As the deadly new coronavirus creeps through America, Lowe’s Home Improvement has been on a PR blitz, posting on social media about its “heroic” employees, offering raises to associates and making a show of letting workers take Easter off.
But Andy, a 22-year-old Lowe’s associate using a pseudonym to protect his identity, doesn’t feel like a hero for showing up to work at a hardware store during the pandemic — especially when most of his customers are shopping for nonessential goods. And recently, when an elderly woman grabbed his arm to get his attention so she could buy a flower, he felt more like a villain. “All I could think about for the rest of the day was that I was dirty, and she could die because she touched me,” Andy tells me. “I just hope in the next few weeks she doesn’t suffer for wanting flowers.”
Many of Andy’s coworkers are struggling with the same feeling. “I read the interviews with [Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison] talking about how we’re all heroes, and I just want to scream at the injustice of it,” says 35-year-old associate Michelle (also a pseudonym), who is currently sick with coronavirus symptoms. “If only people really knew what it was like, if they only knew how broken we all are right now, would they really feel okay about carelessly venturing out to buy flowers and mulch? We have to pretend that we’re all doing some heroic thing, and it’s all a lie.”
I spoke with 12 Lowe’s associates and managers across the country who unanimously feel like their safety has been sacrificed for the company’s bottom line. While Lowe’s has made several high-profile announcements about protecting their workers, increasing pay and offering sick leave, employees say the reality on the ground is far from safe. And instead of taking what associates see as easy steps to ensure their safety, Lowe’s has only pushed sales to drive more people to physical stores — putting already understaffed teams at greater risk.
In response, employees are flocking to Twitter and Reddit, where they track coronavirus deaths and positive cases within the company, wary that there are likely far more infections than what’s been reported. Employees are also bracing for even worse news around the corner: This week, VP of Human Resources Jennifer Weber dumped her Lowe’s stock and resigned “effective immediately.”
Employees Speak Out Against Corporate Spin
Things reached a boiling point on Monday when Lowe’s corporate office tried to ease the tension by giving associates Easter Sunday off as a “day of rest.” This was welcome news for an exhausted staff: The previous week, the company held its Spring Black Friday sale per usual, which drove hundreds of thousands of customers into stores.
But associates were upset to learn that Easter wasn’t, in fact, a paid day off: It was a forced day off. “We’re taking steps to ensure that no associate loses scheduled hours or experiences a reduction in pay,” reads an email sent to them. In short, employees would have to work another day to make up for the missed hours on Sunday. (Lowe’s responded to our request for comment with a verbatim line from the email below.)
Meanwhile, in March, news broke that Lowe’s was giving employees an additional $2-an-hour raise for the month of April, along with a $300 one-time raise for full-time employees and $150 for part-time employees. “My store alone did $300,000 in sales on a Sunday, with less than half the staff working,” Michelle says. “Someone told me I should be thankful for the $2 raise. I’m sorry, I’d much rather be paid to stay home safe and sound than get an extra $180.” Michelle points out that the $80 million Lowe’s has committed to extra pay amounts to 0.1 percent of its $71.3 billion in 2019 revenue (0.3% of gross profit).
“You’re going to offer us $2 an hour extra to work, and then take a working day away from us? It makes no sense,” says Chris, a 34-year-old associate in New England. “Safety should come before profit, period. If you don’t have safe and healthy employees, you don’t make a profit. Put them first.”
Employees are also furious about Lowe’s paid sick leave policy. The company announced it would give “14 days of emergency paid leave for all associates who need it,” extending “emergency paid leave up to a total of four weeks for those at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.”
Associates, however, say it’s nearly impossible to get this time approved. “You’re being forced to jump through hoops to get the two weeks off, and that’s only if you can get your manager to approve it,” Chris says. “I’ve seen associates with fairly major medical issues get turned down.”
For example, when Michelle came down with the aforementioned illness that included common coronavirus symptoms, she was told that unless she provided proof of a positive test, she was to report to work as usual. The best she could do was to get a doctor’s note to buy her until Monday, when she’s hoping to get into the ER and get a coronavirus test.
Having PPE on hand could assuage employees’ fears. But while Lowe’s announced it would make “masks and gloves available to all associates in the workplace who want them,” this has yet to come to fruition. “The newspapers are reporting that Lowe’s is providing all employees with gloves and masks, but they aren’t,” says Ben, a 36-year-old associate. “I had to provide my own cotton mask, and I’m wearing my work gloves and washing them out at night. Most of my coworkers don’t have any masks, and the cashiers are the only ones who have gloves. Corporate was supposed to send us masks and gloves this week, but so far they haven’t arrived at the stores. There’s no budget for buying the stuff elsewhere.”
Lowe’s responded to our request for comment with this statement: “The health and well-being of our associates and customers is our top priority. We are making masks and gloves available to all associates in the workplace who want them and they are receiving them this week.”
“They talk about safety, but don’t walk the walk,” Ben continues. “The morale in the store is so bad, and the unpaid Easter is just making it worse.”
“Morale is probably the worst I’ve ever seen,” Michelle agrees. “We’re tired, overworked, understaffed and forced to go along with all these lies that Lowe’s is telling the public.” She says associates have been offered unlimited overtime with time-and-a-half pay after 40 hours. However, she says, no one in her store is taking it. “We’re so overwhelmed and understaffed that a normal nine-hour shift [lunch included] takes an emotional toll. Even though overtime would be nice, it’s just not worth it.”
And yet, according to two associates, corporate asked managers to have their staffs make signs thanking Ellison for the raise. These pictures were later uploaded to the employee-only website myloweslife.com. “They’re basically throwing crumbs to starving dogs, but they’re asking for praise for it,” Michelle says.
How Lowe’s Encourages Nonessential Shopping
Every year, Home Depot and Lowe’s participate in a “Spring Black Friday” sale. Foot traffic and seasonal sales skyrocket as people shop for warm-weather activities. Due to the coronavirus, Home Depot canceled its Spring Black Friday sales and now closes all stores at 6 p.m., four hours earlier than usual. But Lowe’s has continued pushing its Spring Black Friday ads, and it cut open hours by only a half hour. “This is why we’re all going to die,” reads a post on r/Lowes. It shows a paint display that says “Stuck Inside? Staring at the Walls? How About a New Color?”
Local governments deem Lowe’s and other appliance stores as “essential” in case of emergency needs, particularly for professional tradesmen. A broken refrigerator or busted pipes can’t be kicked down the road to be fixed later. But for many Lowe’s customers, hardware-store shopping is an excuse to escape the house and — several Lowe’s associates say — meet up with friends. “I go crazy when I ask people if I can help them with a project and they tell me, ‘No, I’m just getting out of the house,’” Andy says, adding that this is the case for nearly a third of the customers he sees daily. “We have groups purposefully meeting at the store to have coffee together or stand around and catch up.”
In an interview with CNBC, Ellison brought up the increase in sales “across the board.” “They know that we have to be there, because even though this is a crisis for our country and community, if your home isn’t functional, that adds additional stress,” he said.
“We’ve been told that we’re remaining open to ‘serve our community in its time of need,’” Michelle counters. “But I have yet to see any customers in the store buying anything other than grills, patio furniture, soil, mulch and plants. We sold out of all of our mulch last weekend. We normally take about 10 days to do that.”
Chris agrees. “Cart after cart that goes through checkout is filled with garden supplies, patio furniture, grills, appliances, etc. Not once have I seen someone purchase an item that would be considered ‘essential’ in the time of a pandemic.”
Some customers are grateful. “The ones thanking us constantly for being open are usually the customers buying tons of non-essential items, such as curtains, flowers, mulch, dirt,” Ashley says. But for “every one kind person,” Andy says, there are “nine dangerous assholes.” He claims he’s been taunted for wearing a homemade mask, coughed on and cornered and berated “for treating them like they ‘had the plague’ because I was staying six feet away.”
Associates Demand Change
The Lowe’s corporate office said it would implement actions to limit the amount of customers in the store. “But that PR release failed to mention the fact that it’s all left to the store manager’s discretion,” says Chris. “They’re not limiting customers at all. It was just a PR move.”
“There are restrictions in my state that limit a maximum of 150 customers in the store. We observed that for exactly three days, and have now just gone back to letting anyone and everyone in,” Michelle says. “We were told by our district manager that the reason we’re no longer observing the 150-customer rule is because customers were complaining about it too much.”
At Ashley’s store, associates were given an app to track and limit the in-store customer count to 500. “It hasn’t been used once — definitely not this last Friday with all the sales that they ran,” she says.
“It’s an incredibly numbers-focused business,” Andy says. So while some managers fear reprisal from corporate, others are mostly worried about “falling short of sales goals means they lose out on huge bonuses.”
It’s for this reason, too, that the stores haven’t switched to curbside pickup only. “The system is there and would take very little to convert to it,” Andy explains. “Or even just limiting inside sales to the professional customers with everyone else curbside. But customers spend a lot more money when they shop on their own than they do when they have to pick it out without wandering the store.”
The associates and manager tell me that many problems could be relieved by limiting the number of in-store purchases. “We should have the nonessential departments like outside lawn and garden closed,” says the Lowe’s manager. “But they won’t do that, because if we did, our business would be minimal. Plus, we pre-pay for our plants and the distributor is going to send them regardless of if we sell them or not, so it’d be a bigger loss.”
Individual states do have this power, however. This week, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order requiring stores to close non-essential departments like paint, gardening and furniture.
“This situation is constantly evolving, and we will continue to put our customers and associates at the center of everything we do,” a Lowe’s spokesperson tells me in an email.
Talk of a Walkout
What can employees do? “Many people are on the verge of quitting or calling out constantly,” says Ali, a 39-year-old associate in Connecticut.
The growing sentiment has led to rumblings of a walkout this weekend, though many of the associates were hesitant to bring it up with me — for the same reason most spoke under a pseudonym. As one associate puts it, “I’d be fired if I was identified as saying anything negative at all.”
On Reddit, too, employees fear the boot coming down. Since the Spring Black Friday sale, employees have taken to r/Lowes to vent. They even created a new subreddit, r/Lowes_Employees, believing the moderators of r/Lowes were censoring conversation or trying to squelch talk of unionizing. Case in point: On Monday night, as associates flooded the page with anti-corporate sentiment, the subreddit briefly shut down before reopening with a new “Moderator Code of Conduct” pinned to the top. The move led Lowe’s redditors to go commiserate on the Home Depot subreddit, where “HD” employees, despite facing similar issues, commiserated.
Most people I spoke with agreed to send ID and confirm their employment with Lowe’s, but a few weren’t comfortable pointing me to anything but their Reddit history. “Just the other day, the store manager pulled one of my coworkers into the office to have a chat because they saw a post they had made on Facebook, so they’re watching super closely right now,” one replied. Another put it more bluntly: “I’m not taking the chance of losing my employment because you don’t trust me. I’m one of a few that happened to be able to keep their job, I can’t risk that right now.”
Overall, though, associates were eager for the world to hear their story, hoping it will help the company run more ethically. “I put myself at risk every day going into work, and I felt the least they would do is return the courtesy by ensuring that I had some quality of life,” Michelle says. “But the truth is, my life isn’t worth anything to them — not like their cheaply made, imported Chinese merchandise.”
“Of course we want to work, but we also want to be safe,” says Ali. “We want to be treated like humans.”