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Pet adoption booming amid pandemic – but workers accuse retailers of abuses

As the coronavirus pandemic has led to higher demand for pets and pet supplies, workers at the two largest pet retailers in the US, PetSmart and Petco, say their companies have denied granting hazard pay throughout the pandemic, cut staffing, and increased workloads for remaining employees, while planning decisions to enrich their Wall Street investors.…

As the coronavirus pandemic has led to higher demand for pets and pet supplies, workers at the two largest pet retailers in the US, PetSmart and Petco, say their companies have denied granting hazard pay throughout the pandemic, cut staffing, and increased workloads for remaining employees, while planning decisions to enrich their Wall Street investors.

Demand for pet supplies has increased through the pandemic as Americans working remotely and socially distancing have contributed to a surge in pet adoptions around the US.

In September 2020, Bloomberg reported the owners of Petco, private equity firm CVC Capital Partners and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, are weighing an initial public offering or sale in 2021, with the retail chain’s estimated value at $6bn, including debt.

The private equity firm that owns PetSmart and Chewy announced plans in October 2020 to split the two companies three years after a merger acquisition. Workers say the deal will leave PetSmart with more debt while siphoning $11bn to Wall Street investors by transferring PetSmart’s stake in Chewy to themselves. Chewy saw their stock price more than double over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Retail worker TJ Daniels, who has worked at Petco in Dillon, Colorado, for about four years saw his hours and workloads significantly increase when the pandemic hit, as several employees were either furloughed, took medical leave, or had to quarantine. All Petco retail stores remained open throughout the pandemic.

“The lack of employees made it really hard and stressful to work, because you have to do the workload of extra workers while dealing with the extra people in the store because everybody was stockpiling dog food and coming in to buy animals,” said Daniels.

He had a scheduled raise of 50 cents an hour which was revoked, and received only a 30 cent an hour raise recently. “We didn’t receive any hazard pay. They tried giving us small bonuses here and there, one of mine was $24. Managers got 200 bucks and regular store employees received $75. That doesn’t help at all,” he said.

Daniels pushed for better coronavirus safety protections throughout the pandemic, for the store to limit hours and staff an employee to monitor and enforce capacity, and for paid time off for quarantining. He said workers only receive one paid week to quarantine, with the second week forcing employees to use their accrued paid time off or they would be lent paid time off workers would have to pay back to the company.

He was one of several workers with United for Respect who signed a letter to Petco’s owners in response to the announcement of a possible initial public offering or sale, asking Petco to provide workers with hazard pay, healthcare and a voice on the company board of directors.

Kris Blotzer, who works as a Petco warehouse in Greenville, South Carolina, also signed the letter. He explained during the pandemic, workloads significantly increased, while his pay remained at $9 an hour.

“I was making $9 an hour to kill myself,” said Blotzer. “I was picking and packing 100 orders a day alone and most days couldn’t finish them.”

Phil Andrews, who has worked as a dog groomer at Petco for 13 years in Miami, Florida, also detailed tough conditions.

“We don’t have the staff to keep up and enforce mask-wearing and cleaning,” said Andrews. “They’re rolling out new ad campaigns, they want us to sell their pet insurance plans now, but have never talked about hazard pay. They’re asking us to do more and not being strict about safety for us.”

A spokesperson for Petco claimed the company has provided ample personal protective equipment to its 27,000 employees around the US.

“As our business began to rebound, we ended our planned furlough and pay cut period early and returned to strategic hiring to account for continued growth across our business,” the spokesperson said in an email. “We also invested $13m in additional compensation for our field teams, including five cycles of Covid appreciation bonuses; we invested $7m in additional Covid-related Paid Time Off; and we established the Petco Partner Assistance fund with more than $2m in initial funding from the company and its leaders.”

Petco and PetSmart would not provide their starting hourly wage for associates, but according to Payscale, the average pay for retail associates at Petco is $9.86 an hour and $10.06 an hour at PetSmart.

PetSmart, owned by the private equity firm BC Partners, has struggled over the past several years with billions of dollars in debt. During the pandemic, PetSmart initially refused to shut down its dog grooming services in many areas around the US, despite the services being deemed as non-essential in some areas.

A PetSmart employee in San Antonio, Texas, for over three years, Alex Ludwig, said her store’s cashiers were laid off in the beginning of the pandemic, while all remaining employees except managers experienced cuts to their work hours.

“My hours personally dropped 10 to 20 hours per week,” said Ludwig. “It has been insane, far worse than any Black Friday sale we’ve had and the customers aren’t abiding social distancing whatsoever.”

Ludwig was one of dozens of current and former PetSmart workers who signed a letter to the company’s ownership in July 2020 requesting hazard pay for workers, healthcare benefits and adequate personal protective equipment.

She resigned in September 2020 after months of her complaints and concerns being ignored by management.

A spokesperson for PetSmart told the Guardian the company has invested millions of dollars to provide personal protective equipment to associates.

“We have paid more than $20m in additional compensation to our front-line associates since the pandemic began. This includes special thank-you bonuses, payment of healthcare premiums, and other healthcare benefits,” they said in an email. “We also made a $1m contribution to the longstanding PetSmart Associate Assistance Foundation to support frontline workers facing personal or financial hardships, and established a $1m scholarship fund for associates of color in furtherance of our commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

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