Coronavirus: More companies accused of level 4 breaches, putting staff at risk

The number of major retailers and other businesses being accused by staff of putting their safety at risk continues to grow, and officials are warning they could face penalties if they're found to have breached alert level 4 guidelines. 

In the past few days, Newshub has reported on complaints targeting big-box retailers Harvey Norman, Kmart, the Warehouse and Noel Leeming, but they're far from the only stores where staff aren't happy.

"There's plenty of employers who have done the right thing and have been cautious, FIRST Union national retail organiser Ben Peterson told Newshub, frustrated with what he's heard from members. "We're 18 months into the process. This isn't new, this isn't the first time around."

An employee from the Albany Mitre 10 store told Newshub their "greedy boss" was staying at home while they had to "work and be paid normal hourly rate or stay home and not be paid anything", without distancing protocols in place.

Another staff member at the same store said members of the public who showed up were being let in, in breach of level 4 guidelines, and staff were being put on night shifts to stock shelves and being allowed to "stand in large groups talking" without masks. 

Newshub contacted the store and were told the manager would be informed, but didn't hear back. 

Staff at an Animates store said they were told if they didn't come in to process click-and-collect orders, they wouldn't get paid. Click-and-collect orders are not allowed under level 4 for general retail. Animates told Newshub it asked the Ministry of Primary Industries for guidance, and was told it could operate click-and-collect services, as long as they were contact-less, as a provider of essential services.

One Animates staff member said their boss told them their work colleagues are now their 'bubble' - complaining they now had 18 people in their bubble as a result, in addition to their own household. And they had to go into work - Animates earned so much during the last lockdown through online sales they had to pay the wage subsidy back, the staff member said, so the company had no plans to apply for it this time. 

"Therefore we either work, use alternative/annual/sick leave, apply for the individual Government grant if we fill the criteria, or don't get paid at all."

In response, Animates said the "safety and wellbeing of our staff is our top priority and we are following the directives and guidelines from the Government". 

"We have continued to pay our team members who are able to work for their contracted hours regardless of how and whether a store was trading."

Animates isn't the only store that's been accused of telling staff they won't be paid if they don't come in. 

Electronics and entertainment retailer JB Hi-Fi has also been accused of forcing staff to come in and do non-essential work, or take annual or sick leave. 

A staffer told Newshub they were still doing deliveries for stuff like large-screen TVs, and distancing guidelines weren't being followed. 

"Any member of our team who is rostered on during this period is expected to work," said spokesperson Trish Edwards. "If they have a reason not to work - if they're unwell, et cetera - we absolutely are honouring that. If they just don't want to work, they are welcome to take annual leave… either way, people are being paid for the hours they would have been entitled. We're being very fair and straight-up about that." 

She wasn't sure if the company was going to take the wage subsidy, which is available to businesses expecting to suffer a significant income drop thanks to the lockdown.

"Any avenue that's there, I know it will be in front of the powers that be. At the moment, we feel as though we're covering things fairly… we're not trying to skirt any health and safety issues at all, and we now add wellbeing to that." 

Edwards said staff that had concerns could talk to HR and managers, under the company's "speak-up" culture. 

Non-essential items ordered by customers would not be shipped until after the lockdown lifted, she said. Buy NZ Made has backed this approach, saying it will give local businesses cashflow when they need it most. 

"You can perhaps buy a voucher online or place an order to be shipped when we do move down alert levels," executive director Dane Ambler told Newshub.

Countdown is an essential service.
Countdown is an essential service. Photo credit: File

A woman whose partner works at Countdown supermarket emailed Newshub to say he has done six consecutive night shifts for minimum wage, and staff aren't being required to wear masks.

"He came home this morning with a free toasted sandwich as a thank you from Countdown… This is absolutely shocking." 

She also complained Countdown hadn't matched rival supermarket operator Foodstuffs' 10 percent pay hike during the lockdown. Countdown did so during last year's lockdown, but some reportedly didn't get their bonus without a bit of arm-twisting

After Newshub contacted Countdown, the chain announced they would be bringing back the 10 percent bonus as well as "continuing to provide food for our teams in stores and distribution centres".

As for masks, she said the company has "strongly recommended our teams in stores wear masks and then obviously from midnight on Wednesday when it became mandatory, this has been clearly communicated to all our team members".

"Our expectation is that our team members are wearing masks or face coverings, no matter the time of day, as is required by the Government."

It's not just retailers that have been accused of "pushing the boundaries", as Peterson put it. A concerned staff member at Storage King told Newshub customers have been allowed to continue using the firm's facilities without any QR code scanning, office staff weren't able to work from home and people were being sent to multiple locations a day to do security checks. 

"If an infected customer or staff member was to visit the site it would most likely go unidentified," the staffer said. 

Newshub briefly spoke with a manager from Storage King on Friday morning who said he'd email a response, but hadn't by Saturday afternoon. 

A staff member from Sistema Plastics told Newshub they'd all been told to get back to work in the factory and safety protocols were being ignored, which CEO Drew Muirhead denied.

"Today we've got 80 on out of 1000 staff, so less than 10 percent staff in just keeping the fires burning," he told Newshub on Friday. "There's no office staff, there's nothing there - just these essential people."

The company isn't producing as much as usual, he said, because they're only supplying other essential services at the moment - basically just supermarkets - and they had "world-class" protocols in place, including "distancing, sanitising and cleaning".

MBIE's advice

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment told Newshub it's up to businesses to check whether they fit the definition of an essential service, and what operations they can and can't carry out under level 4. An updated list of the kinds of activities that are permitted is on the ministry's website

As for staff, the ministry said they should talk to their employers about what options are available if they can't or don't feel comfortable working away from home. 

"Employees may say no to working at their usual workplace if they believe that it would expose them, or anyone else, to a serious risk of being infected with COVID-19, or any other health or safety risks.

"If employees are working from home, they must be paid at the rate in their employment agreement. If they cannot work normally (eg. their normal number of hours), they should discuss with their employer what options are available.

"If they cannot work from home and need to stay at home, the employer may be able to apply for financial support to pay you if they meet certain criteria. Employers will need to decide if they qualify for the wage subsidy."

Employers can't cut employees' hours or wages, nor make them do work outside their usual responsibilities, without getting their agreement and putting the changes in writing. 

The ministry wouldn't comment on how many complaints it's received so far, but said an 'early resolution' service was available to sort out disagreements before they spiral out of control.

"MBIE will assess all complaints to determine the most appropriate course of action which can range from providing information to referring complaints to the Labour Inspectorate for further investigation.

"Employers who breach minimum employment standards can face enforcement action and penalties."