The Dance Floor: Walmart, Coronavirus, & The Weeknd

(Previous part here.)

Months in, every day is indistinguishable from the last: the truck arrives, we unload it, we stack the pallets, and then we stock. I am assigned to the infants department, which is perfect for someone who knows nothing about raising babies. Plus, more than half of the people shopping there speak Spanish, which is also perfect for someone who primarily studied Chinese. But you can get pretty far with just ‘no hay’,mira, aqui,’ and ‘manana.’

Working the truck gives me a workout that I haven’t had in a minute. After a few months it feels like my lower spine is fused, I’ve lost some weight to the point where I just look malnourished, and I consistently eat like shit. But it’s all good because The Weeknd is about to drop his newest album. “Blinding Lights” and “Heartless” have been CAP 2 anthems the months leading up to its release. Familiarity keeps you sane until you realize how crazy you are.

March is when I finally had a workplace accident. I’m taking out food carts to the sales floor and we usually pack them to the brim, so full you can’t even see through them. I just want to preface that I recall watching the video and seeing the sign on the cart that said you should push rather than pull them. The reason being that you don’t want to step in front of a large cart as it’s going forward. Guess who those videos and signs were intended for?

You know that feeling you get when you do something terrible to your body and you just hope that it wasn’t that bad? So, you just shrug it off and pretend that it’ll be alright if you ignore it? That the wet feeling at the bottom of your sock is completely normal?

Reality hit me a few moments after the cart did and I limp to a bathroom stall, carefully sliding off my left shoe. I can already see red, like someone spilled paint on it. I try pulling off my sock but it gets caught on my foot and I wince. I realize why. I slowly see the damage I did: my big toenail is pushed into my toe, another toenail half painted red, and another one missing. Wait, it’s not missing — I can see it stuck on my sock.

I tell my supervisor and everyone around me: sympathies fly through the air. Eventually I find a couple of managers to file an accident report.

As extra insult to a (literal) injury, my supervisor times how long it takes for me to limp, hop, and shimmy from the backroom to the entrance. He guessed four minutes and it takes me about six. I’m glad we didn’t bet anything.

The next day I call the on-duty manager about my injury, and come in to use the company’s medical services to deal with the injury. Remember how one toenail fell off but the other just got pushed in? That one still needed to be removed.

She’s our asset protection manager, Gloria. She’s nice enough, even though it’s the position I respect least out of this place. You can’t apprehend customers, can’t call them out for suspicious activity, and spend your time just walking around the store not stocking product or cleaning messes. Don’t be fooled by her short, stocky build, though. She can book it if she needs to. I’ve seen it.

Sitting across from her at the desk, my toe pounding into the ground, she asks without looking away from the electronic forms: “Remember what we said about safety?”

That’s retail management for you: annoyance that you got hurt instead of genuine concern. If I remember correctly, an injury sets the store back about $10,000 or so, and this is of course tied to our MyShare potential payout, a bonus that depends on attendance, safety, and your status as either a part-time or full-time employee. Anything to penalize associates.

At this point I don’t recall exactly when the panic started, but it was mid-March when I return, er, limped, back to work. I’m assigned with cleaning the shelves, disinfecting the food and chemical aisles with cleaning solution. I’m no chemist, but it doesn’t seem like a good idea to spray disinfectant on the chemical aisle shelves. Eventually I stop limping my way throughout the aisles and hop — no, walk back onto CAP 2 after a week.

Now that news of the virus is passing down every social, corporate, and verbal channel, we wonder what the protocols are. The only rule is that anyone working in the food section needs to wear to a mask.

It’s time for a meeting.

Before we start unloading the truck, the team gathers around while the managers and direct supervisors tell us their expectations and objectives of the day, how large the truck is, who were team players yesterday (we had a chart mentioning who was “Safety Lead,” who went “Beast Mode,” etc.) — you get the picture. Well, this meeting is special.

Our auto department manager, Mario, tells us that if we feel sick, especially if we’re exhibiting symptoms associated with CoVID, then we had to stay at home for two weeks. The company will not pay for these two weeks. I’m sure everyone had died on the inside at that. Like I said, Walmart is a billion-dollar company and can’t even pay employees for two weeks?

Wait, I’m sorry, I was mistaken. There is a way for them to pay for it: you just need to test positive.

So, all we need to do is ask the company to provide us with a coronavirus test. It’s only a $3000 test that the company won’t cover. And if you test negative then you have to use PTO (paid time off) to make up for the days you self-quarantined. This was their initial response. This was how Walmart, a multi-billion-dollar company, reacted to a pandemic.

Panic reigns as customers rush to buy stacks of toilet paper, baby wipes, diapers, cleaning supplies, and cases of water. I haven’t seen the store this busy since Christmas season. One of the newer guys, Roger, replaces me in the infant department. He takes a pallet out there and people start swiping at the diapers and baby wipes from it before he can stock it.

Eventually we have to guard the aisles, like goalies, asking customers which items they want so we can retrieve it for them. We start rationing. The customers look like scavengers in an apocalypse, scouring for food, water, and any remnants of soft, plushy Charmin. That’s how I saw them: pathetic, desperate, angry. It was like a mob. But they were just scared. Everyone’s world was turned upside down. There was no “normal” anymore. And there was no going back to the way things were.

The store hours change near the end of March to 8:30pm instead of 11:00pm so we can sanitize the store and stock all the incoming freight without being bombarded by customers. Personally, I love it because I am far from a people person and shooting the shit with my co-workers is one of the only pleasures I have left in the Time of Corona.

Connor blasts music from his speaker so we don’t have to use our phones. He’s the reason I started listening to more Spanish rock, so Connor, I thank you. The only thing he loved more than that speaker and his girlfriend was his Coca-Cola. He ended up transferring to a store one town over. I miss him. He was nice to everyone and didn’t expect anything in return. You don’t meet a lot of people like that.

But I do notice that another associate, a former Navy man that would work nights with us, stops coming in. He spoke with a raspy voice, had a great sense of humor and talked shit, especially with William, as is military branch tradition. But his health was at risk constantly (he had a colostomy bag) and because of that he had to leave. I don’t think he was furloughed; I think he just had to find work elsewhere. He had a badge that said he was there for five years: would Walmart reward him for that?

I hear rumors that the store might close down due to CoVID. Then I hear rumors that we can either work for two weeks with hazard pay, which was an extra $2.50 an hour, or take a two-week vacation without pay.

The hazard pay ends up being bullshit. And staying away from the store for two weeks will only prevent you from contracting the virus for those two weeks, if you haven’t caught it already.

Our city implements a curfew that begins before our shift is over, around 10pm. It should start much, much earlier, but what the hell. It’s a nowhere-nothing town. While I’m stocking the food department, we’re given an official document from Walmart in the instance that we get pulled over by law enforcement, stamped with an official Walmart seal for authenticity (and I guess, in the event that someone wants to forge an official Walmart travelling document). I’m reminded of Mo Amer’s skit about the traveling document he has that isn’t a passport.

We hold another meeting in April, led by Mario and Gloria: we must go home if we have symptoms of CoVID and unless we test positive (again, the company is not paying for tests), we have to use our PTO in order to cover the cost. A new screening test procedure is implemented for associates, like any other procedure at stores: employees are given a separate entrance, where they must stay six feet apart while waiting. But we generally stay close to each other, talking to each other mask-less.

An associate waits at the beginning of the line with a temperature gun. Associates are asked a series of questions, and mostly answer honestly: have you travelled in the past two weeks to a foreign country, have you felt sick in the past two weeks, have you been in contact with someone who had a positive CoVID diagnosis, etc. We are finally given masks and gloves if needed. I don’t know if it’s my breath or the masks, but it smells terrible wearing the non-medical blue masks. My mom had bought some colorful fabric masks from Joann’s, and I’m consistently complimented on them. Wear a mask, but make it fashion.

I had one close call (that I know of). Right as I arrived, I saw another associate in front of the screener, a woman who worked in the frozen food department, and she immediately yells at me.

“CURTIS, GET BACK OUTSIDE, NOW!”

Usually when someone yells at me like that, I expect to hear my full name. The associate before me has to wait in the service room while his temperature goes down.

When it’s my turn, my temperature runs a little higher than normal. Just barely higher than usual. I get to go through anyway. I like the feeling: it’s like I’m passing through a security checkpoint. I’m just happy no chanclas were thrown.

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Curtis Francisco-Sarmiento Yap

Curtis Francisco-Sarmiento Yap

Mixed Fil Am filmmaker and writer. I binge Borges, Faulkner, and Qabbani. Unpublished essays, stories, poetry, criticism, and feelings.