David Gelles and Michael Corkery
c.2020 The New York Times Company
The volume of food and paper products passing through a warehouse just outside Los Angeles is up 30% from the same time a year ago. Pizza deliveries are surging as people around the country hunker down.
Medical product manufacturers are racing to help hospitals lacking critical equipment needed to diagnose and treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Millions of people lost jobs or saw their wages severely curtailed last week as many companies shut down or cut back on operations. But the pandemic has also created a spike in demand for critical products and services, causing some of America’s biggest employers to scramble to try to hire workers at a time when parts of the country are going into lockdown. Many are forgoing normal hiring procedures to add staff as quickly as possible.
On Thursday, Walmart, the nation’s largest employer, said it was looking to hire 150,000 additional employees in its stores and warehouses through the end of May. That represents a roughly 10% increase in its current work force.
To ramp up quickly, the retailer said it was speeding up the hiring process, which normally takes two weeks. The company’s goal is to place workers in jobs within 24 hours by conducting most of the screening process virtually and making a preliminary job offer without meeting the applicant in person.
Grocery chain Kroger is hiring 10,000 people across its stores and distribution centers. Regional supermarkets like H-E-B in Texas and Stop & Shop in New England and New York are hiring, too. Amazon is also planning to hire 100,000 additional people to keep up with the crush of online orders. Since making that announcement Monday, the company said that it had seen a 150% increase in applications from the previous week.
Retailers and companies in the food and medical supply chain, which are seeing demand soar, are recruiting workers directly from employers like hotels and restaurants, which have largely been shut down by the pandemic and laid off staffs en masse. A restaurant worker in Rogers, Arkansas, who lost his job Thursday was working at Walmart by Friday afternoon.
Still, this rapid rise in hiring faces logistical challenges at a time when health officials are urging people to keep their distance from others and, in some states, not to leave their houses. Filling some warehouse jobs, for instance, requires the applicants to show up in person.
“Obviously, there is a bit of a challenge because of social distancing and travel restrictions,’’ said Lowell Randel, vice president for government and legal affairs at Global Cold Chain Alliance, a trade group representing the refrigerated warehouse and delivery industry. “But if you apply to drive a forklift, you need to come in and have your skills assessed.”
Lineage Logistics, the largest refrigerated warehousing company in the country, is hiring 2,000 additional workers to meet a roughly 30% jump in demand in recent weeks. But in the age of social distancing, its hiring practices have changed.
Lineage used to do much of its hiring at job fairs at its 290 warehouses. That’s no longer possible. Instead, Lineage is screening applicants by phone, and asking them if they have been to any coronavirus hot spots or been in contact with anyone who is sick.
Those who advance are invited in for a one-on-one interview and asked to formally apply. But even then, there are extra precautions.
“They get to keep the pen that they filled out their application with,” Sean Vanderelzen, Lineage’s chief human resources officer, said in an interview. “We don’t want it back.”
Lineage is doing much of its hiring from other companies that have done mass layoffs in recent weeks, including some of its customers, like major food service suppliers that have seen their business drop because of the disruption in the restaurant industry.
Other companies were hiring to meet the demands of hospitals and health care workers lacking critical supplies.
On Thursday, GE Healthcare said it would increase the manufacturing capacity and output of equipment used in diagnosing and treating COVID-19, including CT scanners, ultrasound devices, mobile X-ray systems, patient monitors and ventilators. The company said it was conducting interviews for prospective employees through phone calls and video conferences when possible.
“As the global pandemic evolves, there is unprecedented demand for medical equipment, including ventilators,” GE Healthcare’s chief executive, Kieran Murphy, said in a statement.
3M, which makes N95 respirator masks, said it had recently doubled its output of the much-needed product to a pace of more than 1.1 billion a year. To meet the demand, 3M said it was hiring additional workers and adding shifts and new manufacturing lines.
Not all of the hiring is being done to simply meet demand. Employers are also bracing for when their workers get sick with the virus or are simply no longer able to get to work, and are planning accordingly.
“Some of our hiring is to manage risk, too,” Vanderelzen of Lineage Logistics said. “We expect that some people will be quarantined or have to leave because of the virus.”