Walmart added to its worker safety policies Tuesday as protections for retail and grocery store workers come under greater public scrutiny.
Walmart will begin taking workers' temperatures at stores and warehouses before they begin their shifts. Any employee with a temperature above 100 degrees will be sent home to seek medical treatment, if necessary, but will be paid for showing up.
The retailer will also make medical masks and gloves available for employees who want to wear them. "They will be high-quality masks, but not N95 respirators — which should be reserved for at-risk healthcare workers," the company said.
The CDC has recommended that healthy people do not need to wear personal protective gear. Still, some workers at Walmart, Amazon warehouses and other chains have expressed concerns that they do not have access to gloves or masks on the job and say they want to wear them.
"If an associate feels more comfortable wearing masks, we want to give them that opportunity to do so," Dan Bartlett, spokesperson for Walmart, said on a call with reporters Tuesday.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a nationwide face-mask shortage and even hospitals are struggling to get supplies. Walmart waited to secure protective gear to avoid limiting equipment that could go to strained health care workers and hospitals, Bartlett said. The company will need more than seven million masks each week for its employees, he said. The first shipment will arrive in one to two weeks.
Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States, with a workforce of around 1.5 million and 4,700 US stores. The company's decision may influence other chains' policies on masks and temperature screenings.
Walmart, Amazon, grocery stores and other retailers staying open during the crisis are under enormous pressure to balance meeting customer demand with protecting their workforce.
On Monday, a group of warehouse workers at Amazon and Instacart workers who fulfill grocery orders staged protests calling for their companies to improve safety protections, pay and benefits during the coronavirus crisis. A group of Whole Foods workers has called for a "sick out" Tuesday over similar concerns. Amazon owns Whole Foods.
Walmart says it is taking "prudent" steps to protect workers, according to Bartlett.
In recent weeks, Walmart and other large retailers have also installed sneeze guards at checkout and pharmacies and signs with instructions on social distancing. The company has shortened its hours, said it stepped up cleaning measures, and is using wipes and sprayers to clean down shopping carts. The company is working to add "one-way" aisles to promote social distancing, Bartlett said Tuesday.
He encouraged shoppers to limit their trips to stores, although Walmart has not implemented any formal policies on the number of customers who can be inside at any one time.
"They have to go somewhere to get food," he said. "And so we're trying to find a way to strike that right balance to make sure that people have the access they need, but do it in the most responsible way."
Leonard Marcus, co-director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health, said Walmart's measures should have been taken earlier but that retailers have been constrained by the lack of federal guidelines.
"Without overarching guidelines from the federal government, this has been a story of each state, each city, and each business doing it their own way," he said.