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March 21, 2020 3:00 PM, EDT

Walmart Plans 150,000 New Hires, Virus Testing Sites

Walmart headquartersWalmart says it is ready to begin virus tests in the Chicago area, primarily for health care workers and first responders. (Wochit News via YouTube)

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Walmart Inc. is hiring 150,000 temporary workers and readying its parking lots for coronavirus tests as the world’s largest retailer girds itself to deal with the unprecedented challenges of the fast-spreading outbreak.

The vast majority of the new employees will work in store, and many will become permanent staff over time, Walmart said in a statement March 19. The company also is slated to begin virus tests in the Chicago area, primarily for health care workers and first responders, in conjunction with medical officials and drugstore chain Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.

“Everything is ready to go,” Dan Bartlett, Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, said on a call with reporters. “We have the tents. It should be up and running soon.” He said that the company is talking to governors’ offices to get permission to expand testing sites to other states.

While retailers such as Macy’s Inc. and Kohl’s Corp. have been forced to close their stores, others such as Walmart and Costco Wholesale Corp. are experiencing a surge in traffic normally seen only around the holiday peak. Walmart’s supply chain was “catching its breath,” Bartlett said, while its grocery curbside pickup service has been “slammed.” Initial demand for water and paper products has shifted to food, with many Americans needing to eat all their meals at home as restaurants close.

“We’re trying to find where the new normal is,” Bartlett said. “We’re not sure we’ve hit it yet.” Still, Walmart’s work to keep shelves stocked was praised by President Donald Trump on March 20.

The nation’s biggest private employer with 1.5 million associates, Walmart will look to hire people who have been let go from jobs in the restaurant and hospitality industries. The company will have plenty of applicants, as filings for U.S. unemployment benefits are poised to surge to a record 2.25 million this week, according to Goldman Sachs Group, while Bank of America said it could be as high as 3 million.

The new hires will be split among Walmart’s 4,750 U.S. stores and its network of about 150 distribution centers. The move comes days after rival Amazon.com said it plans to hire 100,000 additional workers.

‘Orderly Process’

Meanwhile, coronavirus testing at Walmart parking lots is set to begin as soon as this weekend for first responders. Federal and state health officials will administer the tests initially, with the company’s staff “watching and learning,” Bartlett said. In time, Walmart’s pharmacists could carry out the swab tests, he said, but would never handle patient data.

“We don’t want people coming off the street and thinking they can get a test,” Bartlett said. “It will be an orderly process.”

Walmart fell 4.6% on March 20, bringing the shares into negative territory for the year. Walmart ranks No. 4 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America

The retailer has no plans to close any U.S. stores, Bartlett said, unlike sellers of more discretionary goods such as department stores, many of which have shut their doors. Walmart’s U.S. leaders are taking cues from their counterparts in China, where Walmart operates more than 400 stores. There, Walmart only had to shut down “maybe two” of its stores during the initial stages of the outbreak, Bartlett said, although most operated on more limited hours.

More Hires

United for Respect, a labor advocacy group that’s often critical of Walmart’s workplace policies, said the additional hires will add to the ranks of part-time Walmart workers, whose pay and benefits often don’t compare with full timers.

“The expansion of Walmart’s workforce by hiring temporary employees is nothing to celebrate,” Melissa Love, a Walmart staffer and member of the labor group, said in a statement. “This is a slap in the face: In the midst of a crisis, while associates like me are going above and beyond the call of duty to serve our customers, Walmart is bringing in an army of new hires to do our jobs, and we can’t even get enough hours.”

In response, a Walmart spokesman said 60% of the company’s hourly workers are full time. “The ranks of part-time associates at Walmart has been shrinking for the last several years, not growing,” he said.

All of Walmart’s U.S. hourly employees will receive a bonus April 2 — $300 for full-time staff and $150 for part timers. It will accelerate its next scheduled quarterly bonus payment, slated for May, to late April. The moves together will cost Walmart about $550 million, slightly more than it makes in operating profit in the U.S. each week.

“Our associates are doing Herculean work in a tense environment,” Bartlett said. “We’re taking the opportunity to provide them with extra cash.”

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