Waterstones is facing a backlash after members of staff said they had not been provided protective equipment to serve customers as hundreds of its stores remained open despite the coronavirus outbreak.
Employees of the bookselling chain said they had not been provided hand sanitiser and had been discouraged from wearing face masks or gloves as it would “cause panic”.
James Daunt, the managing director of Waterstones, said last week that the virus had led to “unprecedented demand” for books and a 17% increase in sales, as he called for all bookshops to be kept open because they serve an essential purpose.
The chain is one of a number of high street stores that have remained open despite the closure of bars, theatres, pubs and gyms and a warning against all but essential social contact. Some stores, including Ikea, TK Maxx and Apple, have closed their UK stores temporarily while others, such as John Lewis, are preparing to shut on Monday.
Three Waterstones employees who contacted the Guardian said they felt the company was putting their health at risk. It operates more than 280 bookshops across the UK.
One shop-floor worker, who is paid the minimum wage, said her store had been much busier than usual since Thursday and sales had “skyrocketed” as customers prepare to spend substantial time indoors.
She added: “We have zero protective measures. We have a small bottle of sanitiser for five people, and it had been there months prior to this. We are discouraged (banned) to wear masks or gloves as it could ‘cause panic’.
“In a bookshop, the average customer touches how many books? 10? 20? People browse, flick through, sit down for a read. Come right up to us to ask for recommendations. What about the horrendous finger-licking-turning-of-the-page? The virus can survive on surfaces for so long. Even if we wiped down the tills every five minutes, it still wouldn’t be enough because customers keep pouring in.”
Another Waterstones employee, who is also earning the minimum wage, said all administrative staff had been told they could work from home, yet booksellers – often those earning the least – were required to go into the stores.
She said the “climate has been awful” in the past week: “It’s been hectic. We haven’t been given masks or sanitiser. We bought our own from home and it is running thin.
“We all feel at risk. Most of us have someone in our homes that is at high risk but on our pay we cannot afford to leave. There have been times where we’ve had to go off the shop floor to have a panic attack.”
A third shop-floor worker said social distancing measures were not being observed by customers and the she and her colleagues were becoming “increasingly upset” about the situation.
“We feel that we cannot leave our tills and this leads to customers becoming angry and often verbally abusing us,” she said. “People are either mocking us, verbally abusing us for being open, or verbally abusing us for not taking their money that they lick.”
She added: “We are loyal to our fellow booksellers and our shop, but not Waterstones. The fact that we cannot openly criticise the company has made us absolutely apoplectic with rage.”
The Guardian agreed not to name the employees as they fear they will be sacked if they openly criticise the company.
Waterstones has been contacted for comment. In a statement on Friday the firm said it had received “dozens of emails from customers thanking us for keeping bookshops open and for as long as we can continue to do so safely, adhering to social distancing procedures and other guidelines, this is what we will do”.
It added: “The safety of our employees and our customers remains our paramount concern at this time. We are continuously assessing the situation and responding to advice as it changes from the government and the public health bodies for each of our shops, to ensure our bookshops continue to be a safe environment for all.
“We are grateful for the commitment of our colleagues, and grateful also for the support of our customers in these difficult times.”