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As coronavirus spreads, workers say employers are putting them at risk

A lunch truck at the site of the new high school being built in Somerville drew a crowd of construction workers.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Flight attendants who aren’t being supplied with gloves or enough sanitized wipes feel “exposed and vulnerable” as they hand drinks to passengers. Federal employees are using communal desks in a sea of still-full cubicles. Construction workers are sharing van rides and porta-potties and crowding around the same lunch truck. Employees at several prominent retail chains say they’ve received no additional cleaning procedures or social distancing mandates.

Millions of people have been ordered to work from home since the coronavirus pandemic broke out, but millions more are still being required to go in — and not just doctors, nurses, and police officers.


Many of them say their employers aren’t doing enough to protect them from the highly contagious virus. All the employees reached by the Globe — some of whom interact with the public or take the MBTA to work — said they are worried about becoming infected and are upset that their employers aren’t doing more to keep them safe, or didn’t take action more quickly.

The choice facing employers is daunting, to be sure: Keep your business open and continue paying your workers, but increase their risk of being infected? Or shut down to keep employees safe but put their economic security at risk?

Some organizations have been slow to put their workers’ safety first. TJX Cos. didn’t shut down its stores until Thursday. The Social Security Administration’s office of hearings and appeals in Boston continued requiring employees to come to the office until Thursday, according to a lawyer there who, like others, was already set up to work from home. Keolis, the commuter rail operator, originally told workers they could borrow up to 10 days of advance pay to use as sick time if they were diagnosed with COVID-19 or had to self-quarantine, then reversed course and granted employees 10 additional sick days for this purpose — no strings attached.


But other companies are still putting their employees in distressing situations. And they aren’t breaking any laws in doing so. Employees can refuse to work if a job presents an imminent danger of death or serious injury without being fired. But that may not include exposure to coronavirus, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, a worker advocacy group.

At the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Boston, Ismail Lazrak, 27, delivered room service to one of the infected Utah Jazz basketball players who later tested positive for the novel coronavirus. He stood just inches away from him to hand him a breakfast tray and the bill. But Lazrak and others who interacted with the players said the hotel wouldn’t allow them to self-quarantine for more than three days without a doctor’s note.

Lazrak has no symptoms, and didn’t go to the doctor since he wasn’t actively ill, but was so concerned he was silently spreading the virus he started calling in sick last weekend anyway.

“I touched his pen, I touched his book, I cleaned his table. Without washing my hands, without gloves,” said Lazrak, who was prevented by hotel policy from naming the guest. “I’m worried about myself, and my family, and my co-workers — that I might pass something on to them. Even the future guests.”

“The people who are not showing symptoms," he added, "they’re more dangerous than the people who are showing symptoms."


Officials at the Ritz did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

At the CarMax used-car dealership in Norwood, employees are still being required to come in, according to the wife of an employee, despite the fact that a woman in the business office woke up with a fever and a cough Wednesday and was told by her doctor to quarantine herself.

Like many who relayed information to the Globe about their employers, the worker asked to remain anonymous out of fear of losing his job — and asked his wife to speak for him.

CarMax auctions are still being held every week, with used cars and dealers coming in from around New England, according to the worker’s wife. Employees who interact with customers aren’t allowed to wear gloves, she said, “because you don’t want to walk in and think about the fact that you’re buying a used car where the person who just dropped the car off could have been carrying the coronavirus around in their car.”

CarMax has closed stores in several states — and will pay workers for up to 14 days — but plans to stay open where it can because it says transportation is critical right now. The company said it is following CDC guidelines regarding quarantines and workers who aren’t comfortable or able to be on site can stay home without penalty.

“Without an automobile, the ability to visit the grocery store, or to take a sick child to the hospital wouldn’t be possible for hundreds of millions of Americans,” CarMax said in a statement.


(Update: CarMax is now allowing front-end employees to bring in and wear gloves and is simulcasting car auctions in the Boston area.)

Construction workers at the new high school being built in Somerville are also at risk of spreading the infection, according to a tradesman on the project. It starts early in the morning when workers meet under the I-93 overpass and pile into vans and buses to get to the job site, he said. Some of them work side by side, and crowd around the canteen truck that arrives every day at 9 a.m. with pizza and Italian sausages. Many of the porta-potties don’t even have soap, he said. There’s also talk that workers who arrived from a closed job site — construction has been halted in Boston and Cambridge — had previously worked with someone under quarantine.

But aside from foremen telling workers to wash their hands and keep their distance from each other, it’s “business as usual,” he said, and there’s been no official guidance from Suffolk Construction Co., the general contractor.

"They're not going to do anything until they're told to do something," he said, "and if they're not told to do something, it's just going to get worse."

In a statement, Suffolk said that the safety of its employees and trade partners was its top priority and that the company had put protocols in place from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for disinfecting, social distancing, monitoring workers’ health, and removing anyone with symptoms of COVID-19.


Flight attendants are also highly concerned about their well-being. Not only do flight attendants work in close quarters, they say the planes are not any cleaner than they were before and are frequently short on protective supplies. An American Airlines flight attendant from Dallas brought her own stash of gloves and sanitary wipes on a recent flight to Oklahoma City because she knew there wouldn’t be enough.

“Most of us don’t feel protected at all,” said the flight attendant, who recently had an upper respiratory infection but wasn’t allowed to be tested because she didn’t meet the qualifications.

“Nothing’s changed,” said another American Airlines flight attendant, based in Boston. “We [could] spread it all over the place. We put it in hotel rooms, we put it in the cabins. ... We’re handing things to people, we’re picking up their trash."

On Wednesday, American’s director of flight service training wrote an e-mail to flight attendants saying that there was a report of a flight attendant testing positive. The airline said it was in close contact with the CDC about the report but did not confirm the positive test. The carrier also said that it was providing its crews with adequate personal sanitation supplies and that cleaning practices meet or exceed CDC guidelines.

Even for people who are able to work from home, it has been a struggle to get employers to agree to it. Kerrin A. MacNeil, 28, who is seven months pregnant with her first child, works in the office at the Addiction Treatment Center of New England, a methadone clinic in Brighton. On Monday, when she asked to work from home, she was told no. So she reluctantly decided to take unpaid leave.

"I can work from home," MacNeil said. "I should be getting paid, I shouldn't be stressed out."

On Thursday, the center backtracked and started working with MacNeil to identify tasks she could do from home.

At the Internal Revenue Service office in Andover, employees continued reporting to work — with workers on different shifts sharing desks — until Wednesday, when the office started allowing employees who couldn’t telework to apply for “weather and safety” leave, paid through April 10, according to a longtime tax examiner. But the amount of time it took to carry out this plan was disturbing, she said. Hundreds of people were packed in the office every day, and when the tax examiner got to her desk, recently vacated by another co-worker, she would wipe off her desk from top to bottom before she even took off her coat.

A directive from the Trump administration to expand telework to federal agencies across the country came down on Monday, although IRS workers in Andover who are unable to work remotely, like the tax examiner, said they weren’t given the option to take leave until Wednesday. The IRS did not respond to a request for comment.

The workforce in Andover is older, the tax examiner said, including people in their 70s who are in frail health and use mobility scooters.

“Everybody," she said, "was in a panic.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston. Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.