Foot traffic in bricks and mortar stores has plummeted this holiday season as shoppers stay out of stores while COVID-19 cases soar and economic pain lingers for many. But online shopping broke new records over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
While an increase in online shopping and decrease in in-person shopping may mean the end of dubious holiday traditions like “Black Friday Brawls”, retail work could continue to be more dangerous and risky for workers.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, injury rates in retailing surpassed manufacturing starting in 2018. I’ve written before that the rise of online retailing and automation has decreased retail clerk jobs and increased the number of delivery and fulfillment or warehouse type workers. This trend would lead to increased injuries.
The increase in online shopping has also coincided with the “gig economy.” Whereas online shopping is driven by technology, the gig economy is enabled by technology and political decision to deny gig workers basic employment protections. I’ve picked on Amazon in the past, but even Target has gotten in on the misclassification gig. Target contracts its delivery workers through Shipt who classifies their workers as contractors ineligible for benefits. Contractors for Amazon and Target perform the same work that is done by employees at other companies.
The pandemic accelerated these trends in retail employment. But the acceleration of online shopping has revealed some new risks to workplace safety. The Hy-Vee store by our Lincoln office has moved online pick up to the south edge of the parking lot to accommodate the increase in online order pick-ups. Online pick-ups could previously be made right by the store.
So in order for workers to deliver groceries for pickup at the new store, employees need to move items across parking lot traffic, then uphill into a temporary storage space for pick and then come back across the parking lot into the store. I think arrangement is going to create problems in cold and wet weather as well as creating hazards during darkness.
I am not singling out Hy-Vee, I assume other bricks and mortar stores are making similar adjustments. All institutions have been forced to improvise during the pandemic. But if improvisation comes at the expense of workplace safety, at the very least workers should have basic employment protections. Ideally workers should have unions to have a voice in workplace safety during the pandemic and beyond.