Craft stores insist they are essential amid coronavirus outbreak

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  • Craft stores like Hobby Lobby, Michaels and Joann Fabrics are fighting to stay open in states with more lenient definitions of “essential” business, highlighting troubling inconsistencies in the U.S. approach to curbing the coronavirus outbreak.
  • While craft stores are only a microcosm of the retail landscape, their collective effort to bypass closures shows the danger of a lack of a unified approach in defining core business versus non-core business. essential.
  • “We are not essential and yet we are always open,” a Joann Fabrics employee told Business Insider on condition of anonymity. “It’s disgusting to see this company going after vulnerable people with good intentions who want to help. All they care about is money.”
  • Visit the Business Insider homepage for more stories.

After nearly 100 major retailers shut down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, one sector remained noticeably absent from the effort – craft stores.

Senior Hobby Lobby executives Joann Fabrics and Michaels fought ruthlessly this week to keep doors open across the country, asking employees to provide “essential” services while refusing to offer sick leave and social benefits. In a series of notes obtained by Business Insider, each of these companies attempted to justify their retention using a handful of questionable claims ranging from a need to “serve the creators” to a message from God.

And they didn’t stop there. At Hobby Lobby, executives have asked managers to “do everything possible to keep employees working.” At Joann Fabrics, its CEO has made false claims that major U.S. hospital systems have asked the company for help with material for masks and gowns, which they have denied. At Michaels, company executives told workers they were “fundamental” to serving business owners, teachers, parents and communities “looking to distract themselves from a stressful reality.”

Spokesmen for the three companies did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Business Insider this week.

While craft stores are just a microcosm of the retail landscape, their collective effort to bypass closures highlights troubling flaws in America’s ad hoc approach to curb the spread of the coronavirus. . As countries around the world enforce restrictive national lockdowns, the United States has failed to craft a unified strategy to tackle the outbreak on everything from air travel to standards for essential and non-essential business.

In turn, craft stores are exploiting these inconsistencies in a ploy to stay open: By the end of this week, stores had temporarily closed in a handful of states but not others, where business seems continue as usual. This erratic approach has led to a growing mass of angry workers and consumers speaking out against companies putting profit before public safety and government officials who have failed to intervene.

“We are not essential and yet we are always open”

In the United States, each state has autonomy to define which businesses remain open, although there is a universally accepted list of businesses deemed “essential,” including grocery stores, drugstores, and health centers. While big box stores like Walmart and Target fall into this category, especially craft stores are not on the list, nor are they included in guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security.

Yet that hasn’t stopped Hobby Lobby, Michaels, and Joann Fabric from leaving stores open in states with more lenient boundaries around what constitutes core business. Even in the case of states with more stringent mandates like New York, inconsistent policies and lack of communication between state officials and company executives have resulted in employees receiving conflicting information about whether ‘whether or not they had to report to work.

A New York-based Joann Fabrics employee – who requested anonymity to protect her job and whose employment status has been confirmed by Business Insider – said her manager told her on Monday that he had received the permission to open the store, despite orders from Governor Andrew Cuomo that required competitors like Michaels to close their doors.

“I don’t know if the approval was from the state or from the company,” she wrote in an email to Business Insider. “I don’t know what’s going on at all. I’ve been left completely in the dark. Almost everything is confused and no one really knows what’s going on.”

The employee – who works at a store on Long Island, which is part of an area that health officials have called the coronavirus epicenter in the United States, with more than 30,000 confirmed cases – said her clientele is “overwhelmingly elderly” and “the most at risk.”

“We are not essential and yet we are always open,” she said. “It’s disgusting to see this company going after vulnerable people with good intentions who want to help. All they care about is money. I’m young and healthy, I have no fear. for my own life, but what if I’m unknowingly infecting others? “

However, less healthy employees report that they themselves are at risk of getting sick on the job.

An employee of Joann Fabrics struggling with heart disease, which puts him in the high-risk category, told Business Insider he doesn’t feel safe at work, where customers don’t follow social distancing protocols .

On a recent shift, he said he counted 57 customers who went through his line in three hours, with some buying just one item. Others left the store without buying anything at all.

“As [Joann is] claiming to be essential and helping people’s health, a customer bought a bottle of hand soap, an earthenware pot and a saucer, ”he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect his work. “Another bought a plastic hook. These lousy purchases annoy me a lot. It’s like, is that why we expose ourselves? ”

Joann fabric

A Joann Fabrics store.

Joann



“Crafts are not worth someone’s life”

For craft store workers who have been forced to be on the front lines of a global pandemic, many find that not only are their options limited when it comes to paid sick leave, but they don’t have to. also almost no protection at work.

Take Hobby Lobby, which just laid off 20% of its part-time and seasonal staff in states where they were forced to close, while slashing wages for full-time salaried positions by 10%. The company also rolled back an old policy that required employees to use paid time off and remaining vacation days first during illness or quarantine, but still only gives employees 75% of their rate of pay. based on an average of recent shifts.

“Managers have been instructed not to notify employees until this happens and not to notify other stores that may be closing,” a Hobby Lobby official wrote in an email to Business Insider. . “[This makes] it is more difficult for employees to receive help because it will come out of nowhere and they will go from “back to work in a few weeks” to “you are laid off”. ”

Regarding workplace safety, employees at all three companies told Business Insider that they were not given proper protection like masks and gloves. In addition, a Michaels employee speaking on condition of anonymity to protect her job said her store had not received hand sanitizer and noted that cleaning supplies “are scarce.”

“Customers ask me daily why we are always open,” she told Business Insider this week. “We wonder the same. We are clearly not important to our CEO. He puts his hard-working employees and customers at risk.”

In response, customers and enthusiasts at each store flocked to employees on social media, taking in the comments to call on executives not to close stores and calling on consumers to boycott the company. A March 23 post on Joann Fabrics’ Facebook page currently has over 600 comments, almost all of which question Joann’s status as a core business and urge stores to close.

“[Joann has] already endangered so many people, “said Joann’s employee who works on Long Island.” Crafts are not worth someone’s life.

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