Walmart is facing a wrongful death lawsuit after an Illinois employee passed away on March 25, 2020, following complications of the coronavirus. The family of Wando Evans, 51, filed the suit in the Circuit Court of Cook County on April 6, 2020, alleging Walmart’s “willful and wanton misconduct and reckless disregard” for the health and safety of employees directly led to Evan’s death. Evans was an overnight stock and maintenance associate at the Greenwood, IL Walmart store for over 15 years. His passing is one of two employee deaths that have been reported from that same Walmart location.
Hazardous Working Conditions
Echoing the outcry from current employees, the lawsuit states that the Arkansas-based retail chain failed to provide protective equipment, enforce social distancing, warn employees that the store may be infected, or follow OSHA and CDC guidelines.
Walmart was deemed an essential business per the Department of Homeland Security’s guidance, and has kept its nearly 5,000 stores throughout the United States open through the COVID-19 pandemic. This puts the big-box giant well over the 500 headcount rule for federally mandated paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
As their retail operations have been largely business as usual amidst the viral outbreak, employees have faced enormous risks in coming to work. A number of Walmart employees at locations across the country revealed the dire conditions they’re experiencing in stores. A lack of face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer are common complaints. As for increased cleaning practices, a Walmart employee told Buzzfeed News, “They haven’t enforced anything safety-wise. I haven’t gotten an email or a directive from above.” A Southern California location employee even resorted to “buying gloves that came into the store as products for customers.”
Insufficient Corporate Response
In direct response to the two employee deaths, Walmart issued a statement offering their condolences to the families but also assuring that they had consequently conducted, “ a deep-cleaning of key areas,” in the Greenwood store.
Walmart’s communications director, Tiffany Wilson, told Buzzfeed News that corporate headquarters was sending cleaning and protective supplies to all stores and that she was “not aware” of any reported shortages. Wilson further explained that the company would be installing plexiglass barriers on checkout lanes and decals around stores to encourage social distancing practices. These measures, however, fall short of addressing the full range of allegations in the complaint.
A Struggling Workforce
Mixed messages have permeated the corporate response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Walmart had initially announced to employees that their attendance policy would be suspended for the month of April—Walmart uses a point system to allot time off. But weeks later, the company stated that any employee taking more than two weeks off would not have their job guaranteed upon their return.
Sick staff amidst ongoing store operations has caused Walmart to hire over 100,000 new employees just in the last three weeks. This means additional training sessions in tight meeting rooms. One employee in Arizona said she has tried to divide training sessions into smaller groups but, “I’m still exposing myself to 12, 16 people.” An employee also reported that stores are doing little to control store capacities and there could be “hundreds” of shoppers in a store at any given time.
Impending Legal Action
As indicated by this first wrongful death suit and the current outrage from its employees, Walmart will be facing plenty of litigation aimed at their coronavirus response. Reactionary corporate planning, cleaning and protective supplies shortages, and lack of social distancing throughout stores have put workers and shoppers alike at risk. A lackluster leave policy similarly forces employees to choose between their health and their financial wellbeing.
Lawsuits could also cite Walmart’s failure to honor OSHA and CDC guidelines. Per OSHA’s guidance, Walmart failed to have an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan. Rather, the company’s coronavirus response has been piecemeal, and clearly insufficient, to protect their employees. Walmart has also fallen short of OSHA’s regulations for “basic infection prevention measures,” which has left employees scrambling to purchase their own protective gear.
Expert Witnesses For Employment Lawsuits Against Walmart
OSHA and CDC experts will be important for building future cases against Walmart. They can opine on the particular workplace safety violations Walmart made in the midst of a public health crisis. An infectious disease expert witness will also be key to establishing how infections spread to employees in Walmart stores and how a lack of preventative measures stoked the fire.
As a massive corporation with little need for financial concern, Walmart has also failed to show humanitarian concern for its enormous workforce. The company has demonstrated a lack of workplace flexibility for isolation measures—as outlined by OSHA and the CDC—for employees who may need to stay home but still come to work due to job security fears. For these essential employees, it will be up to the court to decide whether they have a case against their behemoth employer.