Economy Investigations

Bars and restaurants are closed. Schools are shuttered. Several major corporations, like Ford, have suspended operations. Others, like Humana, have allowed many employees to work from home. 

Even Kentucky’s sacred trifecta — church, basketball games and horse races — have all been canceled or postponed for the foreseeable future.

But for many, going to work is the only option, despite growing fears about coronavirus. 

One woman, who asked not to be named to protect her job, works at a call center for Chewy, the pet supply brand, in Newburg. She said up to 300 employees pass through the cramped space in the course of a day. 

“We are crammed in there like sardines,” she said. “All our desks are about three feet wide, and so we all sit so close together because our call center is so tiny. You’re just constantly surrounded by people, and everyone is anxious.”

She said Chewy is experiencing increased demand as more people switch to online ordering for things they otherwise would have picked up in person. The company is offering additional overtime, which she said many employees are taking advantage of to earn more money — “because they’re all expecting to get coronavirus.”

Chewy provides up to two weeks paid time off, she said, depending on how much you work. 

She hopes the company will find a way for employees to work remotely, because she isn’t financially prepared to go without a paycheck if she can’t work. She earns $13.50 an hour, and spends a lot of her paycheck on rent and medications. 

“I would not be able to pay my bills,” she said. “I have no idea what I would do. And the fear right now is, nobody’s really hiring.”

She said she’s particularly in the hole this month. She preemptively stocked up on over-the-counter cold medicine, in case she gets coronavirus.

Chewy did not respond to request for comment. But according to documents reviewed by KyCIR, Chewy is allowing employees who have to miss work due to coronavirus-related issues, like school closures, to take unpaid time off without losing points in the attendance system. The call center has also added an additional cleaning person, and the company’s health insurance policy has waived co-pays for telehealth visits. 

Other call center employees are facing similar decisions. At a Spectrum call center in Louisville, one employee said people are frustrated by a lack of communication from the corporate headquarters. So far, the plan is to keep everyone — which this employee said is up to 500 people in the course of a day — working in the call center as usual.

This employee, who asked not to be named to protect their job, said they understood why it was important for Spectrum customers to be able to get help with any internet or cable issues during a time like this. But they hoped the company would find a way to let them do their jobs from home.

“It’s needlessly reckless” to force people to choose between a paycheck or their health, they said.

“In all the years that I’ve worked here, as much as I’ve heard people bash the cable company, they’ve always been a fantastic place to work,” they said. “This is the first time it’s felt like employees are being pushed to the wayside.”

The company has provided hand sanitizer, and the regular cleaning crews have been more thorough than usual. For now, they said, that’s the best they can hope for.

“It would take someone getting diagnosed or the state stepping in and saying, ‘these types of businesses have to close and have to come up with other options by this date.’”

In a statement, Spectrum said they are working to provide internet, phone and TV services to customers, “including critical institutions like hospitals, first responders and government facilities. During this time, continuing to maintain our operations, while applying the latest CDC guidelines, ensures we provide these vital communications which help flatten the curve and protect the country.”

Some businesses aren’t just hanging on during the coronavirus — they’re actually expanding. And these are not jobs that can be done from home. 

As more people turn to online shopping, Amazon is hiring 4,500 workers in Kentucky and Indiana, including at least 550 in the Louisville area. The company is hiring 100,000 nationwide And they’re incentivizing employees to come to work despite coronavirus fears: They’ve upped pay by $2 an hour, to at least $17, through April, and are offering unlimited unpaid time off through the end of March. Employees diagnosed with coronavirus, or required to self-quarantine, will receive up to two weeks paid time off, as well. 

At the UPS Worldport, Louisville’s biggest private employer, employees are needed at work, pandemic or not. 

“UPS is continuing to move shipments that are saving lives and livelihoods,” the company said in an emailed statement. “In spite of what’s happening globally, the everyday person still has real needs that need to be served and UPS is doing that.”

The company has enhanced cleaning and added additional employee shuttles to encourage social distancing, according to the statement. UPS also helped start the One Louisville: COVID-19 Response Fund that Mayor Greg Fischer announced Wednesday. 

But some employees say little has actually changed to make them feel more safe at work during coronavirus. 

“They’re doing the absolute minimum right now,” said one employee. “I don’t think social distancing has been a priority. If they need us to work — they need to be taking general safety precautions.”

This 20-year-old employee, who didn’t want to be named to protect his job, works at UPS as part of the Metro College program, through which students at the University of Louisville or Jefferson Community and Technical College get tuition reimbursement in exchange for working third shift at UPS. 

Even though U of L has closed for the semester, he has to work through June 1 to get the tuition reimbursement. He said otherwise, he’d be home in northern Kentucky right now, taking his online classes and preparing to ride out the pandemic with his family. 

According to a letter he received from UPS and provided to KyCIR, the company “has no plans to shut down operations.”

“If an employee were to become ill with the virus, we would notify co-workers to seek medical treatment and clean the area in which they work, following CDC and OSHA guidelines,” the letter said. 

He’s concerned because he has no time off saved up, and if he needs to self-quarantine, he’d need to get a doctor’s note to get the time off. 

“I wonder how easy that would be to get,” he said, “or even if it would be the smartest thing as a healthy, young person to go out and chase after a doctor’s note when other people need those services more.”

But, he said, you have to see the silver lining in things. Many of his friends work in the food service industry. Despite his concerns about the close quarters and cleanliness at UPS, at least he’s still getting paid. 

Eleanor Klibanoff covered Rust Belt decline and revival in Pennsylvania. She also worked for NPR and attended the George Washington University.