- Office supply stores like Staples and Office Depot consider themselves essential businesses and are staying open amid coronavirus shutdowns.
- In leaked internal memos, both companies said that they are essential because they sell cleaning and work-from-home-enabling products and support hospitals and healthcare providers. Both retailers are operating with reduced hours.
- Business Insider spoke to three Staples employees in California, Texas, and New Jersey stores, three Office Depot employees in Kansas, Illinois, and South Carolina stores, and one worker in an East Coast Staples warehouse. Most employees said that the “essential” classification is misleading.
- Five employees said their store is consistently out of essential items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
- “Staples itself is an Essential Business as it supplies a large variety of products and services (including shipping services) utilized by small and medium sized business, teachers, students and consumers of every type,” a Staples spokesperson said in a statement. “Additionally, Staples supplies these products and services (including technology and cleaning products) to numerous other essential businesses which are critical infrastructure facilities.”
- Office Depot did not return Business Insider’s request for comment
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
As nonessential businesses temporarily shutter amid the coronavirus outbreak, the stores that are staying open are tasked with proving why they are essential.
Many retail workers, including those who work in office supply stores, are still generally expected to come into work, even as US governors issue “stay at home” orders in more than 30 states including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
In leaked internal memos, both companies said that they are essential because they sell cleaning and work-from-home-enabling products and support hospitals and healthcare providers. The Office Depot memo also said that the company is providing mailing and shipping services, which are essential to supporting other businesses.
But according to some employees, a dearth of these essential and work-from-home-enabling products makes that “essential” classification misleading.
Staples and Office Depot employees have started campaigns on Coworker.org to petition both chains to close their stores while paying workers in the meantime. Each campaign takes issue with the claim that these stores are essential and says that staying open poses a danger to employees.
Business Insider spoke to three Staples employees in California, Texas, and New Jersey stores, three Office Depot employees in Kansas, Illinois, and South Carolina stores, and one worker in an East Coast Staples warehouse. For the most part, these employees said that the “essential” classification is misleading.
All but one of these employees opted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from their employer. In each of these cases, Business Insider verified their identities.
“It’s confusing to me why they say we’re essential if they’re not stocking us like we’re essential,” a South Carolina Office Depot employee said, explaining how their store had not gotten shipments of toilet paper in two weeks and was completely out of web cameras and monitors.
Office Depot did not return Business Insider’s request for comment.
Employees say Staples and Office Depot stores lack essential items
Panic-buying in many stores across the country has led to widespread shortages of essential goods like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and paper towels. Employees say Staples and Office Depot stores have experienced a similar phenomenon.
“The company has completely sold out of all products that deemed us ‘essential’ weeks ago with everything now on back order and no ETA for us to be restocked,” a Kansas Office Depot employee said, adding that hand soap, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper flew off the shelves so quickly that there was hardly any product left for the store’s own employee bathroom.
In a statement to Business Insider, a Staples representative said that the retailer is an essential business because it provides business and educational materials and products, household goods, and cleaning supplies. The spokesperson added that these products also help support other essential businesses.
“When all this panic started, we essentially sold out in a couple of days,” a Staples employee in a New Jersey store said of the high-demand items. He explained that his store carried a minimal amount of these products to begin with.
This employee said that his store gets a truck of new merchandise every week, but the high-demand products generally sell out in his store the day they are unloaded, which he said basically nullifies this part of the company’s “essential” claim.
“It is misleading,” this employee said of Staples’ “essential” designation. “Essentially they are still operating as an office supply store with those essential supplies.”
He added: “The last freight I worked had a small handful of toilet paper.”
An employee who works in a Staples warehouse that serves parts of New York and New Jersey said that when the coronavirus outbreak started and panic-buying took off, the warehouse ran out of supplies quickly. However, she said things have pretty much stabilized since the statewide shutdowns have been implemented.
An Illinois Office Depot employee said his store has not had hand sanitizer for a couple of days now. This employee also learned on Wednesday, via a post on the company’s internal communications hub that was viewed by Business Insider, that his store is not supposed to sell any hand sanitizer and certain soaps and instead save them for store use. It was unclear if this selling restriction applied to all stores or just this one.
Staples employees say work-from-home-enabling products are running out
“Staples is an essential retailer enabling the community to work and teach from home,” reads a letter given to employees of a California Staples store, authorizing them to work in regions that have shut down nonessential businesses.
Samantha Hallas, a Staples employee in a Concord, California, store, said that in addition to a dearth of high-demand products like toilet paper and hand sanitizer, her store has also been running low on work-from-home equipment like monitors and web cameras.
Hallas, who said she recently decided to stop coming into work and use her accrued paid time off until the pandemic eases, said she understood why Staples might have been considered essential at first.
However, she added, “It definitely over time seems ridiculous that we would still be considered essential when we are sold out of the very products that make us essential.”
A Staples employee in a New Jersey store said his store has been low on work-from-home products as well.
In a letter dated March 21 that is available in the Office Depot employee hub and was viewed by Business Insider, Office Depot outlined how the company “provides necessary products and services to essential business, critical infrastructure industries, and other customers,” which makes the company essential.
However, an Illinois Office Depot employee pointed out that if people haven’t picked up their work-from-home supplies at this point, they likely won’t be doing it anytime soon.
“Office Depot is not essential enough to keep our doors open to the general public,” this employee said, adding that he does believe they are essential enough to be doing curbside pickups, which Office Depot is providing in most locations.
Some workers say they feel neglected
Staples and Office Depot both encourage employees to stay home if they are feeling sick. However, neither company has announced additional paid time off for employees in this time.
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A Staples employee in a Texas store said that the designation of “essential” is not enough to validate the risk he feels coming into work. He added that a lot of high-demand items have been on back-order for his store, thanks to a back-up at the Indiana warehouse that his store receives products from.
Both Staples and Office Depot are making efforts to increase social distancing in stores by offering curbside pickup in some locations and limiting the number of customers allowed in stores at a time. Both retailers are operating with reduced hours.
But some employees say that the social distancing guidelines are not being fully enforced.
“We still get waves of people coming in the store, looking for stuff we don’t have,” the Texas Staples employee said.
The Kansas Office Depot employee said he is in fear daily that he might contract the virus on the job and bring it home to his family.
“At the moment it’s not even about the financial needs of employees,” this employee said, explaining how he does not feel adequately protected by the company. “It’s a matter of life.”
Read Staples’ full statement to Business Insider:
At this time, as an essential provider of business and educational materials and products, household goods and cleaning supplies, Staples Stores will remain open to support local communities. Staples itself is an Essential Business as it supplies a large variety of products and services (including shipping services) utilized by small and medium sized business, teachers, students and consumers of every type. Additionally, Staples supplies these products and services (including technology and cleaning products) to numerous other essential businesses which are critical infrastructure facilities. We are monitoring the COVID-19 situation daily, following guidance from the CDC, local, state and federal regulations and will continue to reassess as needed. New protocols have been put in place to help support a healthy and safe environment for our customers and associates, including asking associates to stay home if they feel sick or if they do not feel comfortable coming into work, reducing hours chainwide (exclusive times for seniors and at-risk customers to shop), offering curbside pick-up, requiring social distancing (6 feet between every person), limiting the number of people inside our stores, asking associates to wash their hands every 30 minutes and actively working to restock all of our cleaning supplies.
If you’re an office supply store employee working during the pandemic, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with your story.
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