The Moneyist: ‘All they care about is making money.’ Can my supermarket manager force me to remove my face mask at work?

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Dear Moneyist,

I am in my 60s and I work for a well-known supermarket chain in North Carolina. My job requires me to be in the aisles at all time, answering customers’ questions and stocking shelves.

I decided to wear a face mask because I am unable to remain six feet away from other customers, as per the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. My manager told me to take it off. He said the company was following the CDC guidelines, which stated that masks do not have any affect in protecting us against the coronavirus. He will not allow me to wear it.

He also told me that, if I felt uncomfortable working, I could go home. Of course, he would not pay me if I went home, so that’s easy for him to say. He said it was not his decision, and said he was just following the company’s orders. However, he did say that if a doctor provided me with a note, stating that I needed to wear a mask, I would be allowed to wear the mask while I was working.

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Since when do people in authority have the right to keep you from using any means possible of protecting yourself so that you feel comfortable in the workplace? It’s like all they care about is making money. Its already hectic enough with all the extra pressure from the people coming in, and being outraged at times because we are out of basic necessities like hand sanitizer and toilet roll.

When he told me to take it off, it felt like he was pouring salt into a wound. During times like these, don’t you think it would be nice for people to show some appreciation? Wearing the mask makes me feel safer and helps to guard me against coronavirus. It does not interfere with my ability to do my job I wonder if other companies in the retail industry are treating their employees in this fashion, too?

Thank you for your time, and for listening. My God bless the world during these trying times.

Just trying to stay safe

Dear Trying,

Amen to that.

Faith is important at a time like this. There is so much about this disease that we do not know. We may need more than God to get us through this. We, after all, have free will and, whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs, we make our own decisions. We will have to act as a team, stay home as much as possible, and practice social distancing to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

There are arguments for and against masks. There are some who argue that telling people not to wear them, while medical personnel do, will only serve to confuse people; they say it will stigmatize those who simply prefer to wear them and/or have a preexisting condition. They also point out that masks send a warning to those who may not be taking this virus seriously enough.

Face masks help prevent patients from spreading the virus, but they don’t protect the healthy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. They can help act as a barrier if a sick person coughs or sneezes. “Most face masks do not effectively filter small particles from the air and don’t prevent leakage around the edge of the mask when the user inhales,” the CDC adds.

They are, however, needed for health-care professionals. N95 masks are tighter-fitting than surgical masks and protect against small particles and large droplets, according to the CDC. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that there are only 30 million N95 masks in the national stockpile, and “as many as 300 million masks are needed in the U.S. for health-care workers.”

If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected COVID-19 infection, according to the World Health Organization. “Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing. Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water,” the organization adds.

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As to your question, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration states that such decisions “must be based upon a hazard analysis of the workers’ specific work environments and the different protective properties of each type of personal protective equipment.” They are not designed or certified “to prevent the inhalation of small airborne contaminants,” it adds.

The face mask may help you feel safer, but you already know that there is no medical safety standard that says people who are not sick should wear masks. It may also send the wrong message to customers and encourage them to believe that they should be wearing one too when, in fact, hospitals around the country are facing a shortage of face masks, respirators, and other equipment.

But you’re right. It’s a trying time. People are stressed out and scared. The U.S., like many countries, is waiting for a surge of hospitalizations, and there are real fears that the health-care system will not have the capacity — or even the beds — to deal with this escalating public-health crisis. This mask is something you can control, and now you are being told not to wear it. It may be a red herring.

There are many other things you cando that are within your control: Wear latex gloves and, if possible, maintain a six-feet-or-more distance from coworkers and customers. Talk to your coworkers about approaching your manager (or the company HQ) to stagger the number of customers in the store at any one time. I have seen everyone from Duane Reade WBA, -4.39%  to Trader Joe’s do this.

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Another theory why this issue may be the source of so much anxiety for you: You would like your manager to show some appreciation for the customer-facing staff who are working the floor. That includes you. I get it. A “thank you” and an acknowledgment of how you are arguably putting yourselves at increased risk of catching COVID-19 would go a long way.

So let me do what he did not do. Thank you for being there so people can get their groceries and stay home for as long as possible to help prevent catching or spreading this disease. Thank you for doing a job that requires more risks than many. It is appreciated. Hospital and ambulance workers are on the front lines of this crisis and, although this may not help you, they do have it worse.

Continue to take all the necessary precautions, and stay healthy. We are all in this together. Millions of workers are likely to lose their jobs in the coming months, particularly in the hospitality and airline industries. This pandemic will have ramifications that will be written about in history and economic books. People like you who turn up for work every day are helping to make America a safer place.

Your boss is probably under a lot of stress from his boss too. It is his job to ensure the company’s official policy. I doubt he wants anyone to get sick, including himself. In the meantime, thank you.

Coronavirus update for readers:

As of Sunday evening, there were 304,544 confirmed cases and 12,974 deaths worldwide, according to data from the database of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering; the database also reported 91,540 recoveries. The U.S. has had at least 25,493 confirmed coronavirus cases and 307 deaths, John Hopkins added.

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