In April, when the reality of COVID-19 had settled in and nonessential retailers were closed to foster social distancing, Walmart sought to assure employees that things were under control.
"Our first, shared priority is to keep you well and safe," CEO Doug McMillion said in an April 9 open memo to employees. "Despite being on the front lines, our overall number of known cases is tracking with the national rate of cases per capita for the general population, with less than 1% of our workforce having confirmed cases. We have lost some associates, and that is obviously painful. We’re supporting the loved ones of our associates, and our hearts go out to them."
Walmart didn't immediately respond to Retail Dive's request for an update on the percentage of workers who have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak in the weeks since then.
United for Respect, an advocacy group for Walmart store workers, alleges there have been "at least 22 deaths and thousands of COVID-19 cases nationwide ... reported among Walmart associates." Nearly 800 cases as of press time have been reported to a tracker the group developed for employees to disclose cases at their stores. Walmart didn't immediately respond to Retail Dive's questions about the accuracy of the estimates and the tracker.
As an essential retailer selling groceries and household staples, Walmart was able to keep stores open. In the first quarter, a time when overall retail sales tumbled 16% year over year, Walmart's U.S. store comps rose 10% and digital sales soared 74%.
That came with some costs, however, including extra measures to make stores cleaner and safer and extra pay to employees for the added risk — some $755 million in special cash bonuses to all hourly associates and accelerated payment of $170 million in a regular bonus program. Those bonuses have been renewed once, per Walmart. A limited-time leave policy for those who felt sick or uncomfortable about working has been extended to July 31.
Walmart has closed several stores for deep cleaning in recent weeks and months, according to local news reports detailing closures of one to three days in different locations. In some, but not all, cases Walmart or municipalities confirmed positive COVID-19 tests as the reason for the closure and cleaning. Walmart or Sam's Club stores in Iowa, California and Texas were all closed this month for deep cleaning. In the spring, stores in California and New Orleans were closed. On April 30, the public health director in Worcester, Massachusetts, sent Walmart a cease-and-desist notice to shut down a local Walmart in order to test employees; in May the city said 85 employees had tested positive, and later allowed the store to reopen after cleaning.
A spokesperson for Walmart said, "We have protocols in place for informing associates when there is a case inside a store. There are daily discussions considering measures we should take for impacted stores, such as where to utilize 3rd-party cleaning and stores where we temporarily close for the purpose of sanitization."
A representative for United for Respect for Change, told Retail Dive in an email that, "based on what we've been seeing and hearing from associates, the overall take is that it's pretty inconsistent and there are major transparency issues."
Retailers are in a tough position because transparency, guidance, rules and protocols vary by state or even locality, experts say.
"We are giving mixed messages, there's no universal standard," Deb Gabor, CEO and founder of Sol Marketing and author of "Irrational Loyalty: Building a Brand that Thrives in Turbulent Times," told Retail Dive in an interview. "If you leave it up to the retailer to enforce, that puts them between a rock and a hard place. I would also say, though, that we know that brands need to take responsibility, they need to be accountable and communicate, all the things that are crisis communication 101. In this case, what are Walmart's communication standards? Do they leave it up to the stores?"
UPDATE: June 24, 2020: This story has been updated to include a statement from Walmart about store cleaning procedures. It has also been updated to reflect that a United for Respect representative emailed comments to Retail Dive.