Long checkout lines. Closed changing rooms. Empty shelves. Reduced opening hours.

No more fear of contracting the coronavirus and another season of skirmishes with customers who refuse to wear masks.

A tired retail workforce is feeling the fallout from the latest wave of the pandemic, with a variant that is spreading quickly and downsizing.

While data shows that people infected with the Omicron variant are much less likely to be hospitalized than those with the Delta variant, especially if they are vaccinated, many store workers face a further increase in the disease and exposures, grappling with changing isolation guidelines. and juggle child care. At the same time, retailers generally don’t extend the risk premium like they did earlier in the pandemic and have been reluctant to adopt vaccines or testing warrants.

“We had come to a point here where we were comfortable, it wasn’t too bad, and then all of a sudden this new variant came along and everyone got sick,” said Artavia Milliam , who works at H&M in Hudson Yards in Manhattan, which is popular with tourists. “It was overwhelming, just having to deal with the lack of staff and then twice as many people in the store. “

Ms Milliam, a member of the Retailers, Wholesalers and Department Stores Union, is vaccinated but contracted the virus during the holidays, showing mild symptoms. She said fewer employees were working on registers and organizing clothes, and her store closed changing rooms in the morning because no one was available to monitor them.

Macy’s said last week it would reduce store hours nationwide from Monday to Thursday for the remainder of the month. At least 20 Apple Stores have had to close in recent weeks because so many employees have contracted Covid-19 or been exposed to someone who has, and others have reduced their hours or limited access by store.

At a Macy’s in Lynnwood, Wash., Liisa Luick, a longtime salesperson in the men’s department, said, “Every day we get calls, and we get a lot of them. She said the store had already cut staff to cut costs in 2020. Now she is often unable to take breaks and has received complaints from customers about a lack of sales support and unstaffed records. .

“Morale couldn’t be lower,” said Ms. Luick, shop steward of the local unit of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Even though Washington has a mask mandate for indoor public spaces, “we have a lot of hindsight, so morale is even lower because there are so many people out there who, there’s no easy way to. say, just don’t believe in masking, ”she added.

Store workers navigate the changing nature of the virus and do their best to assess emerging risks. Many say that with vaccinations and booster shots they fear less for their lives than they were in 2020 – the United Food and Commercial Workers union has documented more than 200 retail worker deaths since the start of pandemic – but they remain nervous about catching and spreading the virus.

At a Stop & Shop in Oyster Bay, NY, Wally Waugh, a front-end manager, said checkout lines were getting longer and grocery store shelves were not being replenished in time. timely because many people called sick with theirs. positive tests or those of family members.

This forced the remaining employees to work longer hours. But even with paid overtime, many of his coworkers aren’t eager to stay in the store longer than they should. Mr Waugh began removing his work clothes in his garage and immediately putting them in the laundry before entering his house – a routine he had not followed since the early days of the pandemic.

“People aren’t nervous like when Covid started,” said Waugh, who is a shop steward for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “But we are gravely concerned.”

At a QFC grocery store in Seattle, Sam Dancy, a frontline supervisor, said many colleagues were calling in sick. The store, which is part of a chain owned by Kroger, has closed early several times and customers are helping with their own groceries. There are long lines and some of the self-service checkouts are closed because employees are not available to monitor them.

“Some people are so tired of what’s going on – you have some who are exposed and others who use it as an excuse not to have to work to get around these circumstances,” said Mr. Dancy, a member of the local food association and trade workers union, which has worked in the chain for 30 years. “I have anxiety until I come home, thinking, ‘Do I have this or not? It’s a mental thing that a lot of us endure, I think.

Changing isolation guidelines are also confusing in many stores. As H&M asked employees like Ms Milliam to self-isolate for 14 days after testing positive for Covid-19, Macy’s said in a note to employees last week that it would adopt new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which recommended shortening the isolation for those infected to five days from 10 if they are asymptomatic or if their symptoms disappear.

But even as retailers shorten isolation periods, schools and daycares may have longer quarantine periods for exposed families, putting working parents at a standstill.

Ms Luick of Macy’s said she felt the advice was “constantly trying to get people to work” and didn’t make her feel any more secure.

Even though Omicron is spreading faster than other variants, employers have not shown willingness to reinstate previous precautions or increase wages, said Kevin Schneider, secretary-treasurer of a United Workers’ unit of the ‘food and commerce in the Denver area.

Like many retailers, Kroger has not provided a nationwide risk premium since the early stages of the pandemic, although the union is negotiating its recovery. The chain has also abandoned measures such as controlling the number of customers allowed in stores at a time. The union has called for armed guards at all of its Denver-area stores as incidents of violence increase.

“The company says it provides a safe environment for workers to do their jobs,” Schneider said. “We don’t believe it.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Kroger said: “We have been navigating the Covid-19 pandemic for almost two years and, in keeping with our values, the safety of our associates and clients has remained our top priority. “

The company added that frontline workers had each received up to $ 1,760 in additional salary to “reward and recognize them for their efforts during the pandemic.”

Some workers have reached another breaking point. In Jacksonville, Florida, an Apple Store employee staged a brief strike on Christmas Eve to protest working conditions after seeing a customer spit on his coworker. Dozens of people in other stores also participated.

“It was my last straw,” said Daryl Sherman II, who organized the walkout. “Something must be done.”

In some cases, the municipalities intervened to obtain a risk premium for the workers. In Seattle, Kroger was required to pay grocery store employees like Mr. Dancy an additional $ 4 an hour according to local law.

More generally, staff shortages have shed new light on a potential vaccine or testing mandate from the Biden administration, which major retailers have resisted. The fear of losing workers seems to be looming, especially now.

While the retail industry initially cited the rush of the holiday season for its resistance to such rules, it more recently highlighted the burden of testing unvaccinated workers. After oral arguments in the case on Friday, the Conservative Supreme Court majority expressed skepticism about whether the Biden administration had the legal authority to demand that large employers demand that workers be vaccinated.

The National Retail Federation, a leading industry lobby group, said in a statement last week that it “continues to believe that OSHA has overstepped its authority in enacting its vaccine mandate.” The group estimated that the order would require 20 million tests per week nationwide, based on external data on unvaccinated workers, and that “such testing capacity does not currently exist.”

When senior executives at Mr Waugh’s Stop & Shop began asking employees if they were vaccinated for federal vaccine warrants that may soon go into effect, he said, many told him expressed concern at being asked to disclose this information.

“It was worrying that so many people were in distress,” he said, although all employees complied.

Ms Luick from Macy’s near Seattle said she worked with several strong opponents of Covid-19 vaccines and that she expected at least some of her colleagues to step down if asked to provide their vaccination status or proof of negative tests.

Still, Macy’s was among major employers who began asking employees for their immunization status last week ahead of the Supreme Court hearing on Friday and said it may require proof of negative tests from February 16.

“Our primary focus at this point is to prepare our members for a possible term to ensure they have the information and tools they need to manage their workforce and meet the needs of their clients,” said said Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association. , which includes companies like Macy’s, Target, Home Depot, Gap, and Walmart.

As seasonal outbreaks of Covid-19 become the norm, unions and businesses are seeking consistent policies. Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for the Food and Commercial Workers Union in Northern California, said the retail industry needs to build more sustainable supports for workers who have fallen ill.

For example, he said, a trust fund jointly administered by the union and several employers could no longer offer Covid-related sick leave to union members.

“We have to start treating this as endemic,” Mr. Araby said. “And figure out what structural issues we need to bring forward to deal with that. “

Kellen Browning contributed reporting.