Retail Workers Desperately Need Masks

Earlier this month, the CDC officially recommended that everyone wear cloth masks in public to slow the spread of COVID-19, regardless of whether or not they are exhibiting the deadly disease’s symptoms. But retail employees, warehouse workers, and others whose jobs have been declared “essential” during the pandemic are still finding themselves without protective equipment—and some huge companies are advising that their employees make it themselves.

Last Thursday, Target workers tweeted a printed memo from the company instructing employees on how to make their own cloth face masks. The memo, which was first posted by members of Target Workers United, lists step-by-step instructions on creating a mask using “breathable fabric” from “handkerchiefs, T-shirts, dish cloths, [and] socks.”

Workers who spoke to Motherboard say that masks are still unavailable at Target stores across the country, and that the company is lagging behind on other protective measures, like installing plexiglass barriers at checkout counters.

“People are coming up to me asking me where I got my mask from, because I’ve been wearing one from the beginning,” Adam Ryan, a liaison for Target Workers Unite, told Motherboard. The vast majority of people at his store are not wearing masks because the company hasn’t provided them, he said.

The notice comes after Target announced a range of new safety measures responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a promise to provide masks and gloves to all employees over the next two weeks. A Target spokesperson confirmed that the DIY mask instructions were given out to all store and distribution center employees.

“Target has committed to providing our more than 340,000 team members in stores and distribution centers with high-quality, disposable face masks and gloves,” the company wrote in a statement emailed to Motherboard. “Those supplies are rolling out now. While the supplies have been in route, we also provided our team members with a guide on how to make their own face masks, given the CDC updated its guidance.”

Another employee at a Target store in North Carolina, who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, told Motherboard that he made DIY cloth masks with his girlfriend using instructions from the CDC’s website.

“I know people are wanting [masks], but considering they haven’t even gotten the plexiglass shields installed, I have my doubts that it’s going to happen in the next two weeks,” the employee said. “I’d feel a little bit safer with an actual mask for professional use, even if it’s not a medical mask. I feel like that would be safer than what we’ve been doing.”

Previously, the discussion about face masks had focused exclusively on the shortages of medical-grade equipment faced by frontline healthcare workers. But growing scientific evidence suggests that wearing even a simple cloth mask while out in public can help slow the virus’ spread when combined with social distancing—especially for grocery store clerks and other essential workers that are forced to go to work during the pandemic.

Last week, workers at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island received a text from the retail and shipping company urging them to wear masks while working their shifts. “We recommend everyone wears a facemask of some kind covering their nose and mouth from arrival through departure of your shift,” reads the text message, which was obtained by Motherboard after being sent to Amazon workers. “We will be handing out masks for everyone or you may bring your own, including fabric masks.”

Workers say that while some masks are available, they are in limited supply and workers must seek them out from a designated manager.

“Every day, I’m fearing for my life because we are running low on face masks, we have no hand sanitizer, and we can’t keep six feet apart from each other in certain areas of the building,” said Mario Crippen, an Amazon warehouse worker from Michigan, during a phone conference last week. “Everyone is at risk when they walk inside that building. I don’t think even Jeff [Bezos] would walk inside that building without gloves or a mask on.”

An Amazon representative did not respond to a request for comment.

The complaints are part of a new wave of protests calling attention to conditions faced by low-wage workers who are being asked to work during the pandemic. Warehouse workers with the group Athena are also demanding paid leave and the shutdown of Amazon’s warehouses so they can be professionally decontaminated. And last week, hundreds of fast food workers in California went on strike, demanding masks, gloves, and soap, as well as hazard pay and paid sick leave for anyone exposed to the virus.

“This is necessary equipment. We need them to do our jobs and we have a right to safe work conditions,” said Ryan, from Target Workers Unite. “We’re supposedly the most powerful, wealthy country in the world and we can’t even provide the personal protective equipment we need to do our jobs.”