ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — It’s easy to reopen in a viral outbreak when you’re not the one working the cash register or stocking the shelves, a group of liquor store employees in New Jersey say.
In the Garden State, booze is a serious industry. In fact, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has ruled that liquor stores are among the “essential businesses” allowed to stay open in the statewide coronavirus shutdown.
When the outbreak hit, some stores, like discount retailer Bottle King, voluntarily switched to curbside and delivery service only, leaving the inside of the building employee-only zones. But earlier this week, as New Jersey rolled out a plan to gradually restart its economy, Bottle King reopened its 15 locations to inside sales and let customers back indoors.
It’s a move that has several workers demanding to know what’s more important: money or their lives.
READ MORE: NJ Coronavirus Updates (Here’s What You Need To Know)
Speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals, four Bottle King employees recently reached out to Patch, worried that their safety is being jeopardized in the rush to reopen. The workers, whose identities have been verified, all had a common complaint: they didn’t sign up to take on this kind of risk.
Their full statements follow. Read Bottle King’s reply below.
EMPLOYEE 1 – “Basically my main concern is staying healthy. There’s absolutely no way to keep the store sanitary with customers coming inside continuously. Wearing gloves barely helps, if at all. We’re all such a close-knit staff that god forbid one of us catches it, we’re all bound to catch it. I’m risking my life at this point for an extra $2 for a company that would at most – if I were to die from the virus – send a ‘sorry for your loss’ card to my family and misspell my name. The corporate office needs us to make the company money so that they can remain paid while they are able to work from home and isolate if they choose. We don’t have that option. Even if we were to collect unemployment, it would be a fraction of what we’re making now.”
EMPLOYEE 2 – “My biggest concern is obviously spreading the virus to my friends and loved ones. I live with older members of my family, and I worry that if we reopen, I’m at an even bigger risk than I am to them currently by just coming in with how it is now. Our state is one of the most infected places in the world right now, with over 1,000 new cases being confirmed every day. I can assume the company is losing money, but I think that’s a risk the company should take in order to better assure the safety of their employees. Without healthy employees, the company can’t run at all, so why even risk opening back up to the public? In my eyes, it’s an extremely greedy, selfish thing for the company to do. I personally am not going to come back to work once we reopen until I know my safety and my family’s safety is assured. In short, I just think we should continue with curbside pickup and keep the store closed on the inside for the foreseeable future just to be safe rather than being concerned with money.”
EMPLOYEE 3 – “My concerns regarding the state of the business right now lie largely with the fact that the employee restrooms, as of right now, have no hot water, making hand sanitization a challenge. The lot that are outside dealing with curbside pickups often get customers who are rather nonchalant regarding the state of the virus, and may not wear protective equipment, but they still get their product (this is a relatively negligible number). However, if the store reopens, I’ve a feeling that number will rise. Although customers without proper equipment won’t be allowed in the store, they would still be in line outside, potentially compromising other customers’ health as well as the health of employees who are wrangling the lines. To my knowledge, the store has only undergone ‘deep sanitization’ two or three times during this lockdown. I also believe the behaviors of some customers will overgo the proper social distancing procedures and may get too close to employees or other customers. Finally, my biggest fear is that the line outside will get so immense that arguments/fights amongst the customers may happen or may spread to an employee who’s outside, compromising their health against this virus, as well as any other implications that come from a random fight.”
EMPLOYEE 4 – “I came into work because I thought I’d be safe, because I only come in contact with a small amount of people. In the beginning it seems like the higher-ups were working with us. However, as time went by, they began to take advantage of us. People worked here because they knew it was safe, and they can confidently come home to their families. The opening is premature. I believe they are more worried about their pockets than the health of their workers.”
BOTTLE KING: ‘HERO PAY, NO FURLOUGHS’
Bottle King, which has a corporate headquarters and a store in Livingston, also has locations in Chatham, Dumont, East Windsor, Glen Ridge, Glen Rock, Hillsborough, Hillsdale, Ledgewood, Mansfield, Middletown, Morris Plains, Princeton, Ramsey and Wayne.
Reached for comment about the workers’ allegations, a Bottle King spokesperson said that employees who didn’t want to work were advised to return “when they felt comfortable.”
That offer still stands, he said.
Bottle King offered the following statement to Patch:
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The temporary “hero” pay comes out to an extra $2 per hour, a bonus that’s still in effect, Bottle King stated Wednesday.
A company spokesperson declined to specify how much sales revenue was lost due to the virus.
Bottle King previously told Patch that its stores are taking the following steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19:
Additional precautions include:
“Our team members will wear masks and as required by local regulations, all customers entering a Bottle King store will be required to wear a face covering.””Social distancing measures are in place at all locations for team members and customers, including floor stickers and limiting the amount of customers that will be allowed to enter at any particular time.””Store hours will be initially reduced to 10AM-6PM (Monday-Saturday) with normal Sunday hours to enhance store cleanings and high contact surfaces.””Installation of Plexiglas barriers at all checkout lanes and staggering their use to maximize the distance between customers at checkout.””Continued suspension of all wine, beer and spirits sampling. Our Vineyard Market will be open during business hours and at BottleKing.com””Virtual shopping and contactless pickup continue to be available
NEW JERSEY REOPENS FOR BUSINESS
It’s not just the business of booze that’s giving Garden State workers the blues. Frontline employees in other industries are worried to return to the job, too, advocates say.
According to Fair Workweek New Jersey, almost 1 million people have been risking their lives in grocery stores, warehouses, restaurants and other indispensable workplaces across the state since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“As consumer demands among household, food delivery, and dry food retailers reach all-time highs, it’s absolutely critical that we protect essential workers from exploitation,” said Imani Oakley of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance.
See related article: Protect NJ Food, Retail Workers In Coronavirus, Advocates Demand
Last Thursday, members of worker advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey said the state needs to seriously step up COVID-19 protection at the nonessential businesses that are choosing to reopen.
“We’re afraid of going back to work,” said Cesar Pena, a member of the group. “Workers continue to get sick and many have died without adequate protective equipment or when employers do not follow social distancing guidelines. Many face retaliation when they refuse to work under unsafe circumstances.”
“We demand the right to refuse unsafe work and still keep our jobs,” Pena added.
See related article: Essential Workers At 5 NJ Buildings Strike: ‘Can’t Make A Living’
At Newark Airport, dozens of workers gathered outside the United Airlines catering facility last week to honor co-workers who have died from COVID-19.
Workers don’t know where they contracted the virus or if they were working at the time, but want expanded cleaning and protective measures to ensure the safety of all who work in the facility, said their union, Unite Here Local 100.
“We came here to send a message that we want to work, but we want to do so with all reasonable safety measures implemented,” a bereaved employee said.
See related article: Catering Employees At Newark Airport Mourn Infected Co-Workers
However, some New Jersey business owners have maintained that with careful planning – and some common courtesy – a safe reopening is possible.
On Wednesday, hundreds of fed-up hairdressers and barbers from across New Jersey rallied for a “peaceful photoshoot” at Verona Park on Wednesday afternoon. Many at the rally were business owners and brandished signs with their company names on them.
Respecting social distancing guidelines and wearing face coverings, the participants had a simple message: Let the state’s salons and barbershops get back to work.
See related article: Fed-Up NJ Hairdressers, Barbers Rally In Verona: ‘Let Us Reopen’
Other Garden State business owners have been more confrontational, such as the owners of gyms in Bellmawr and Hillsborough, who have chosen to defy Gov. Murphy’s orders despite the possibility of jail time and steep fines.
“I believe this is an overreach by the government,” said Kyle Newell, owner of Newell Strength in Hillsborough. “Never has there been a pandemic where healthy people were quarantined. Me being in the health and fitness business, it seems laughable that we can’t be open to work on people’s health and body and improve their immune systems, yet liquor stores are deemed essential.”
See related article: South Jersey Gym That Defied Murphy’s Orders Is Shut DownSee related article: Hillsborough Gym Fights For ‘Freedom,’ Cited For Reopening