Lidl U.S. is disputing an account from some workers that its actions to keep its employees safe during the coronavirus crisis had been inadequate.
The charges illustrate the vulnerabilities of companies that have operated as “essential business” amid a national lockdown and within guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), particularly in areas hard-hit by the COVID-19 crisis, such as metro New York, where Lidl and its owned Best Market brand have encountered numerous worker illnesses and at least two deaths from the coronavirus, sources indicate. Amazon, Instacart, Trader Joe’s, Kroger and other industry companies have at times come under similar scrutiny from workers during the course of the crisis.
The Lidl workers are represented by LatinoJustice, a New York-based advocate for civil liberties of immigrant communities, and by Long Island Jobs With Justice, a union-associated group with a history of tangles with Best Market, the brand acquired by Lidl in 2018. In a letter to Lidl U.S. CEO Johannes Fieber and Best Market CEO Rebecca Philbert, they called on the retailer to implement a series of more stringent protective measures and hazard pay for workers, calling particular attention to more promptly and forthrightly communicating to workers when their colleagues fall ill.
“The workers seek a clear and detailed policy, per store, requiring their managers be trained to implement the CDC protocols identified as preventative to spreading COVID-19 in the workspace,” the letter read. “The workers also demand that Lidl impose an eight-hour time frame, where Lidl workers will be notified if one of their coworkers has been sent home because of potential or actual exposure to COVID-19. Moreover, the workers ask that Lidl notify all workers in contact with an infected worker up to two days prior to the infected worker exhibiting symptoms.”
They alleged, for example, that Lidl was unclear about the circumstances around the death of Gladys Cortez, a worker at an Islip, N.Y., store they later found out had died of COVID-19 complications. Other workers recounted suspicion that the company had purposefully timed announcements about worker absences so as to maintain help in the stores when absenteeism was high.
“These essential workers expressed concerns about not receiving information when a colleague is sick with the COVID-19 virus, is symptomatic and/or has tested positive or absent from work because of COVID-19. Many learn that they may have been exposed to a coworker who has tested positive through rumors and innuendos, which management fails to confirm or rectify. This, understandably, causes extreme anxiety for workers who are left without guidance or information necessary to take precautionary measures,” the letter said.
A Lidl spokesman contacted by WGB this week took issue with some specific allegations workers raised, and it maintained the company had followed CDC guidelines “to the letter.”
Lidl’s policies call for paid leave for 14 days for workers that test positive for COVID-19 and colleagues that came into close contact with them. He said more than 150 employees without symptoms had been placed on paid administrative leave under its policy, including individuals identified in the letter, and pointed out what he called a unique policy in the industry providing paid leave for all employees over the age of 65 or with documented health conditions that put them at higher risk of complications related to COVID-19. Further company policies are detailed here.
Lidl’s teams have responded to more than 2,000 employee phone calls on its dedicated customer assistance line publicized in stores.
The company has not addressed hourly pay premiums or bonuses, saying its focus was on worker and guest safety.