On April 16, 2020 (Nike Covid-19), an environmental health official from the Shelby County Health Department was turned away from a Nike Distribution Center. She was there to investigate health conditions there due to the death of a temporary worker five days earlier. The company officials had learned that the worker had tested positive for COVID-19.
For Nike COVID-19 related deaths would lead to the shutting down of that warehouse. However, the health official was turned away from the center by a guard due to her not having an appointment. She left her card there, but didn’t get the answers she needed. The complaint her department had received was of unsatisfactory cleaning as well as poor implementation of social distancing guidelines.
The Nike Covid-19 Incident
The incident had not been reported and thus caught a health department off guard when a corporate giant blocked them. The Southeast Memphis facility which backs up to Lamar Avenue is the largest distribution center for the athletic wear brand. It was opened in 2015 and covers 2.8 million square feet of the North America Logistics Campus in Frayser.
As of May 18th, 2020, 21 workers at five separate Memphis warehouses for Nike had tested positive for COVID-19. For Nike COVID-19 numbers climbed from 9 to 21 in just three weeks. That is very troubling. With 3,100 employees working at the Nike warehouses around the Memphis metro area, there is a huge risk.
However, the workers are essential to Nike’s operations. Since they closed their physical stores in Mid-March, these warehouse have been filling online orders.
For Nike COVID-19 is hardly a unique problem. From March 26th to May 12th, 2020, the Health Department has received 201 complaints regarding COVID-19 about various businesses. This includes concerns about nonessential business which were still operating and a lack of social distancing measures. However, this particular Nike facility was unique, in that the health official was turned away.
The Follow Up
A day after the health worker was turned away by the security guard, she got a call from a Nike administrator. The latter said that the company had installed markers on the floor six feet apart to protect workers. The facility would also close every Tuesday for cleaning.
The health department was apparently satisfied with that explanation. There was no return trip to the distribution center for verification. The department felt there was nothing else that needed to be done, according to the Environmental Health Administrator, Kasia Alexander.
If that sounds like professional negligence, it is. For Nike COVID-19 mishaps shouldn’t have been something they were allowed to get away with. The health department has the authority to call up the police and access a business immediately. However, Dr. Bruce Randolph, the health director defended the decision to not escalate any matters.
“We don’t just automatically get law enforcement involved simply because the first time we show up, some security and management person refuses to allow us access.”
Nike COVID-19 Measures
A spokesperson from Nike said they had taken extensive measures to minimize exposure to the virus. This included expanding social distancing from 3 to 6 feet in doorways, warehouse floors, break rooms, as well as other areas. Furthermore, plexiglass is being used to separate workstations, and markings on tables show how far apart they are.
All of this was apparently done in April. Later during the month, Nike COVID-19 measures expanded to temperature checks for all employees, workers and visitors without exception. That seems like justification for the health department not pursuing the case further. That being said, an OSHA administrator called the department’s failure to demand access into the warehouse “absolutely inappropriate”.
David Michaels, who had worked in the Obama administration said that the officials were responsible for public health. He reprimanded them for not knowing that the virus doesn’t stop at the warehouse gate. The virus has affected more than 51 million people around the world.
It affects people that carry it without any symptoms when they walk out of the warehouse. They can transfer it to anyone on the street or to family members or friends. For Nike COVID-19 should be a top priority as well as for the health department.
Other Cases of COVID-19 at Warehouses
For Nike COVID-19 is hardly a unique problem at the warehouse. At least three workers have tested positive for the virus at the Kroger warehouse which supplies 100 grocery stores in the area. At the FedEx Hub, 10 workers have tested positive. At PFS, a jewelry and makeup shipment company, an employee reported more than 20 coronavirus infected coworkers.
Who Is Responsible?
While the responsibility of ensuring worker’s health lies on the companies themselves, holding them accountable is the government’s job. TOSHA, the Tennessee equivalent of OSHA at the State level, protecting public health is a priority.
However, as with many other government agencies, sharing information is a problem. As with the Nike COVID-19 incident, there is a lot of wiggle room for companies to get out. Federal and State OSHA criteria dictate that businesses have to report infections to authorities.
However, the definitions of those situations are not well defined. Very few workplace infections actually fall under the record keeping rules. County Health Director Bruce Randolph has said his department relies on workers to file complaints about their workplace. However, of the 201 COVID-19 business complaints received from March 26 to May 12, only 11 were connected to complaints.
Worker rights’ advocates have said that the low number of complaints is more indicative of fear among workers. It’s not due to great working conditions. While employees from several warehouses have tested positive, the Health Department is only tracking clusters concentrated at health care facilities. Businesses don’t make the cut for those clusters.
Incidents like the Nike COVID-19 death will occur again if the government doesn’t enforce the rules properly. There is too much room for businesses to beat the system and carry on making money. Without workers’ rights and proper sanitation against the coronavirus, these incidents will only multiply.