has run into problems when she tried to take time off. She said she was mocked by her supervisors about her concerns over the virus.
"Between March 12 and March 23, the scanner was still in use. But devices or materials for cleaning? Nothing. Rubber gloves? Nothing. My supervisor said 'Go back, everything is OK. What, are you scared?' I said 'I think people are infected.' He says "No, no, no, nobody's infected,'" she told Motherboard.
Rodriguez got calls every three or four days, even after the first confirmed case, attempting to assure her that there was no risk in going back to work.
"The company is acknowledging that they know that nine workers are currently infected because they tested positive,” said Carlos Rojas, Rodriguez’s son and an organizer and translator involved in the action. “But in the WhatsApp group my mother created for dozens of workers to share their stories, then come together and plan the protest, it is clear there are dozens of workers who are showing symptoms and still working or have stayed home because of symptoms but can’t get tests.”
Rodriguez wants the action to push the company to protect the lives of its workers but feels disappointed that the company didn’t step up to do this on its own:
"Every time we increase production or have a good quarter, the managers come out and congratulate the workers for production. They tell us that they appreciate us, that they appreciate us and our families,” she said. “But this was the real moment to show the appreciation for the workers. And what I have seen my company do is prefer to make money. They're putting profits over the lives of workers like me and their families. They haven't given us gloves. They haven't given us masks. Hand sanitizer. They haven't taken any precautions to protect the lives of the workers who they say they appreciate.”
Update: After this article was published, Barnes and Noble sent Motherboard a statement that claimed, in part, that "unfortunately, we have had 5 confirmed cases of employees, or their family members, with COVID-19 and monitor others who have reported to be suffering symptoms." However, earlier in the day, a "safety update" sent to employees in the Monroe warehouse said that "at this time we have had nine employees contact us with confirmed cases of COVID-19." When asked about the discrepancy, Barnes & Noble said "we have had 5 cases confirmed by doctors of employees who work at the warehouse, and the other cases being reported by employees. In each case we have worked with health officials for appropriate response."
In its statement to Motherboard, Barnes and Noble said it is following CDC guidelines, which is disputed by the protesting workers. It also said "We appreciate all the hard work and efforts of our staff, and will continue to listen to their concerns and work with them to make a safe and secure work environment.”