Your Home Improvement Project Is Another’s Social Distancing Nightmare

Updated Friday, 2:50 p.m.

If you’ve been practicing social distancing or have been working from home, you may be feeling a bit restless. Many of us are looking outside at our yards and thinking now might be the perfect time to start a home improvement project.

But as people continue to go out into the public despite North Carolina’s stay-at-home order, there’s a real concern of spreading the coronavirus — even if it’s just a quick trip to a home improvement store for some flowers to plant. And one Lowe’s employee is worried about the conditions he continues to work in as spring fever kicks in.   

How do you practice social distancing when you work at a store everyone is rushing to get in to? That’s the question 36-year-old Francis, a manager at a Charlotte market Lowe’s, wants to know.

“It’s impossible to maintain the social distancing guidelines when there’s just crowds and crowds of people in here at all times,” he said.

Francis is his middle name. He worried giving his full name would risk his employment. For full disclosure, Lowe’s is a WFAE sponsor.

Francis expects those crowds of people to only get worse this week and into the weekend.

“We are getting set up right now to run this big spring sale, it’s called ‘Spring Black Friday’ that has these massive sales all throughout the store that is especially designed to bring crowds in,” he said. “That’s my biggest issue — is that we are still running these huge promotions. This Friday, Saturday, there will be huge crowds in every Lowe’s store coming in to get these advertised promotions. We’re staring down the barrel of a gun with this sale, we really are.”

In contrast, Home Depot says it is eliminating all major spring promotions to avoid high levels of traffic in stores. The company has also cut back on hours — closing at 6 p.m. — and is distributing thermometers for employees to check their temperatures before reporting to work. Home Depot stores also are limiting the amount of customers allowed in at any one time.

WFAE reached out to Lowe’s for comment about its efforts to protect its customers and employees but did not hear back before this story was orginally published Wednesday. On Thursday, a Lowe’s spokesperson responded to WFAE’s inquiry: “While some retailers have taken steps to eliminate value pricing, we recognize the importance of continuing to offer value to our customers in this time of economic uncertainty. Affordability matters now more than ever. We encourage customers to practice safe social distancing and leverage our many fulfillment options including Buy Online, Pick-Up in Store, curbside loading and at-home delivery.”

Lowe’s also announced a temporary $2 an hour wage increase for all full-time, part-time and seasonal hourly associates for the hours they work at Lowe’s stores for the month of April.

Francis says there are no thermometers for temperature checks and there’s no crowd control at Lowe’s.

“We stay open a little bit longer than Home Depot, it’s just because I know they want to get that extra business,” he said. “That’s what it feels like out on the floor — that they are putting these profits ahead of our own personal safety.”

Francis says stores put up plexiglass at the cash registers — but it only helps so much. He says overhead messages play through the speakers throughout the store, encouraging handwashing and social distancing.

“And to us in the store, we feel like we are losing our minds when we hear it because it’s impossible to maintain this social distancing that’s required when there are these massive crowds,” he said.

Francis says there is fear among Lowe’s employees right now. It’s not a matter of if they get sick he says, but when. This week, multiple media outlets reported one employee who worked at a Lowe’s in the Ballantyne area tested positive for COVID-19. A second employee who tested positive worked at the Northlake location.

“When we read the news that said that a couple of people had tested positive it was kind of like, ‘Of course they did!’ We were just waiting on that news,” Francis said. “This is really become this source of stress and anxiety and we’re all just exhausted. And that’s what it is — we’re just exhausted.”

Francis says because of his exposure at work, he even had to have a conversation with his mother, who recently finished treatment for cancer. He said it wasn’t a good idea to see each other for the time being.

“Until we know this is done and this has blown through, I can’t go anywhere near her,” he said. “And that was a really painful conversation to have with her. For me to be safe, for my family, I have to basically assume I’ve been exposed at this point. Everyday we have more cases happening around the county, so it’s just a matter of time.”

Francis says earlier this week he did receive a one-time $300 bonus from the company. He appreciated the extra cash but said: “A $300 one-time bonus doesn’t really feel adequate for essentially risking my life on a daily basis.”

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