The online car retailer Carvana gave its employees a stark choice last week: return to work as COVID-19 deaths still mount, or walk away from your job.
The ultimatum came in a memo from a senior director of operations on April 27.
While the company had “been able to weather the storm thus far” due to everyone’s concerted efforts, the official wrote, it was time to start increasing work hours again: “We need team Carvana to be ready and available to support our increasing demand.”
Starting last Friday, the Arizona-based company reverted to its pre-pandemic attendance policy, ending the option workers had to take unpaid, short-term leave to avoid the coronavirus or care for children while schools are closed.
A question-and-answer section in the memo made the stakes clear:
Q: I’m uncomfortable coming back to work – what are my options?
At this time, we are confident that our site is a safe place to come to work. If you are not comfortable and opt not to return to your scheduled hours, we will consider you to have abandoned or resigned from your position from Carvana. [bold added]
The notice from Carvana ― sometimes called the Amazon of used cars ― is one example of the pressure many workers will confront as employers call them back to work amid the pandemic. Several states have begun easing their coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions, and some companies are eager to get back to regular business.
But for employees, that could mean returning to a worksite even as the COVID-19 death count nears 70,000 in the U.S, and many schools and childcare facilities remain closed.
A Carvana spokesperson said the company had tried hard to accommodate employees during the pandemic, being flexible on attendance and offering unpaid leave to those who were uncomfortable working. Carvana did not resort to layoffs and furloughs and kept people on the payroll on reduced schedules.
But customers are buying cars, and the company wants to know where its employees stand. Carvana reverted to its normal attendance policy “in order to provide clarity and certainty over who is coming to work and when they will be there so we can uphold commitments we made to our customers,” the spokesperson said.
“We realize these are challenging times and businesses must balance a host of considerations on how to operate in a COVID-19 world, and we are committed to making those decisions responsibly,” the spokesperson said.
Carvana employees work in offices around the country and out in the field, where they pick up and drop off cars. The company has been using a “touchless” delivery service during the pandemic that it says helps buyers avoid dealing in-person with employees.
Three Carvana employees told HuffPost that while the call to return may be reasonable in some states, they worry about the situations in markets that have been hard-hit by the virus, like Massachusetts and New Jersey. Some workers, they said, must weigh their health and the health of their families against their paychecks.
“If I don’t go back, I have nothing,” said one. “I lose my job. I lose my unemployment benefits …. I lose my insurance.”
HuffPost readers: Do you feel pressure to return to work before you feel it’s safe? We’d like to hear from you. Please provide a phone number if you’re willing to be interviewed.
Indeed, the Carvana policy could cost workers their unemployment benefits, depending on their personal circumstances and whether the company reports them to state unemployment agencies as having voluntarily quit. The federal government’s guidance to states says that resigning as a precaution to avoid contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, does not entitle someone to unemployment payments.
The Carvana q-and-a also made clear that parents stuck at home with child care during the pandemic were out of luck: “At this time, given business needs as we march back up our hours, if you are unable to work your assigned schedule because of lack of childcare arrangements, your absences will be applied towards the Attendance Policy.”
Carvana said in its notice to employees that it had rolled out “a multitude of initiatives” to address the virus, and that “we are confident that we offer everyone a safe working environment.”
But the workers HuffPost spoke to said some employees aren’t wearing masks and they don’t trust them to keep appropriate distances.
As HuffPost reported in March, Carvana was one of several companies continuing to operate in states with stay-home orders in place, even though many of its own employees said they believed the company should be classified as non-essential. Carvana provided workers with a letter to show police in the event they were stopped on the way to work, saying they were allowed to continue operating despite shelter-in-place orders.
One employee told HuffPost that the company should wait until the pandemic is under control.
“Does my health matter more, or does the money matter more?” the worker said.