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“How Are We Still Essential?” Workers At Huge Entertainment Chain JB Hi-Fi Are Scared About Safety

Customers browsing in JB Hi-Fi's narrow aisles are constantly picking up and touching DVDs and electronics.

Phillip Hall was trying to keep a good distance from a customer at the JB Hi-Fi store he works at, when the customer told him the coronavirus wasn’t real.

“I was backing away from him, and he was like, ‘it’s not even real, you know’,” Hall told BuzzFeed News.

Throughout the (very real) coronavirus pandemic, which has closed Australia’s bars, restaurants, playgrounds and gyms, entertainment chain JB Hi-Fi has continued to open its doors.

But almost 1,000 of its workers, including Hall, have signed a petition calling for stores to close while the pandemic continues and for employees to be put on paid leave. They say they don't feel safe working in JB Hi-Fi's stores.

The popular electronics retailer now also faces a potential investigation into safety precautions at its stores over its handling of the coronavirus risk.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge wrote last week to state workplace watchdog SafeWork NSW requesting an urgent investigation into working conditions at the store.

Shoebridge outlined complaints his office has received from workers, including allegations of the provision of ineffective cleaning products and hand sanitiser, and a lack of social distancing inside stores.

SafeWork NSW told BuzzFeed News that it was investigating the issues and could not comment further.

In an escalation, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU), which is facilitating the petition, is also now calling on customers to avoid JB Hi-Fi stores and shop online instead. (A rival union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, wants retail stores to remain open.)

Hall has worked in the music and movies section of JB Hi-Fi’s World Square store in Sydney since late 2017, recently switching from full-time to casual so he could start studying.

When the crisis began to escalate in Australia in March, he assumed it was inevitable that all JB Hi-Fi stores would close.

“People would normally be flicking through [movies and CDs] constantly, sometimes they’ll touch every single rack,” he said. “And you’ve got all the display computers and iPads and things, so it’s a very interactive space.”

Harry Millward, who has worked part-time at JB Hi-Fi in Melbourne for over seven years, was also expecting stores to close.

“There was talk of a shutdown of all non-essential businesses and you could see the numbers [of coronavirus cases] starting to rise,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Then the day came and there was an announcement: all workers are essential. How are we still essential?”

In the absence of a government order, the company did not move to close on its own. (It has closed a few CBD stores in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane as they are less busy than normal, according to its website.)

Instead, it has restricted customer numbers in store, distributed more cleaning products, banned cash, and told staff who feel unsafe to use annual leave or unpaid leave.

But some customers and fellow staff do not take health measures seriously, Millward and Hall said.

Shortly before the company stopped accepting cash on March 23, Millward remembers a customer putting his fingers in his mouth to pull something out of his teeth, then handing Millward cash with the same hand.

Around the same time, an older man paid for a television, licking his fingers to count his cash, he said.

Shoebridge has heard of managers asking to hug staff members as recently as mid-April, he wrote in his letter to SafeWork NSW.

Millward said that fewer people had come into the store since the social distancing measures were introduced, but that was “almost worse”.

“The people who are taking it seriously are probably the ones who are staying home, but then what that means is you’ve got a whole store full of people who just don’t take it seriously,” he said.

Workers have been told they are not allowed to ask browsing customers to move on. Millward raised the issue with his manager, who escalated it to the area manager. The response: “they were like, ‘no, browsing is part of the JB Hi-Fi DNA’,” Millward said.

Workers have also complained that JB Hi-Fi has given them ineffective cleaning products.

Worried about the hand sanitiser JB Hi-Fi had sent to stores, Millward rang the product's manufacturer. Its alcohol content was 10%, he learned — well short of the alcohol content needed to be antiviral.

Shoebridge also complained to SafeWork NSW that workers had been provided with Ajax and Windex to “disinfect” surfaces, both of which are ineffective at stopping COVID-19 transmission.

Even with effective cleaning products, it would be difficult to keep the environment safe, Hall said, and they would need to clean at an extraordinary rate.

Millward agreed that cleaning won’t solve the problem. JB Hi-Fi’s stores have narrow walkways and small spaces, and it would be difficult to restructure.

At morning meetings, Hall says his managers would emphasise that the company wanted to stay open not for the customers, but for staff.

“Well, if your concern is with keeping us having an income, then the right thing to do would be to keep us safe and to keep us on some kind of compensation,” Hall said.

Neither Hall nor Millward have worked a shift in recent days. Millward’s health history means he is at high risk, so he is using his annual leave to isolate. Hall’s World Square store has shut down, and though he says he was told he could redeploy to his local JB Hi-Fi, he has not been given a shift since April 4.

Although Hall said it’s a “silver lining” that he gets to isolate as much as he wants at the moment, he feels “left behind” after giving several full-time years to the company.

“JB Hi-Fi is a retail business that has seen sales increase in many stores because of the Covid-19 pandemic, as people set up home offices and look for entertainment during the lockdown,” Shoebridge said. “Even before the pandemic JB Hi-Fi saw record profit and sales making $860 million in gross profit last financial year. They can afford proper safety measures.”

BuzzFeed News contacted JB Hi-Fi by online form, email and Twitter DM but did not receive a response.