As the death toll mounts from the coronavirus pandemic, governors in 42 states have urged more than 300 million Americans to stay home.

So it shocked some Petco employees this week to see shipments that are almost guaranteed to draw in more customers: Guinea pigs. Hamsters. Parakeets.

“Why are we getting betta [fish]?” an employee wrote on Petco’s internal social media platform. She posted a picture of a purchase order for more than a dozen fish while other workers reacted with frowns and crying emoji. “This will just bring more people in.”

The outcry was just one example of the fear, anger and uncertainty that have become fixtures for many of Petco’s 25,000 workers since the start of the pandemic. Because Petco sells necessities like pet food and cat litter, some of which can’t be found in grocery stores, most of its 1,500 U.S. locations are deemed “essential” and are open for business.

But some of Petco’s retail workers feel the company is treating them as less than essential. In March, as its stores saw what one executive called a “massive surge” of pet owners stocking up on necessities, many Petco employees clamored for protective gear and warned the company of dangerous crowding in their stores. While some Petco locations have converted to having curbside pickup only, many are still welcoming customers inside.

Workers fear their employer is gambling with their health to push products and services no one needs in the middle of a pandemic. The company has attempted to keep pet salons open in places where pet groomers have been ordered to close. And this week, Petco executives approved new shipments of birds, small mammals, reptiles and aquarium fish to select stores — even as retail employees, posting on the company’s social media platform, describe hiding their fish tanks “to protect us from people who think we are a zoo.” It’s an apparent reversal of Petco’s mid-March decision to stop restocking pets, which caused, in the company’s own words, “unnecessary traffic in our stores.”

Petco is scrambling to supply its workers with additional masks, and some workers felt compelled to rig their own protection. A photo posted in early April to Workplace, a private social media platform for Petco employees, showed checkout clerks in New York surrounded by clear plastic shower curtain liners.

They asked tens of thousands of their ‘partners’ to risk their lives, only to say, ‘Go home and thanks for your work during the pandemic.’ A Petco worker on cuts to the labor force

The private equity-owned retailer has made deep cuts in the number of work hours available to many employees. On Wednesday, Petco announced furloughs for thousands of others. And it has not joined other big-box stores in paying hourly “hazard pay” raises. Instead, Petco is paying its in-store employees a small incentive. The starting incentive for full-time workers is $50 for February and March combined and another $50 for April; part-time workers are being given payments of just $25.

“While we did not title this ‘hazard pay,’ it is, in effect, just that,” said a Petco spokeswoman. “We are awarding $3.6 million in special bonuses to our store employees in recognition of the courageous way they are serving pets and their families in these uncertain times.” The company has also given store employees extra paid time off and paid sick leave for those who contract COVID-19, and changed attendance policies to accommodate workers who don’t feel safe in stores.

“I’ve never been more disappointed in them than I am now,” said a corporate employee, who, like other Petco employees, spoke on condition of anonymity and without the company’s authorization. “They asked tens of thousands of their ‘partners’ to risk their lives by keeping the stores open while customers stocked up” only to say, “‘Go home and thanks for your work during the pandemic.’”

Petco employees wearing masks sewn from old uniforms.Petco Petco employees wearing masks sewn from old uniforms.

The treatment is particularly unfair, this person added, because these same employees were critical to setting up curbside pickup and boosting shipping capabilities at a time when the company’s online sales have nearly tripled.

With their labor, Petco more than doubled the number of stores that can fulfill online orders since the start of the crisis. This week, an executive bragged on a conference call that some of its shipments were outpacing competitors like Amazon and Chewy.

Along with employee interviews, HuffPost based its reporting on internal Petco documents, memos, conference calls and screenshots of employee posts on Workplace, Petco’s company-sponsored private social media platform.

“Most Petco workers make between $8.50 to $11 depending on where they are in the country, and it’s just heartbreaking they’re being expected to work like this,” the corporate employee added. “My hope is the general public really appreciates what sacrifices these workers are making.”

‘Get These Salons Open’

Like its major competitor, PetSmart, Petco is still operating dozens of its in-store pet salons even as some groomers question what’s so essential about grooming dogs.

“We’re not a pharmacy,” said a Petco groomer in Washington state. “You can brush your dog. You can cut your dog’s toenails at home.”

Petco salons around the state are still open, even though that may defy Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 25 order that all nonessential workers stay home. The order itself does not mention pet grooming. But over email, the Washington Emergency Management Division, where the state is directing queries about whether a business counts as “essential,” told a HuffPost source on March 27 and told HuffPost on April 10 that pet grooming is “not essential.”

On the afternoon of April 10, however, an employee who picked up the phone at a Seattle-area Petco said grooming was still available at most locations in and around the city. A Seattle Petco reached the night of April 12 said its salon was booked up for the rest of the month.

In Minnesota, the executive order that Gov. Tim Walz signed on the afternoon of April 8 explicitly said that pet grooming was nonessential and therefore prohibited.

I can stop grooming but they will just replace me with another cog in the machine. A groomer at Petco

But instead of closing its salons in the state, Petco tried to keep several salons open by spreading out the groomers who were still willing to work. “I can stop grooming but they will just replace me with another cog in the machine,” one groomer texted a friend. It took Minnesota police departments sending officers to Petco stores on April 9 and police chiefs arguing with its legal department before Petco finally gave in, according to law enforcement emails shared with HuffPost. A Petco salon in Maple Grove, a Minneapolis suburb, was still open and accepting appointments until this past weekend.

Even if it were not against current law, dog groomers with other companies have said the risk to human health just doesn’t justify keeping pet salons open.

The Washington state Pet groomer said that it would be impossible to keep a safe distance from other workers as long as there was more than one groomer working at a time, using bathtubs, kennels and tables that are closer than 6 feet apart.

“Our business is back to operating in a normal way after closing for six days,” this person said. “There is no social distancing, no decrease in business, no switch to essential services and no lower staff volume. Petco’s answer was if anyone shows up to shut us down, direct them to our legal department and continue on as normal.”

The manager at the store where this groomer worked was urging groomers to book appointments back to back, leaving no time to sanitize between each client as the company is directing, the groomer added.

Several photos that Petco used in a company bulletin to highlight its safety measures showed employees standing less than 6 f Petco Several photos that Petco used in a company bulletin to highlight its safety measures showed employees standing less than 6 feet apart.

Petco refused to answer specific questions about why its pet salons in Minnesota stayed open or whether its pet salons in Washington state will shut down. It emphasized that it has ordered salons to comply with specific social distancing rules. “We have sent clear guidance to all stores around social distancing and it would be disappointing to hear our direction is not being followed,” the Petco spokesperson said.

Petco also stressed that it is not requiring groomers to work in its salons; they have the option to work in retail during the pandemic, take paid time off, or unpaid time if they have run out.

“This is a highly fluid situation and we’re working diligently to remain informed and in compliance with widely varying and quickly evolving local, state and federal guidelines,” a company spokeswoman said. “We may not be perfect, but we are proud of our responsiveness to date…. In Washington, we are working hard to comply with the applicable and widely varying county regulations.”

Petco also argues its grooming services are critical to the health of pets, although the company has acknowledged elsewhere that grooming is not a medical service.

“Without proper and routine grooming care and hygiene ― which includes everything from bathing to nail clipping, gland expression, teeth brushing, ear cleaning and more ― pets can be at risk for a number of negative health impacts,” the spokeswoman said. “Many pet parents are not capable nor properly equipped to groom their pets at home…. We believe grooming is essential, particularly for those pet parents who can’t groom their pets themselves, like our elderly and handicapped customers.” The company is not limiting its pet grooming services to customers who are elderly or have disabilities or service animals.

For a pet supply chain stores like Petco, dog grooming can be a high-margin business. A Petco executive said on a conference call this week that in stores where salons are closed, “We’re fighting like hell on the back end to get these salons open.”

‘Any Luck Finding A Mask?’

Petco has taken some steps to make the situation less painful for its employees. The company gave all store employees five extra days of paid time off at the beginning of the crisis, and any employee who tests positive for the novel coronavirus has paid sick leave for the 14-day quarantine period.

This week, the store announced furloughs for thousands of retail workers but said it would continue to pay for those employees’ benefits. At the same time, it announced pay cuts of 15% to 25% for executive leadership and said CEO Ron Coughlin will not take a salary for two months.

Petco employees experiencing financial hardship are eligible to apply to the Petco Partner Assistance Fund. It is financed by $2 million from the company, donations from the Petco board and executives, and CVC Capital Partners, a private equity group that acquired a major stake in Petco in 2015.

The other private equity group that owns Petco, the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, is not listed as a donor on an internal memo about the fund and did not respond to questions about whether it had made a contribution.

To reduce in-store traffic, Petco pulled April ad campaigns for special sales and live animals, and it suspended services like dog training and self-grooming stations. By March 25, it had made the option to buy online and pick up at the store an option at most, though not all, of its 1,500 locations.

Some Petco employees made masks out of their old uniforms. Petco Some Petco employees made masks out of their old uniforms.

“We proactively ceased in-store services that were driving nonessential store traffic, including all dog training, puppy playtime, self-wash and Vetco vaccination clinics,” said the company spokesperson. In New York, New Jersey and southern Connecticut, all stores are temporarily pickup only, and Petco said it has limited the number of people in stores in some hard-hit regions.

But in other regions, Petco is leaving the decision of whether to limit the number of customers or workers in the store up to store managers. And there are clear financial incentives to do the opposite.

“My district general manager said we need to increase sales or we will lose our jobs,” a worker wrote on Workplace in March, after Petco says it took measures to reduce customer traffic. She said she challenged him: “If we are truly staying open to [do] essential business, do we really need to ask them if they need to upgrade their leash and collar? (This was his example.)”

Live pet sales could drive even more customers inside the stores that remain open to shoppers. Internal documents showed Petco never stopped restocking goldfish or minnows, although it temporarily paused restocking of other pets. And now Petco is shipping live animals to its stores again. Employees on Workplace complained of receiving aquarium fish, hamsters and parakeets, and the head of Animal Care Operations said some stores could expect to receive reptiles.

“Our location is near Walmart and we have been getting SO MUCH foot traffic and random people wanting to set up aquariums it’s seriously ridiculous,” an employee posted to Workplace in early April.

Do we really need to ask them if they need to upgrade their leash and collar? A Petco employee on Workplace, the company’s internal social media platform

The company spokesperson said it was restocking live animals, such as mice and crickets, that are used as pet food and “where our suppliers have overcapacity in their facilities, putting animal lives at risk.”

“No one should be confused, the health and safety of our employees, our guests and the communities we serve is our number one priority,” the spokesperson said.

“Without full-service pet specialty retailers like Petco, many animals would get sick and/or die,” the spokesperson continued. “Petco is open because we are the grocery store, the pharmacy and, in many cases, the doctor’s office for beloved pets.”

Last week, Petco began asking all employees to wear masks and to clean frequently handled items, such as credit card readers, three times a day. Petco also issued store signs and decals reminding customers to stay 6 feet apart. It rushed reusable cloth masks to its stores within a few days of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that everyone wear a mask in public. After workers complained that some of the masks were fraying and sheer, the company promised to send higher-quality disposable masks.

But the measures are imperfect and, in some cases, inadequate. Recently, a photo of three employees in masks appeared in a company bulletin that highlighted Petco’s safety measures. That photo, however, and several others in the bulletin also showed employees standing well within 6 feet of each other.

Petco employees have felt obligated to come up with their own solutions for finding masks and shielding themselves from customers. A few days after the CDC recommended that everyone wear a mask to contain the spread of COVID-19, an employee posted on Workplace: “Has anyone had any luck finding a mask for a good deal?”

“The CDC is now recommending the use of cloth face masks to help stop the spread of Covid-19,” another worker wrote. “Idk about y’all but I’m taking a cue from [another employee] & making my own Petco masks from old shirts!”

“Great call out,” a Petco corporate employee replied. “We have had some great examples of innovative masks out there… including the petco shirts!”

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