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Well-intentioned crafters have been flocking to JoAnn Fabrics this week for free, do-it-yourself mask and gown kits so they can make crucial medical gear that’s currently in short supply at hospitals treating coronavirus patients around the country.
But several employees who spoke to VICE News felt the company hadn’t considered their health and safety — or their customers’ — before making the decision to declare stores “essential,” remain open during states’ lockdowns, and launch an effort to draw even more shoppers.
At one store location in Colorado Springs, employees even picketed outside their store Wednesday. They stood a safe distance apart while holding signs that read “our health over their profit” and “fair wages for retail workers.”
The location soon agreed to shift to curbside pickup and close its store to customers, according to the protest’s organizer.
“We're calling it a small victory,” Jessica DeFronzo, a 35-year-old cashier manager at the store, told VICE News. “I don’t believe we’re an essential business.”
The Colorado Springs employees aren’t the only ones who feel that way. Around the country, employees of JoAnnFabrics and Crafts — or just Joann, as the company has rebranded itself — are urging executives and district managers to immediately close its nearly 900 stores nationwide, or at least shift entirely to curbside pickup. They worry the wave of crafting mania could put them and their customers at risk. An online petition to close the Ohio-based chain and offer hazard pay to its employees had garnered nearly 9,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.
“This last past week has been chaos in our store, specifically this last weekend,” one Puget Sound-area employee wrote in an email to VICE News. She supports the mask-crafting effort, but not the risk she believes it’s placing on customers. “We were at Black Friday levels of busy, in terms of how many people were in our store.”
The stores, described by the company as many customers’ “happy place,” aren’t adequately sanitized because hours have been cut so short, according to multiple employees. And during the shortened hours the store is operating, it’s too busy to adequately clean. Supplies to scrub the stores have also been noticeably absent.
One employee said that workers are clocking in even while showing symptoms of illness, because the company offers few paid benefits to part-time employees.
“They're lying about being essential, lying about how these masks help, and lying about how they're taking serious precautions to protect the health of employees and customers.”
JoAnn did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment, but CEO Wade Miquelon said in a statement last week that they were seeing “hospital workers, organizations and individuals coming into our stores for supplies to make these essential items.”
“So many are spending their time and money to help in this tragic situation, and we want to step in to do our part to protect the amazing people who are helping the communities we serve,” he said.
The company’s efforts to draw more customers during a pandemic has pushed some employees to their breaking point. A coalition of 18 Pittsburgh-area JoAnn employees told their district manager on Wednesday that they’d been through enough and were taking a collective, unpaid month-long leave of absence to protect themselves, their family members, and their customers. That effectively shut down the store.
“They said, ‘We’re saving lives by giving people the materials to make these masks, we’re doing all these wonderful things to help people sustain life.’ But we’re under a shelter-in-place order in Pennsylvania,” said one longtime employee who was a part of the effort to walk out on her store. “We do not want to be out. We don’t think we’re a necessary business. If you’re a true crafter, you have a stash.”
In several states and cities currently under lockdown orders of varying severity, JoAnn is among the several companies — including Vitamin Shoppe, Guitar Center, and Sherwin-Williams — that have controversially been declared essential in the same way grocery stores, pharmacies, and health care facilities are. For its part, JoAnn says it’s essential because it sells crafting supplies that can make medical gear in a pinch. The company also sells gear that’s used by crafters who sell their finished goods for money.
The company even sent a letter to customers Thursday afternoon saying it’d donated enough fabric for more than 1.5 million masks, while customers had on their own “purchased enough cotton and elastic to make nearly 9 million masks to-date.” (The free supply kits are limited and run out quickly, according to employees.) Along with increased cleaning efforts, the company pledged to protect workers by giving them “the materials to make and wear handmade masks” of their own.
While the efficacy and safety of the DIY cloth masks are no match for the N95 surgical masks currently in short supply around the country, they’re often considered better than nothing. “What we’re doing now is akin to some of the wartime efforts,” Miquelon told the New York Times. In the absence of surgical masks, the CDC has recommended using bandanas, scarves, and handmade masks as a last resort. But some hospitals won’t take cloth masks, acknowledging they’re little more than a reminder to not touch your face.
Still, the crafting campaign has stoked positive reactions from some customers.
“Thank goodness for @JoAnn_Stores for keeping open, even if it’s just for curb side pickup,” one shopper wrote on Twitter. “Time to wash a heck of a lot of cotton and start making masks for some of our first responder friends!”
“Don’t forget to thank @JoAnn_Stores and give them a follow while you are at. We won’t forget how they stepped up to save lives!” another tweeted.
Other customers were less hyped. They wrote that they didn’t see why the business needed to remain open, since some people were just heading into the stores to browse.
“CLOSE YOUR STORES!” a self-described “faithful customer for over 20 years” wrote on Twitter.
Police in McHenry, Illinois, went as far as to issue a cease-and-desist order to local JoAnn stores, along with Michaels and GameStop — other self-described “essential” businesses — and warned that they were violating a statewide stay-at-home order.
“They're lying about being essential, lying about how these masks help, and lying about how they're taking serious precautions to protect the health of employees and customers,” another employee wrote in an email to VICE News. “If the stores aren't staffed and supplied enough to be kept clean and sanitary during normal times, how can anyone expect it is safe to shop at Joann during a pandemic?”
Cover: A logo sign outside of a Jo-Ann Fabrics retail store location in Columbia, Maryland on April 20, 2018. (Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
This article originally appeared on VICE US.