WATERTOWN — The Outer Arsenal Street Walmart is under investigation by Jefferson County and state officials for claims of forcing employees to work, even after they were ordered to stay home by the Jefferson County Public Health Service for COVID-19.
According to Scott A. Gray, the county Board of Legislators chairman, the county has received three complaints directly through the New York on PAUSE coronavirus violation reporting system, and more have been called into the public health service, the county administrator’s office and even local media outlets.
Mr. Gray said he received an email from an anonymous employee Wednesday morning describing how Walmart’s sick-leave policies require an employee have paid time off available if they need to call off of work. If an employee has no paid time off available, and can’t make it to their shift, they are given a “point.” If an employee racks up five points, they are fired.
“Jefferson County has made us aware of several concerns submitted to their offices, which we are reviewing,” Charles Crowson, Walmart’s northern U.S. communications director, said Wednesday night via email. “We will prepare a response to the county attorney in accordance with his request.”
Mr. Crowson’s statement provided a link to a Walmart webpage detailing how employee policies have been adjusted in response to the pandemic, including a page referencing an emergency leave policy, which waives the “point” attendance system through July 5, 2021.
Mr. Gray said most of these complaints have come in since Thanksgiving, which is about the same time the region began seeing a sharp increase in new cases of COVID-19.
“As the number of people in quarantine has gone up, the number of complaints has gone up as well,” he said.
Mr. Gray said the county is currently investigating the reports, alongside the state Department of Labor, and has also sent a letter to Walmart requesting the store respond to the allegations within a week.
If the investigation confirms the reports, Mr. Gray said there are a number of different penalties the state and county could impose on Walmart.
“They could get a warning, they potentially can be fined,” Mr. Gray said. “With the state Department of Labor, whatever actions that they may deem necessary could come down as well.”
Mr. Gray said whatever actions the county decides to take, the main motivation will be to ensure Walmart’s employees are not being intimidated or coerced into breaking health laws.
“That’s the number one priority, number two is to educate them on the corporate side, that public health orders override their directives every time,” he said.
Mr. Gray also noted that Walmart employees who were forced into violating public health ordered will not be subject to penalties.
Lewis County Manager Ryan M. Piche confirmed Wednesday that county officials there have not had any reports of similar behavior from their local Walmart employees.
“That’s a very serious issue,” he said. “We have had complaints with Walmart about mask wearing and things like that, but never something that serious.”