Updated on May 17 at 10:55 a.m. ET
Cynthia Murray has worked at a Walmart store in Maryland for nearly 20 years, most of them as a fitting room associate.
Her 64th birthday was fast approaching when the coronavirus pandemic hit and Walmart workers were suddenly "essential." Murray started worrying about her health and wondered whether she should keep working every time she looked at customers who came into the store.
"You could see it in customers' faces — the panic," she says. "Don't get me wrong, some of our customers are awesome ... they appreciated us being there. ... But you could see the panic, and it's really eerie."
Murray's daughter, too, worried about her mother getting sick from being around so many customers and advised her to stay home. But Murray kept telling herself she had bills and rent coming due. Murray, who's part of the labor group United for Respect, says the store had cut back her hours in recent years, making it harder to accumulate paid time off – she says it takes her more than a week of work to earn one hour of sick time.
But one angry customer put her over the edge. She says the man shouted and demanded access to the fitting rooms, which have been shut as Walmart tries to limit the spread of the virus. The next day, Murray went on unpaid leave.
"I just really felt uncomfortable," she says. "Whether I get paid or not, I'll just have to suffer whatever consequences."
Editor's note: Walmart is among NPR's financial supporters.