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‘Every Day Is Frightening’: Working For Walmart Amid Covid

Elsewhere in the country, the conversation has begun to move on, away from early Covid alarm and into something more guardedly speculative. What will post-pandemic life look like? How have our priorities shifted? But for vast swaths of the nation, largely untouched by doses from Pfizer and Moderna, it remains late 2020 in many ways.

“A lot of people here still don’t believe the virus is real — even when the hospitals are full, even when they have family dying,” Mr. Naughton said. “With the vaccines, one co-worker told me getting it would go against her faith. Another told me it contains baby fetuses and mercury. Someone else said it was created by Bill Gates to insert microchips to track you. I said, ‘Why would he want to track you?’”

The conversations Mr. Naughton describes may be epidemiologically out of step, but he and thousands of others seem trapped in an America-right-now vortex, a swirl of politics, belief, resentment and fear. At fast food restaurants, grocery stores, warehouses, nursing homes and anywhere else frontline workers show up each day, a deep schism has taken hold. Workers nervous about the virus find themselves at the mercy of those who aren’t.

“If I ask people to wear a mask or socially distance at work, they get mad and tell the manager. Then I have to get coached. If you get coached too many times, you lose your job,” Mr. Naughton said, referring to the company’s system for managing worker infractions. (Charles Crowson, a Walmart spokesman, did not dispute that an accumulation of coachings could lead to termination.)

Draped over this dynamic are often the stark realities of poverty, and the stresses of navigating a low-paying job in a high-pressure situation. And so an already strained situation strains further. Bitterness over masking requests, job insecurity, a run on bottled water, vaccine politics — tensions routinely boil over in his store and beyond, Mr. Naughton said.

“It wasn’t always like this. It used to be more friendly here. It’s become hostile. People are really on edge. They fight with you in the store, or with each other,” he said. “The other day a woman wanted to fight over the price of potatoes. You can even see it in how people drive, like they have a death wish.”