After five employees tested positive for coronavirus, workers at a Barnes & Noble distribution center in Monroe, New Jersey, are demanding action from the company. Last Tuesday, 15 workers gathered outside the facility to protest unsafe working conditions. Allowed to only use their vacation days to avoid going to work and risking infection, workers feel they’re being forced to choose between their health and their jobs.

Unfair treatment

Elsa Rodriguez, a book packer, said after staff were told about employees testing positive for coronavirus, they started complaining about working with coworkers displaying coronavirus symptoms and the use of unhygienic fingerprint scanners. However, management failed to enforce social distancing and provide antibacterial wipes for another ten days. “I also feel like a lot of my work buddies are being forced to work despite how they’re feeling and how they’re doing health-wise,” said Rodriguez. “It is very sad to me that this company doesn’t really care about my health or my well being.”

Maintaining a safe working environment

The Barnes & Noble workers are demanding the distribution center close for two weeks during which they’re paid; hazard pay upon their return to work; and improved safety measures, such as adequate personal protective equipment and the freedom to stay home and self-quarantine. As it stands, New Jersey workers comp insurance protects employees who can prove they’ve been exposed to coronavirus on the job. It’s a no-fault insurance program that provides workers with medical benefits. In exchange, workers are unable to sue their employer for pain and suffering.

Barnes & Noble statement

In a statement response, Barnes & Noble said social distancing is now being implemented at the Monroe Township center in addition to reduced staffing, improved cleaning and removal of turnstiles and break room seating. Workers are instructed to stay at home if they feel ill or at risk (without pay). Additionally, Barnes & Noble have cloth and plastic gloves available to staff on request, as well as cloth face masks, which are yet to arrive.

The protest even garnered support from local politicians. “Everyone is entitled to a safe workplace, especially in this time of crisis,” said New Jersey State Assembly member, Daniel Benson.“These warehouse employees deserve not only to be kept safe while doing their jobs but also a fair wage, as they help to sustain our economy during these uncertain times. I stand in solidarity with the Barnes & Noble workers in their fight.”

Photo © Jessica Ruscello.

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