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Retail Employees of Northampton’s Thornes Marketplace Organize for Safer Conditions as COVID-19 Cases Rise

By R. Nicholas

For over twenty years, the Downtown Northampton Association’s (DNA) annual Bag Day has been an economic staple for small business sales across the Pioneer Valley. Every November, stores across Northampton offer discounts for consumers traveling from all over the state to grab their specially branded paper bags in order to shop for holiday gifts at marked down prices. While many stores participate, the center of it all is Thornes Marketplace, a mall of independent businesses where shoppers can hop from boutique to restaurant to toy store without leaving one building, supporting the local economy as opposed to big chain stores. While pre-holiday retail in general always causes added stress for workers, this year’s sale event brings a much bigger risk with the thought of hundreds of customers from out of town pouring into the market’s limited space as COVID-19 numbers rise not just statewide, but nationally.

As a response to the ongoing pandemic, the Daily Hampshire Gazette published an article on November 9th announcing the DNA’s decision to expand the usual one day event into four days (renamed “Yule Days”) beginning on November 19th in order to encourage socially distanced shopping. However, while citing concern from Northampton’s Board of Health, the article remained unclear about the benefits of this change. Shoppers will no longer be required to have the once-eponymous bag to receive discounts, hypothetically eliminating the risk of reusable bags and potential transmission, but also making shopping the sales even easier than before, encouraging more to arrive spontaneously. And while extended shopping hours are intended to slow the holiday rush, the Gazette’s article quotes DNA’s executive director Amy Cahillane as saying not only will there be no rule in place to discourage people returning on multiple days, but that the Association “would love the problem of somebody shopping all four days at one store.”

The DNA functions as the lobbying arm of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, which is best understood as a union for business owners. Thornes is among the DNA’s largest sponsors, having given the organization at least $10,000. As The Shoestring has noted previously, the DNA and the Chamber have played an active role in lobbying for police surveillance cameras and sanctions on houseless people, like removing benches

Before the Yule Days announcement hit the press, it came to the retail workers, and in Thornes Marketplace (a mall containing 18 stores across a small three stories, where social distancing has already been difficult due to close quarters), those workers were already scared. Tension has been rising between individual employers, employees and the building landlord for some time regarding worker safety measures, but it was the concern for the Yule Days decision paired with the recent spike in COVID-19 cases that led to Thornes retail workers beginning to organize for better conditions.

On November 13th, the Instagram account @thornestenantemployeealliance was created by employees of seven businesses in the Thornes building to bring attention to their safety concerns after initial attempts to negotiate with Thornes’ owners, Richard M. Madowitz and Russell B. Jopson of Hampshire Property Management Group, and individual employers. (According to its website, Madowitz and Jopson’s real estate business “remains temporarily CLOSED…As always the health and safety of our clients and employees is our top priority.”) After publishing their initial demands on the Instagram account, these same workers put out a press release on November 16th. Since Thornes houses independent businesses instead of being under monolithic ownership, workers are caught between a need for safety building-wide and the fact that decisions about protocol store to store are the jurisdiction of individual bosses. However, even the policies set in place by the building owners concerning public areas have often been disregarded, leaving workers across stores uncomfortable with the lack of enforcement regarding rules posted publicly throughout the mall, efforts cited by Marketing Director Jody Doele in an email to the employee alliance. These rules include requiring masks at all times inside the building, reduced hours to allow for better cleaning, and encouraging social distancing with the introduction of directional floor markers to help traffic flow.

“[Thornes ownership] states they will shorten business hours but are doing the exact opposite,” one of the organizers (who chose to remain anonymous due to fear of backlash from building administration and bosses) wrote via email to The Shoestring. “Just this week they mandated all businesses extend their hours from 10-6 to 10-7 on the busiest days of the week (Thursday-Saturday) and these hours will be effective during Yule Days. Foot traffic is not controlled and there are often people walking on the wrong side of the barriers/walking the wrong direction/crowding around each other. They refuse to even consider opening an hour earlier instead. It has been suggested by business owners and employees, but management says it is not possible and refuses to explain why. They have also shot down any at-risk shopping hours for the elderly and immunocompromised. They have placed more signs in the building about eating/drinking and the mask mandate but without literal human enforcement that doesn’t really do much, people simply don’t read the signs or ignore them.” The employee noted that while Thornes did enforce these rules at the beginning of the pandemic, there isn’t enough building staff to be successful in tracking every customer, so the brunt of this enforcement has fallen on the individual businesses themselves. Shoppers frequently come in wearing their face masks below the nose, pulling them down to speak, or removing their masks to eat and drink despite being asked to only do so outside. The workers expressed frustration that the building staff has removed and sometimes called the police department in the past on houseless people and disabled locals in the mall’s public spaces but seem more reluctant to take aggressive action against those threatening the safety of the store employees by not following the COVID-19 rules.

An internal document sent to all Thornes employees regarding pandemic safety states that “when notified of a positive case in the building, Thornes will close within an hour of notification and will be closed the entire next business day to clean and disinfect all areas used by the person who is sick”, but workers say that when employees came into contact with positive cases outside of work (as in the case of Herrell’s Ice Cream, which announced a potential risk to one of their employees on November 14th), the most that has been done is the closing of individual stores, not the building as a whole. “We see Thornes staff disinfecting, however, Thornes stated they would close the whole building for a day to sanitize if someone in the building tests positive and that has not happened,” said the same organizer.

“Even though we all work in individually operated businesses, we share collective air and therefore share collective concerns,” the tenant employee alliance says. “While Thornes has claimed to be open to a conversation, they have refused action on worker demands and told us to direct our concerns to individual businesses, Thornes’ lack of response to our demands makes it clear that they will be moving forward with Yule Days and extended shopping hours. We were advised that ‘if [we] do not feel safe in [our] workplace then [we] have a choice to make whether [we] should continue to be employed by that business’.” The quoted statement was made in an email from Doele to the concerned employees, after acknowledging their fear while reminding them that their employers were tenants of the building and not Thornes itself. As of now, no business owners have responded to the employee demands. Some businesses have installed plexiglass barriers, but because the building owners informed employers that the barriers would be the responsibility of individual stores, many have chosen not to shoulder the high cost of purchase and installation. Workers are asking Thornes to make these installations mandatory and take on part of the cost to ensure building-wide safety.

Thornes Management has not responded to requests for comment on how they plan to move forward with worker precautions. Bag days start today. 

“Communicating with fellow workers has been absolutely integral to me feeling comfortable at work because the building does not give us transparency,” another anonymous worker wrote. “It became clear not only how many more people had the same experience, but that others were feeling just as unsafe. I see people eating inside, coughing, and pulling their masks down on a daily basis. I want all workers to be safe. I don’t want to get sick. And I don’t want to continue to see businesses prioritize money over us and our loved ones and our community.”

“When I work I find that it is impossible for us to stay 6 feet apart,” wrote a third. “The customers have no regard for personal space and are almost oblivious to other people in the store, so enforcing the social distancing rules feels pointless at times. I have also been touched and grabbed by customers as a way to help them find products. As much as my employer tries to stick to COVID-19 regulations, the rules once again go back to trusting the customer to do the right thing. We have signs everywhere and yet people still pull their masks down to smell things, often putting their nose directly onto the product. I’m just asking for customers to never take their mask off inside and to have some special recognition.”

As of the publication of this article, the Thornes Tenant Employee Alliance is still working to get their demands met and looking to the public for support as they move forward. Their full list of demands (which include but are not limited to transparency and input in building-wide decisions extended to all workers as opposed to exclusively management, no extended hours, weekly incident reports and standardized COVID-19 exposure protocols across stores) is available on their Instagram page as well as in their new petition co-sponsored by the Pioneer Valley Worker’s Center which can be found here.

“I really wish I didn’t have to do this,” another alliance member said. “I wish we didn’t have to go to work. The reality is everyone that currently works in the building would absolutely be home if we didn’t have to be here. Since we have to be here I want us all to be as safe as possible. I want customers to keep their masks on. What we are asking for isn’t really that difficult to provide. Is it unreasonable to have a Listserv let us all know the moment someone tests positive in the building? I don’t think so.”

CORRECTION: an earlier version of this story stated that Jody Doele was the landlord of Thornes, she is the marketing director. The owners are Richard M. Madowitz and Russell B. Jopson. The story has been updated.

R. Nicholas is a contributing editor to The Shoestring. Photo from Flickr.

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