Lowe’s employees weigh in on the company’s controversial mask policy

  • Like many retailers, Lowe’s has established a mandatory mask rule for its stores, but has told its workforce to avoid confronting customers who refuse to don masks.
  • “We will not ask our associates to put their safety at risk by confronting customers about wearing masks, so we are consistently requesting that customers wear masks for the safety of everyone in our stores,” a Lowe’s spokesperson previously said in a statement to Business Insider. 
  • Business Insider spoke with five current and former Lowe’s employees about the retailer’s mask policy.
  • Lowe’s employees expressed worries about how a lack of mask policy enforcement could jeopardize their safety at work.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Since July 20, unmasked customers entering Lowe’s stores around the country have each been offered a mask at the door. Stores have posted signage requesting that its customers wear a mask within the stores, in accordance with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for public spaces.

But there’s no penalty for declining the free mask. Lowe’s employees are instructed to thank these anti-mask shoppers and allow them to proceed into the store.

Business Insider spoke with five Lowe’s workers about the home improvement giant’s policy of non-enforcement around its mask mandate. The employees agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, out of concern over retaliation. Lowe’s did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment. 

Employees provided Business Insider with a message from CEO Marvin Ellison predating the company’s July 20 nationwide order requesting all customers to wear masks while shopping. In the note, Ellison thanked employees for their service and spoke of the importance of stopping the spread of COVID-19.

But he noted that there was only so much Lowe’s employees could do when it came to customers.

“Because we are not a law enforcement agency, we cannot force a customer to wear a mask if they refuse,” the CEO wrote. “However, we will provide each store with an allotment of paper masks that we will give to any customer who enters the store not wearing a face covering. If the customer refuses to put on the mask when offered, simply maintain your social distancing, thank them, and continue to assist other customers.”

Lowe’s — along with its orange rival, Home Depot — has seen its sales explode during the pandemic. But the success has prompted a growing backlash to the retailer’s non-enforcement approach to its mask policy. Shopper John Birke filed a $20 million suit against the company in California after an unmasked customer spat in his face while he shopped on June 28. In Virginia, Tanja Softic’s petition urging Lowe’s to begin enforcing its mask policy has attracted over 116,000 signatures to date.

For its part, Lowe’s has said that its non-enforcement policy protects employees.

“We will not ask our associates to put their safety at risk by confronting customers about wearing masks, so we are consistently requesting that customers wear masks for the safety of everyone in our stores,” a Lowe’s spokesperson previously said in a statement to Business Insider. 

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, retail workers have found themselves in the middle of a heated culture war over coronavirus-related policies. Exchanges between anti-mask shoppers and employees have led to hundreds of assaults and even the murder of a Family Dollar security guard in May.

But the non-enforcement rule has left many store workers feeling conflicted about a measure ostensibly established for their own protection. The employees who spoke with Business Insider largely indicate that, while the non-enforcement policy did shield them from aggressive confrontation, it also could potentially expose them to COVID-19.

One Lowe’s worker spoke to Business Insider about “second-guessing” his job due to the rule. The worker lives with a family member with a health condition that would make a bout COVID-19 potentially fatal. He said that at his East Coast store there’s a sense that employees can’t refuse to provide service to unmasked shoppers without being penalized.

“Here’s the real kicker: We can’t refuse to help them or we will be written up,” he said.

Employees also expressed anxieties over spotty mask usage by their own coworkers. An employee of over 15 years told Business Insider that, while he agreed that “Lowe’s can’t make the public” don masks, the stores could do a better job of disciplining employees who skirt the order. The employee expressed worries about employees passing the virus to one another through improper mask usage.

One employee who reached out to Business Insider said they recently quit their job over the policy. 

“Not only were customers were not wearing masks, but the employees didn’t either,” she said.

The employee said that at her store, even top managers convened meetings without donning masks and the store’s hand sanitizer stations often sat empty. 

The longtime employee said that while instructions from Lowe’s corporate were clear, he had qualms about his store’s implementation of the rules among employees.

“People simply do not attempt to do the right thing unless they think someone is watching or there are actual consequences,” he said.

As for customers, he said that his store has had few issues with getting shoppers to comply with the new rules.

“It took about a week or two for customers to adjust to the expectation, but now better than 99% are wearing masks,” he said. 

 

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