This article was produced in partnership with MLK50, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On her first day at her new warehouse job, Daria Meeks assumed the business would provide face coverings. It didn’t.
She assumed her fellow workers would be spread out to account for the new coronavirus. They weren’t.
There wasn’t even soap in the bathroom.
Instead, on March 28, her first day at PFS, which packages and ships makeup and jewelry, Meeks found herself standing alongside four other new workers at a station the size of a card table as a trainer showed them how to properly tuck tissue paper into gift boxes.
The following day, Meeks, 29, was just two hours into her shift when she heard that a worker had thrown up.
“They said her blood pressure had went up and she was just nauseated, but when we turned around, everybody who was permanent that worked for PFS had on gloves and masks,” Meeks said.
Temporary workers like her weren’t offered either.
Since then, workers have been told twice that coworkers have tested positive for the coronavirus. The first time was April 10 at a warehouse just across the state line in Southaven, Mississippi. The next was April 16 at the warehouse in southeast Memphis where Meeks worked, several temporary and permanent workers told MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and ProPublica.
In interviews, the workers complained of a crowded environment where they shared devices and weren’t provided personal protective equipment. The company has about 500 employees at its four Memphis-area locations, according to the Memphis Business Journal.
In right-to-work states such as Tennessee and Mississippi, where union membership is low, manual laborers have long said they are vulnerable, and workers’ rights advocates say the global pandemic has underscored just how few protections they have.
A spokesman for Tennessee’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration confirmed that the department received an anonymous complaint about PFS in April.
“A few of (sic) people have tested positive for Covid-19 and the company has not taken precaution to prevent employees from contracting the coronavirus,” the complainant wrote. “As of today (04/13/2020) no one have (sic) come to clean or sanitize the building.”
In response, the spokesman said TOSHA sent the company a letter “informing them of measures they may take to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
PFS did not answer specific questions about the number of workers infected at its facilities or about specific precautions it takes. Instead the company released a short statement that said PFS “is committed to the safety and well-being of its employees.” It also said it performs temperature checks at the door and supplies workers with masks, gloves and face shields.
But workers said none of these measures were in effect as late as the middle of April, when Shelby County, Tennessee, and DeSoto County, Mississippi, each home to two PFS facilities, were reporting more than 1,600 coronavirus infections and 30 deaths. (As of Friday, there are more than 2,750 infections and 50 deaths in the two counties.) A current employee said the company now provides gloves and masks, but they’re optional, as are the temperature checks.
When Meeks started at PFS, cases in the county were still at a trickle. But she didn’t stick around long.
On her third day at work, workers were split into two groups for lunch, but the break room was still full. “You could barely pull out a chair, that’s how crowded it was,” she said. “Everybody was shoulder to shoulder.”
Meeks said she asked the security guard at the front desk if she could eat her lunch in the empty lobby but was told no.
“I said, this is just not going to work,” said Meeks, who was paid $9 an hour. “You got different people coughing, sneezing, allergies — you never know what’s going on with a person.”
She left during her break and didn’t come back.
Economy Dominated by Low-Wage Industry, Jobs
In cities across the country, workers at Amazon facilities and other warehouses have been infected with COVID-19, as have workers at meatpacking plants nationwide.
What makes Memphis different is the outsized share of the workforce in the logistics industry, which includes warehouses and distribution centers.
The Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce boasts on its website that the logistics industry employs 1 in 6 workers in the Memphis metro area, a higher share than anywhere else in the country.
The high concentration of these low-wage jobs is a testament to the city’s decades-old campaign to brand itself as “America’s Distribution Center.” Memphis is home to FedEx’s headquarters and its world distribution hub, which is undergoing a $1.5 billion expansion, as well as to Nike’s largest global distribution center, a sprawling 2.8 million-square-foot facility.
According to 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 58,000 workers in the Memphis metro area fill and stock orders, package materials and move materials by hand.
In Memphis, workers at distribution centers for FedEx, Nike and Kroger have tested positive for the coronavirus. The Shelby County Health Department received 64 complaints about businesses between April 1 and April 29, but could not say how many were about warehouses.
Interim guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls for employers to notify workers of positive cases. But it is voluntary. The federal OSHA has no such requirement, and neither does Tennessee’s OSHA.
Although Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides two weeks paid sick leave for coronavirus-affected or infected workers, it doesn’t apply to many warehouse and temporary employees, said Laura Padin, senior staff attorney at the Washington-based National Employment Law Project, which advocates for better public policy for workers, particularly low-wage workers.
“The big issue is that it exempts so many employers, especially employers with over 500 employees,” Padin said. “And the vast majority of temp workers and many warehouse workers work for employers with more than 500 employees.”
The coronavirus has disproportionately affected people of color, the very group that makes up the bulk of the warehouse and temporary workforce.
“Black workers make up 12% of the workforce but 26% of temp workers, and Latino workers make up 16% of the workforce but 25% of temp workers,” said Padin, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data released in 2018.
Add to that the yawning racial wealth gap and low-wage workers like Meeks are in an untenable situation, Padin said.
“They either stay home and they risk their financial security,” Padin said, “or they go to work and risk their lives.”
“You Can Always Go Back”
With 1.45 million square feet of warehouse space among its four area locations, PFS is the ninth-largest third-party distribution operation in the metro area, according to the Memphis Business Journal’s 2020 Book of Lists. PFS doesn’t sell products under its own name but rather fulfills orders for better-known companies.
Pandora, which is perhaps best known for its charm bracelets, is one of PFS’s clients. “Each item shipped for PANDORA is wrapped in customized, branded, and sometimes seasonal packing materials, making every purchase a gift,” PFS’s website says.
Meeks’ favorite part of her job was taking each customer’s personal message, tucking it into a tiny envelope and then into the gift package.
“When we were sending out these Pandora bracelets and these Chanel gifts, I sat there and read all my cards,” said Meeks, who like all of the workers interviewed for this story, is black. “They were so cute.”
One Pandora customer sent a note to “beloved mother,” Meeks said, and another seemed to be from someone in a long-distance relationship.
“He was like: Even though I’m miles and miles away, I always think about you,” Meeks said. He wrote that he hoped the jewelry would “glitter in your eyes, or something like that.”
The day Meeks quit PFS, she said she called Prestigious Placement, the temporary agency that sent her there, asking for another job.
The temporary agency representative “was like, ‘Well, you can always go back to PFS until we get something else,’ and I was like, ‘No.’”
“She said, ‘Well, we haven’t had anyone to get sick,’” Meeks recalled.
Meeks said she tried to explain that regardless of whether some workers had tested positive, the company wasn’t taking enough steps, in her opinion, to keep current workers safe.
The representative said she’d ask the agency’s on-site manager about Meeks’ concerns, but Meeks said that there was no on-site manager present on her second or third day.
Prestigious Placement did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
A local labor leader said Meeks’ experience illustrates the tough situation for temporary workers at warehouses.
“They tend not to have benefits, sick time and insurance and all the things that allow us to keep our whole community safe during a pandemic,” said Jeffrey Lichtenstein, executive secretary of the Memphis Labor Council, a federation of around 40 union locals.
Unlike companies such as Nike and FedEx, which have reputations to protect, the general public doesn’t know who PFS is or what it does, he said. “They have no brand vulnerability,” he said.
With little leverage to exert on businesses, these workers are up against a regional business model that mires them in dead-end, low-wage jobs, Lichtenstein said.
The city’s power brokers, he said, “have a couple of main tenets of their economic philosophy. One, logistics is really, really important, and two, cheap labor is very, very important.”
“Nothing Essential About It”
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland issued a “Safer At Home” executive order on March 23, mirroring those put in place elsewhere. But the order specifically exempted warehouses and distribution centers from COVID-19 restrictions.
PFS gave workers a letter that cited Strickland’s order and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s guidance that “transportation and logistics are deemed a critical infrastructure that must be maintained during the COVID-19 crisis,” according to a copy reviewed by MLK50.
If they were stopped by authorities on the way to work, employees were told, this letter would ease their passage.
Some workers questioned whether the distribution center should be open at all.
“I don’t see nothing essential about it,” said one employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear she’d be fired for talking to a journalist. “It don’t got nothing to do with nurses or health.”
When a worker tested positive at a PFS distribution center in southeast Memphis, the employee, who worked at a Southaven, Mississippi, location about eight miles away, worried that the virus could spread if workers were shuffled between sites.
A manager assured her that workers would stay put, the employee said. But on April 16, a supervisor told workers that two Memphis workers, who had been brought in to the employee’s Southaven facility, had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I said, ‘Well, since y’all got everybody in here messed up, can’t you call and get everyone in there a COVID-19 test?’” she remembered. “They said if you don’t feel safe, you can go home.”
She can’t risk taking the virus home to a relative, who has chronic illnesses, and she can’t afford not to work. “I’m concerned for my health,” she said. “I don’t want to die.”
Padin, who works with workers’ rights centers across the country, said she’s not aware of much being done by advocates to narrow the list of businesses considered essential. “I do think some of these essential worker orders are quite broad,” she said. “Our sense is that it’s a little arbitrary and just seems to be a result of lobbying.”
She pointed to the success of meat processing plants, which were declared “critical infrastructure” by President Donald Trump despite coronavirus outbreaks that sickened thousands and killed dozens.
Days before Trump’s declaration, meatpacking giant Tyson ran a full-page ad in The New York Times saying “The food supply chain is breaking.”
In Memphis, an amended executive order, signed by the mayor April 21, clarified which distribution centers and warehouses could remain in operation, including ones that handle medical supplies, food and hygiene products.
The order would seem to exclude facilities such as PFS. “Products and services for and in industries that are not otherwise identified in this provision constitute non-essential goods and services,” reads the order, which is set to expire at midnight Tuesday. On Monday, Memphis will move into the first phase of its “Back to Business” plan, which means nonessential businesses can operate with face masks, social distancing in the workplace, and symptom checks.
“No Social Distancing”
Because the turnover in warehouses like PFS is high, the need for a steady flow of labor is paramount. And temp agencies are a major source of employees.
One Memphis mother saw a job posting on Facebook for PFS. A family member’s workplace had closed because of the coronavirus, so the woman rushed to find work to make up for the lost household income. She was hired in late March by Paramount Staffing and sent to a warehouse in Southaven, Mississippi. She wanted to remain anonymous for fear of job retaliation.
From the moment workers entered the building, she said, they were close together. A single-file line funneled workers past several time clocks, one for PFS’s permanent workers and one for each staffing agency with temporary workers there.
“Some people have masks on, some don’t,” said the worker, who earned $9 an hour. Workers weren’t provided any personal protective equipment.
She opted to be a packer, a mostly stationary job, but she had to use a shared tape dispenser to seal boxes and her co-workers were within arm’s reach.
Her other job option was as a picker, but they’re in motion most of the shift, selecting products for individual orders from totes and using a shared scan gun. Pickers send the completed orders to packers.
“It’s basically no social distancing at that warehouse,” she said. “They’re gonna have to work on that.”
About two hours before her shift ended April 10, a manager huddled workers in her area together for an announcement.
“He said, ‘Well, we’re just letting y’all know that we have an employee here who tested positive and we are asking everyone here to leave the building immediately and we will clock y’all out,’” the worker recalled.
The manager instructed them not to touch anything as they left, “just go straight out the door and we will let y’all know when to return,” she recalled.
The warehouse was closed for the next day and reopened the following day.
“It makes me nervous because my health is important to me, but at the same time, it’s like that’s the only thing I can do right now,” she said.
She’s grateful for the job but insists she won’t be there long. “I’m going to try to get in a couple more checks and then I’m going to quit.”
She left about a week ago, but hasn’t found another job yet.
Paramount Staffing, which sent the worker to PFS, relies on the client to provide personal protective equipment to workers, said company president Matthew Schubert.
“My understanding is that they’ve been taking temperatures as employees walk in,” Schubert said, plus performing more frequent cleanings and coaching the workers on social distancing, but he acknowledged he didn’t know when any of those measures began.
“What we want to make sure is that they’re doing everything in their power to follow the CDC guidelines,” said Schubert, who estimates Paramount has 75 to 80 workers at PFS’s area warehouses.
“We’re limited as to what we can and cannot do, because it’s not our facility.”
Both Lichtenstein and Padin say it’s the worksite employer’s responsibility to provide personal protective equipment.
A Perfect Combination: Higher Pay and Less Risk
Just days after Meeks quit PFS, she turned to a different agency and was sent to a Memphis warehouse that labels and ships cleaning products.
Her first day was April 17, and she was impressed by the precautions the employer takes.
Before workers enter the building, Meeks said, their temperatures are taken in a white tent outside. If they don’t have a fever, they get a wristband that is a different color each day.
The company provides masks, gloves and goggles, she said, and there are even kickstands on the bathroom doors, so they can be opened by foot.
Working the third shift means fewer people, Meeks said. “We’re not working close to each other.”
Meeks said she wouldn’t put a price on her health, but at her new job, the risks are lower and the pay higher — up from $9 to $11.50 an hour.
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