THE DETAILS: Differing interpretations of “essential” have caused some friction between employers who wish to keep operating and employees who believe the risk of exposure to the coronavirus outweighs their indispensability.
Video game retailer GameStop came under fire from employees when it initially declared itself an essential business because it also sells items people use to work from home, such as keyboards and mice, and kept stores open in some states with lockdown orders. On Sunday it switched gears and now customers can buy merchandise online and pick up in stores.
In Illinois, some candy factory workers have contacted their union to question the necessity of keeping confectionary lines running, said Donald Woods, president of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 1, which represents about 3,500 people in the Midwest who work at companies including Mondelez International, Ferrara Candy and Tootsie Roll.
Woods said he consulted a local congressman for an opinion and was told candy is part of the critical food supply chain, in part because people holed up at home might be craving sweets.
“They’ve got to show up,” Woods said of his members. “The only thing we can make sure of is that employers follow the CDC guidelines. Employers are doing that.”
Chicago-based Ferrara Candy, maker of Lemonheads and Trolli, cited state and federal guidelines as reasons for continuing production. Late last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued advisory guidance defining which workers are “essential to continued critical infrastructure viability” during the coronavirus emergency, a list that includes employees of food manufacturers.
“Ferrara, along with other food and snack manufacturers, continues to produce products to meet the needs of our consumers and retail partners,” spokeswoman Sarah Kittel said in a statement. “We are doing it with the highest standard of care possible to ensure the health and safety of our team, and we see it as a responsibility and privilege to keep our team employed through these challenging times.”
Businesses weighing whether or not they are essential -- and therefore whether or not they should temporarily shutter -- are grappling with employee concerns about safety as well as paychecks.
Ikea, which has closed all of its U.S. retail stores and many abroad, is keeping its distribution centers open to handle e-commerce. Though one could argue that buying a new sofa isn’t essential at this moment, Illinois’ stay-at-home order lists distribution centers as “essential infrastructure” and has a provision for businesses that sell or manufacture supplies to work from home. But the furniture-maker said the decision to keep selling online had more to do with keeping employees paid.
“It is important for each and every one of us to understand that the decision to continue to operate our ecommerce business as long as we can is not about making a profit,” the Swedish company said in an open letter to employees Monday. “It is about protecting our people and their livelihoods in this time of uncertainty. In these times, ecommerce is critical for the longevity of our business, and we need to protect the business, so that we can continue protecting our co-workers.”
Aviva Grumet-Morris, a Chicago-based partner in the labor and employment group at Winston & Strawn, said employers are taking pains to make an honest assessment of whether they are essential, a classification Illinois’ order says should be construed broadly to ensure necessary goods and services continue to be available. Companies that supply essential businesses are also considered, essential, so the order encompasses more than the obvious.