Coronavirus: Retailers accused of ignoring level 4 rules, forcing staff to burst bubbles with non-essential work

A number of high-profile retailers have been accused of "taking the piss" and forcing employees to burst bubbles by coming to work during alert level 4 rules, and selling non-essential products via illegal click-and-collect services.

Staff at Noel Leeming and the Warehouse on Wednesday complained they were contacted by their bosses late the previous night - after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had announced the incoming level 4 restrictions - and told they had to come into work as normal.

"If you're at home and the heater's on the fritz unexpectedly, then getting some new heating pretty quickly is pretty important - but I think that the Warehouse has stepped back from the more ridiculous things," Ben Peterson, FIRST Union national retail organiser, told Newshub. Noel Leeming is part of The Warehouse Group.

Staff at other big-box stores and retailers have since made similar allegations. Peterson said staff at rival big-box retailer Kmart received messages on Wednesday afternoon telling them to come into work on Thursday, despite not being able to open, so they could ship orders for non-essential items. 

"We've had real issues with people with health issues or childcare responsibilities getting exemption from their managers… people have had to fight and argue for it, which has been disappointing… [Staff] are being told that they need to come in or face disciplinary action or they won't get paid, and they're fulfilling orders for things like candles, fake flowers, decorative pillows." 

According to the Government's Unite Against COVID-19 website, this is against the rules: "Retail stores can take online orders for essential consumer products only," it reads. "Customers cannot use click-and-collect services." 

A spokeswoman for the Warehouse Group told Newshub stores were not operating a full roster and were fulfilling essential orders only.

Unlike The Warehouse, Peterson said Kmart had staff working in every single store, rather than just those required to fulfil orders for essential items, suggesting they were taking advantage of the lockdown to promote their online service.

"The issue for us with Kmart is by opening every store, there's a lot more people coming into contact. The stores aren't designed for that level of separation and social distancing so there's real risks. They're not doing it to maintain a skeleton essential service."

Kmart's website says click-and-collect is unavailable, but still offered non-essential items for delivery, including gym equipment and kids' monkey bars. 

Kmart has been contacted for a response to the claims.

Newshub also heard from a staff member at electronics and furniture retailer Harvey Norman, who said bosses "requested we make deliveries and assemble customers' products in their homes" - a clear breach of level 4 restrictions, which aim to stop contact between people in different 'bubbles'. 

"I raised this issue with our manager and regional manager and was told we either deliver the products or go home and home is where most of us went," the anonymous whistleblower said. "You would think Harvey Norman being a big company would obey by the law with having all employees staying within our bubble and not bursting the bubble of customers' homes. But like our manager said, 'Our customers are priority, not COVID.'"

Harvey Norman has also been contacted by Newshub.

A third retailer, Supercheap Auto, also appears to be ignoring the rules. Newshub has been told staff have been made to come to work under level 4. The Supercheap Auto website is even promoting its click-and-collect service as a "way of keeping our customers and team safe during the COVID-19 outbreak" despite being against the rules. 

Supercheap Auto
Photo credit: Supercheap Auto

Newshub was able to put non-essential items such as car stereos in an online shopping cart.

"You can only leave home to shop for groceries, access necessary healthcare, get a COVID-19 test, exercise in your local area, or go to work if you are working in an alert level 4 service and cannot work from home," the Unite Against COVID-19 site reads. 

Supercheap is yet to respond to Newshub's request for a response.

Ardern had stern words for retailers that are accused of ignoring level 4 rules.

"We're very clear to employers. They should only be operating A, if they can operate safely within level 4 protocols, and B, if they are part of that supply chain for essential goods and services. That is very narrow," she said during the COVID-19 update on Thursday.

"Without wanting to get into some of those individual scenarios, I will have [the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment] look into those specific examples. I can't see many reasons why those individuals would be claiming to be part of those essential services."

She says it isn't enough for employers to say they are essential and then bring in staff to restock shelves.

"I'd say to any employer, you do not want to be in a situation where we stand on this podium and read out your place of work during a level 4 lockdown because you unnecessarily put people at risk in a workplace that should not have been opened," she added.

Auckland and Coromandel are expected to be under level 4 restrictions for at least a week, and the rest of the country until the weekend. Experts expect both lockdowns will be extended as the full scope of the outbreak becomes clear. 

Businesses significantly affected by lockdowns are able to access subsidies to pay staff wages, particularly if they're unable to work because of the restrictions. 

FIRST Union has set up a petition calling for all staff to be compulsorily paid during the lockdown, rather than relying on employers to apply for the subsidy, since some would rather just send staff home "without pay".