Oklahoma-based retail arts and crafts giant Hobby Lobby temporarily shuttered all of its Oklahoma stores on Thursday morning in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus after coming under fire for remaining open while other large retailers closed their doors.
Hobby Lobby employees told The Frontier that, in addition to its retail stores in the state, its Oklahoma City warehouse was also shut down, while other parts of the company, such as its e-commerce division, remained open and those employees were given “essential worker” letters from the company, according to employees.
And though most of the retailer’s stores in many other states, such as California, Texas, Oklahoma, New York and others have been temporarily closed, many stores in Arkansas, North Carolina, Missouri and other states remain open.
As of Thursday morning, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 248 positive cases, 86 hospitalizations and seven deaths reported to the coronavirus outbreak in the state.
The retailer came under fire this week after Hobby Lobby founder and CEO David Green sent a letter on March 19 to all employees reminding them that God was in control and stating that God had spoken to his wife during prayer, and choosing to keep most stores open while other retailers shut their doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Green, who is listed as Forbes’ 70th wealthiest American with a net worth of more than $6 billion, often speaks openly about his religion, and in 2014 the company won a U.S. Supreme Court case allowing it and others to not provide contraception in employee health plans if it conflicts with the owners’ religious beliefs.
Hobby Lobby did not return messages from The Frontier seeking comment on the company’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and other media outlets also reported that Hobby Lobby was not returning messages or phone calls, and the company has not updated its website in regard to the outbreak since March 17.
However, numerous employees of Hobby Lobby told The Frontier that they were told employees who were affected by the closures would have their pay cut between 10 and 25 percent for the next two weeks during the closures, which the employees said would last until at least Easter.
After that period, one employee said, the plan is to use employee accrued personal days and vacation days until operations resume.
Under Hobby Lobby’s 2017 benefits guide, hourly employees can only earn up to 48 hours of personal paid time off per-year and salaried employees can only earn up to 48 hours of sick leave per year, and both can only have a maximum of 80 available hours.
“For us, it for sure coincides with (Gov. Kevin) Stitt’s order,” said the employee, whose identity is being withheld because of fear of retaliation. “They will be evaluating what will happen after as time goes on. They don’t know what will happen after.”
Earlier this week, Gov. Kevin Stitt ordered all non-essential businesses in the counties with confirmed cases of COVID-19 to close effective at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, though the order was later clarified to include hundreds of other businesses beyond the original order.
In the lead-up to the closures on Thursday, multiple employees reported confusion and a lack of clear information about what was going to happen ,and how the company planned to handle the crisis coming from Hobby Lobby management.
“None of the managers seem to know anything they’re able to share, in terms of the company’s plan and what us underscheduled staff members should do now,” one employee at an East Coast Hobby Lobby told The Frontier. “Just an utter lack of offering support from management and corporate.”
Several Hobby Lobby employees said they were afraid to talk to their managers or other employees about the virus, the company’s response and unconfirmed rumors being spread about some employees being sick for fear of reprisal.
“People are scared to talk about it for fear of being written up or terminated,” a Hobby Lobby employee from Oklahoma City told The Frontier.
Some employees told The Frontier that many of the directives from Hobby Lobby management were being issued verbally in order to keep the information from leaking to the public.
“It was SPECIFICALLY said to us that it was communicated verbally so it ‘couldn’t leak easily,’” one employee from Oklahoma City told The Frontier. “Which sounded as sketchy when they said it to me as it feels saying it to you.”
On Wednesday, Oklahoma City employees were told the warehouse and corporate offices would be shut down for at least two weeks, according to employees.
However, Hobby Lobby’s e-commerce division, which services Internet purchases and deliveries to customers, would remain open and employees, who were given an “essential employee” letter by the company and were expected to report to work Thursday, according to a recording of a division meeting obtained by The Frontier.
In the recording of the Wednesday meeting in the e-commerce division, managers read a statement to the gathered employees from upper management.
“‘Hobby Lobby e-commerce is not shutting down,’” one of the managers read. “‘We are an essential part of Hobby Lobby and will continue to operate as normal. If you are in a high risk group for COVID-19/coronavirus — elderly, underlying medical issues, etc. — or if you have a high-risk family member living with you, we prefer you stay home and not take any undue health risks. You can use your vacation or PTO.’ That’s it.”
During the meeting, employees asked about the rumors of an employee being infected, and managers responded by saying that, to their knowledge, there had been no confirmed cases of Hobby Lobby employees or family members being infected.
“I just want to again reassure you, there is no one here who has tested positive,” the manager said. “There is no one here that I know of, at least they’ve not told me, who has been exposed. If they have, they can’t let them come to work. Just keep that reassurance for now.”
Several employees also expressed trepidation about being required to report to work and increasing their and their family members’ chances of being infected. One manager answered that the pandemic has caused warehouse orders to be “busier than Christmas” for the company, and said there were thousands of online orders waiting to be processed and delivered.
“That doesn’t make us essential,” one employee responded in the recording.
The manager also told employees they could call Hobby Lobby’s human resources division if they had questions, but they were not likely to hear back for some time.
“I’ve been calling them for four days and their mailbox is full,” she said. “So leave a message and or call back in a couple days.”