Apart from healthcare workers, there is no one more susceptible to contracting coronavirus than those who continue to work at restaurants, supermarkets, and warehouses to ensure that people still have access to essential items. Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Government acknowledged the risk facing these workers, backing the CDC’s announcement that masks should be worn at all times in public, and adding that it is crucial for companies to provide masks for their employees.

Given that protective masks are extraordinarily difficult to source at this point, however, and increasingly unaffordable due to demand, many companies have been failing to heed CDC guidelines. According to CNN, “many large chains staying open during the outbreak have been slow to provide their workers with masks, despite growing concern from workers and unions.”

While some companies claim they are trying to avoid ordering too many masks so as not to strain the supply that could be going to healthcare workers and hospitals, others, such as Amazon, are working nonstop to stay in stock with masks during this crisis. Amazon spokesperson Alyssa Bronikowski said, “The millions of masks we ordered weeks ago are now arriving, and we’re distributing them to our teams as quickly as possible”.

Even the employees at Amazon, however, have complained that only limited quantities of masks have been made available. Therefore, many of these essential workers at risk have had no choice but to rely on makeshift masks using cotton fabrics and HEPA filters from home with the help of video tutorials circulating online.

Other companies, such as Kroger, have been joining union leaders in pushing lawmakers to designate grocery workers as emergency personnel. This status would allow grocery workers to get priority access to personal protective equipment. Without access to personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks, “grocery workers are more at risk of exposure to the virus,” said a spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers union representing 1.3 million workers at Kroger, Albertsons and other chains. 

Ultimately, the responsibility falls on employers to provide their workers with the protective equipment they need to do their job safely. This is especially the case during a public health crisis such as the one we face today.