Mounting data has shown Omicron to be considerably less deadly than previous COVID-19 variants, but infections are rising and companies are struggling to keep employees staffed.
Across the country, brick-and-mortars are managing at-capacity operations with fewer workers—a trend that has prompted overscheduling, emergency hiring, and increased pressure on employees.
“We had gotten to a point here where we were comfortable, it wasn’t too bad, and then all of a sudden this new variant came and everybody got sick,” said Artavia Milliam, a worker at H&M in Hudson Yards, Manhattan.
Milliam is also a member of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which negotiates contracts and fights for progressive action on behalf of all workers. Like many of her coworkers, she was vaccinated but contracted the virus during the holidays.
Fewer employees able to come into work meant temporarily closing fitting rooms just to keep the registers going. “It’s been overwhelming, just having to deal with not having enough staff and then twice as many people in the store,” she said.
Transmission rates are only going up
More Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19 than not, but unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped Omicron’s rapid transmission rates. Retailers that require in-person attendance have suffered the same fate as the above H&M location, and that’s only compounded by an ongoing labor shortage.
Spencer Shute, a consultant at supply chain consulting firm Proxima, explains: “The labor market was already constrained and now with the rate of transmission of the Omicron variant, it’s made matters worse across all sectors… The reduced quarantine time softens the blow, but only slightly because the rate of transmission is so high.”
When infection rates are as high as one million new cases each day, retailers like Lululemon are having to readjust their staffing protocols.
Calvin McDonald, CEO of Lululemon, maintains that the company started the holiday season strong, but has since experienced several consequences as a result of the new variant.
But capacity constraints, reduced operating hours, and limited staff availability is just the tip-of-the-iceberg as the retailer expects its fourth-quarter revenue to be on the low end.
Navigating schedule changes and lowered morale
It’s unlikely anyone knows exactly how long Omicron’s surges will last, but projections have the rate of new infections rising at least until the end of January.
For now, retailers will need to find sustainable solutions that combat understaffing and lowered retention rates. This has proven easier said than done, as brick-and-mortars like the Macy’s in Lynnwood, Washington struggle to problem solve.
“Morale could not be lower,” said Lisa Luick, a longtime sales associate at the department store, “every day, we have call-outs, and we have a lot of them.” That’s forced remaining staff members to work more hours, but even with overtime, many are not eager to stay.
“Some people are so tired of what’s going on—you have some that are exposed and some that are using it as an excuse to not have to work to be around these circumstances,” said Mr. Dancy, a member of the food and commercial workers union.
Navigating incoming cases hasn’t been easy for owners, managers, or their employees, but stores that continue operations must do their best to gauge new risks on a monthly, weekly, and daily basis.
Isolation protocols require uniformity
Shifting guidelines around isolations are also causing confusion at retail locations. Macy’s just released a memo last week announcing that they would be adopting new guidelines from the CDC that suggest shortening the isolation period for infected workers from 10 to five days.
But H&M continues to instruct employees like Ms. William to isolate for the full 14 days after testing positive. Contrasting isolation periods like this put working parents in a bind, particularly when schools don’t follow the same protocols.
Furthermore, extended isolation periods put a financial burden on the back of many retail workers. Omicron is spreading faster than previous variants, but employers like Kroger have yet to provide increased pay or reinstate previous precautions.
Kroger has not provided hazard pay across all locations since the start of the pandemic, but that’s true of most grocers and retailers.
“The company says they are providing a safe environment for workers to do their jobs in,” Kevin Schneider, secretary-treasurer of a unit of the United Food and Commercial Workers in the Denver area said. “We don’t believe that.
Lucky for some, municipalities have stepped in to make sure workers in cities like Seattle receive hazard pay. Kroger is required to top pay employees an additional $4 per hour at locations under local jurisdiction.
Vaccine-or-test mandates aren’t here quite yet
The possibility of a vaccine-or-testing mandate from the Biden administration is also in the spotlight as cases surge, but the majority of retailers have resisted. For many, losing employees to mandates is not worth the risk.
When Omicron hit in early December, retailers pointed to the holiday season rush as a reason to avoid mandates, but that’s since shifted to the burden of testing unvaccinated workers.
Even so, the National Retail Federation said that it “continues to believe that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) exceeded its authority in promulgating its vaccine mandate.”
Further, NRF estimates the order would require at least 20 million tests a week, and that “such testing capacity currently does not exist.”
There is, however, hope for retail workers who feel a mandate would encourage a safer work environment. Macy’s, among others, began asking for employee vaccination statuses in early January ahead of a potential national Supreme Court ruling that requires proof of negative tests beginning on February 16th.
“Our primary focus at this stage is preparing our members for an eventual mandate to ensure they have the information and tools they need to manage their workforce and meet the needs of their customers,” said Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
Consistent policies and more sustainable support
Even when Omicron cases subside, researchers suggest COVID-19 isn’t going to dissipate anytime soon. As seasonal surges become the norm, companies and workers’ unions will need to look for consistent policies that align with the needs of employees.
Director of strategic campaigns for Northern California’s food and commercial workers union Jim Araby argues the industry must establish more sustainable support for workers who either tested positive or are sick.
“We have to start treating this as endemic… and figuring out what are the structural issues we have to put forward to deal with this,” said Araby after pointing to potential COVID-specific sick days for union members.
Nevertheless, the effects of Omicron will get worse before they get better and retailers have an obligation to plan for COVID’s future peaks.