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The 800 workers at theBarnes & Nobledistribution center in Monroe Township are consideredessential—so, while many people are working from home to help combat the spread of thecoronavirus, they aren’t.
Every day, employees there pack and ship boxes of books and toys as they come down a conveyor belt.
But on Tuesday, about 15 protesting employees picketed outside the facility to question why they are still at work.
“Why keep the warehouse open when this isn’t essential work?” said Jose Alberto, who works to ticket packages and ensure the right labels get attached to the right boxes.
“You don’t protect us,” box-packer Elsa Rodriguez added, addressing company officials at the protest. “We don’t sell food, we don’t sell (pharmaceuticals), no! We don’t sell any necessary goods. I am very mad!”
Tuesday morning, Barnes & Noble confirmed that nine employees at the warehouse were sick. Five had tested positive forCOVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and four more were sick with COVID-19 symptoms.
In a statement Tuesday, Barnes & Noble said it was implementing social distancing in the Monroe Township facility, as well as “enhanced cleaning, reduced staffing, marking of distance on floors, spacing at work stations to keep people at least 6-feet apart, and the removal of turnstiles and break room seating to ensure proper distancing.”
The statement also said it’s asking workers to stay home, without pay, if they feel ill or uncomfortable coming to work. A letter sent to employees outlines department-by-department guidelines for social distancing and advised them that both cloth and plastic gloves are available for employee use if they ask for them. The company also told employees that it had ordered cloth face masks for everyone but that they hadn’t yet arrived.
“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,” said Alex Ortolani, a company spokesperson.
But the protesting employees, many of them Latinx, said their working conditions up to this point have not been safe.
“Our health comes first,” they chanted in Spanish. “Close the warehouse and clean it. Close the warehouse and pay your workers.”
“Our health is essential,” one sign read.
“Barnes & Noble depends on our labor,” said another.
Employees said they felt like the company hasn’t been doing enough and that it wasn’t possible to social distance during their shifts. They also said they weren’t immediately provided with personal protective gear like face masks and latex gloves.
Among the workers’ demands are a closure of the facility for two weeks so the company can fully sanitize the warehouse. During that shutdown, workers are asking for paid time-off and, when they return, hazard pay of at least two times their wages and personal protective gear, as well as enforced social distancing and routine cleaning.
Workers are also asking the company to allow them to take additional time off if they feel unsafe or need to self-quarantine, even after their sick days and vacation time has been used up. Currently, workers can use their existing sick days and vacation days, and can ask management for 14 days of unpaid time off if they are worried about getting sick, but must return to work after that.
On Tuesday, state officialsannouncedmore than 3,300 new cases of COVID-19 and 232 new deaths, bringing state totals to 44,416 cases and 1,232 deaths. Businesses across the state have shut down, and other essential operations have instituted safety and social distancing procedures to protect employees and customers.
Internal memos obtained by NJ Advance Media show Barnes and Noble sent a letter to employees on March 11 advising that they follow CDC guidelines to avoid getting sick, and to inform managers if they experienced symptoms.
On April 1, the company sent out another letter to employees informing them that a worker at the Monroe Township facility had tested positive for COVID-19. In response, Barnes & Noble closed the warehouse at 4:15 p.m. for cleaning, and delayed opening the following the day until 9 a.m.
On Tuesday, a third letter informed employees of the five confirmed and four possible cases of COVID-19. Barnes & Noble said the facility would close on Friday, April 10 for cleaning and will reopen the following day. Tuesday’s letter also advised that workers would start receiving masks and gloves to wear during their shifts, and that the facility would continue to close regularly for cleaning.
Though she’s been out of work for a week, Cintya Medina joined her coworkers Tuesday. She has not taken a COVID-19 test, but has experienced symptoms and fears she has the virus. Medina can’t stay out of work for much longer, though, she said, because it will be difficult for her financially.
“Imagine if I am actually sick, and I go back to work like they want me to,” she said. “Then I’ll get other people sick.”
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