Walmart stores easing pandemic restrictions

Walmart Inc. has revised some of its store and employee policies related to covid-19, the company said Tuesday.

Dacona Smith, chief operating officer of Walmart U.S., said in a post on the company's website that as the pandemic was spreading last year, Walmart's safety policies and procedures evolved in tandem with science and health guidance.

"Many of those same policies and processes are in place today," Smith said, "but as the curve flattened over the last year, we felt comfortable making some careful adjustments."

Smith pointed to store hours as an example of these adjustments. Hours of operation were greatly cut last year as cases spiked, but were extended late in the year and are again being lengthened, Smith said, unless state or local laws mandate otherwise.

Starting Saturday, stores will be open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. And on July 3, most Walmart pharmacies and vision centers will resume their pre-pandemic hours.

Also, the 20% capacity restriction in place at all stores has been lifted, Smith said. However, store leaders will monitor customer traffic during peak shopping times such as holiday weekends and preparations for bad weather.

Another big change in store policy pertains to mask requirements. Based on the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Smith said, fully vaccinated employees no longer need to wear masks at work.

And fully vaccinated customers may shop without a mask in the Bentonville-based retailer's stores and clubs where local laws allow.

However, Smith said, "we still encourage customers who are not fully vaccinated to wear masks or face coverings while shopping inside our stores."

Fitting rooms have been re-opened where allowed, Smith said, and seating is once again available in the Auto Care Center waiting areas, "with social distancing in mind."

"We're delighted to be able to make these adjustments on behalf of our customers," Smith said, "but we know the pandemic is not over."

For that reason, he said, Walmart will continue other safety measures that have been in place throughout the pandemic. For instance, employees still sanitize shopping carts; sneeze guards remain at all registers; and social distancing decals remain on the floor.

Efforts to protect employees will continue as well, Smith said. Those who are not fully vaccinated must still wear masks or face coverings, and both workers and suppliers undergo health screenings at each shift.

As an incentive to get vaccinated, Walmart is offering a $75 bonus to its U.S. field employees who choose to do so. Walmart had previously said it would not offer vaccination incentives even as many other retailers were doing so.

In another boon to employees, Smith also said the company's covid-19 emergency leave policy is being extended through Sept. 30.

That policy waives the company's usual attendance requirements for those missing work for reasons associated with covid-19. It provides up to two weeks off with pay for reasons related to the virus, such as illness, symptoms or mandated quarantine.

Workers with a confirmed case of covid-19 who are not able to return to work after two weeks may get up to 26 weeks of paid leave. And employees who have an adverse reaction after getting the vaccination are eligible for up to three days of paid leave.

Some workers say they feel the emergency leave policy falls short.

Worker advocacy group United for Respect said in a news release Monday that the policy's requirement of a confirmed case of the virus or a mandated quarantine is problematic "given that many associates do not have adequate health coverage."

The group also claims that many employees say they went to work while sick because they feared retaliation or disciplinary consequences.

United for Respect has long said Walmart's regular paid sick leave policy is insufficient as well.

Group leader Cynthia Murray submitted a proposal that will be voted on today during Walmart's shareholder meeting. The proposal calls for the creation of a Pandemic Workforce Advisory Council to facilitate the flow of information between employees and the company's board of directors.