Retail workers are feeling frustrated about being told to come into work under Level 4 lockdown.

While physical retail stores are closed under Alert Level 4, online stores are allowed to operate and deliver orders for essential products. However, some retail workers are frustrated that they’re being required to work on orders that they would not reasonably consider essential.

“Workers are feeling unsafe, worried, angry, frustrated,” says FIRST Union national retail organiser Ben Peterson. He says they are “happy to do essential packing, but they’re coming in and doing more than that.”

Since lockdown began, Peterson has heard from workers at big-box retailer Kmart who have been required to pack orders for “champagne flutes, plastic indoor plants and decorative pillows”, despite being told they would be working on essential orders only. While some of these products are not being dispatched under Level 4, workers say they are still required to receive, unload and pack these orders during lockdown. Re: also contacted Kmart for comment but did not hear back before publication. 

Legally, retail businesses are allowed to sell “essential non-food consumer products” via online delivery during Alert Level 4. The law does not define what these products are, but the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has provided some further guidance in a list published last night.

However, MBIE says it’s ultimately up to businesses to determine what products are essential, stating in their guidelines: “We expect businesses and consumers to act responsibly.”

Examples of products that businesses have deemed essential include designer sneakers and $110 beanies from designer fashion label Karen Walker. The label states on their website that during lockdown they are “able to ship approved cool weather essentials”.

Luxury cashmere label Elle + Riley has their full range available for purchase and delivery during lockdown, which includes sweaters and cardigans that range from around $400 to $1000.

Meanwhile, other retailers have ceased dispatches on online orders entirely during lockdown. While fashion label Ruby also stocks knitwear that can be construed as “cool weather essentials”, they’ve closed their head office and ceased all online order dispatches during Level 4. Department store Smith + Caugheys has also put a pause on deliveries during lockdown.

FIRST Union representative Ben Peterson says that some businesses are not acting in good faith when determining what products, and what work, is essential at Level 4.

“If your heater breaks, it's the middle of winter and you need to be able to get another heater – that's a reasonable sort of thing.”

However, Peterson says that some businesses are taking an approach where they are “ultimately trying to run as close as possible to normal” and defining products as essential in “tangential ways”.

“That is a deeply disappointing approach that fundamentally puts us at risk and is clearly against the intention of what a level four lockdown should be.”

Behind every online order that a business deems essential is a worker who is required to come to a work site to pack and dispatch that order. Peterson says this has been “a lot harder for people who have underlying health issues or people in their bubbles that need care, such as elderly or children”.

So, what happens when employees disagree with what their employer has decided is essential work? 

An MBIE spokesperson reiterated via email that “​​it is up to businesses to check whether they meet the definition of an Alert Level 4 business or service”.

Employment lawyer Chris Scarrott confirms that, as a starting point, businesses “are able to get [employees] to come in and do the work if they’re deeming it as essential”. He adds, “If employers genuinely feel that they are essential, they have a basis to say no, we’re not going to pay”.

If workers want to challenge their employers’ definition of what’s essential work, they could try to resolve the matter directly with their employer, or take the complaint to MBIE, WorkSafe or, as a drastic measure, through a legal dispute process.

Union representative Ben Peterson says that he’s “fairly confident” the union can successfully advocate for workers in those circumstances. 

“It puts a lot of pressure on people.” If employers are withholding pay, it puts workers in a difficult position to go without pay until the dispute is resolved, he says.

Ultimately, it is a system that puts power in the hands of employers first and employees second. Employers can decide where to draw the line between work that is essential and work that is putting people at unnecessary risk, and they can operate accordingly until proven otherwise.

“Retail workers want to do what everyone else is doing: do their little bit and stay home and stay safe,” says Peterson. “We’ve got level four lockdown for a reason. Every workplace that's operating unnecessarily is a potential point of transmission.”