Business Insider chief correspondent Hayley Peterson has been covering retail for the last seven years, after a prior stint reporting on the White House.
Hayley is known for her hart-hitting investigations that expose labor issues at big retailers and grocers like Walmart and Amazon.
In one of her most recent stories, she brought to light how Whole Foods uses a heat map tool to track potential unionization among its employees. The reporting provided a rare look into corporate labor-tracking activities, a common practice among large companies but one rarely discussed publicly.
Here's her conversation with deputy executive editor Olivia Oran.
Olivia Oran: You have long covered labor issues at retailers like Amazon and Walmart. How did you get interested in this particular story involving Whole Foods?
Hayley Peterson: Companies have tracked union activity for years, but this was the first time I had ever heard of a process involving a heat map that ranks stores by "risk" scores using data such as racial diversity and employee loyalty.Oran: Tell me about your reporting process. How did you get sources to trust you about such a sensitive topic?
Peterson: I think the most important part of any source relationship is honesty and transparency.
At the start of most of my interviews, I explain in detail how my reporting process works, what sources can expect from me, and how I might use the information I learn during our conversation. I often share my past work, as well, to help familiarize them with the types of stories I write.
Then I answer any questions they might have about my process and let them know that they can back out of an interview at any time or decline to answer any particular question.
If they are comfortable talking to me after that, then I start asking questions.
Oran: What was the hardest part about reporting out this piece?
Peterson: I think the hardest part of reporting any story can often be the process of thoroughly vetting and fact-checking information. This process often involves finding additional sources and supporting documents, among other resources.
Oran: What fascinates you about covering retail?
Peterson: I'm almost always thinking about the retail business. I enjoy talking to friends, family, and strangers about where and how they shop and what they buy. I love digging into data on changing consumption habits and watching how retailers adapt to shoppers' evolving preferences through programs like curbside pickup and automated fulfillment.
I also love being able to go out and interact with the companies I cover by visiting their stores,ordering from their websites,and talking to their employees and delivery drivers. It helps me view the industry through many different lenses.
Beyond that, I think retail is incredibly important and relevant to everyone who breathes and eats.The retail and restaurant industries employ more than one in 10 US workers and feedand clothe all of us as consumers.
Oran: What story are you most proud of throughout your reporting career?
Peterson: I'm really proud of a story I wrote two years ago about what it's like to work as an Amazon driver. I interviewed more than 30 drivers, some of whom described alleged abuses, including lack of overtime pay, missing wages, intimidation, and favoritism. Many drivers said they felt pressured to drive at dangerously high speeds, blow stop signs, and urinate in bottles on their trucks. Amazon has made changes to its delivery system since then, including changing how its drivers are paidto ensure they earn what they are owed.
Oran: Thinking about retailers broadly, what are the big themes that you're going to be watching this year, particularly as coronavirus slams the industry?
Peterson: I'm going to be watching closely how consumption habits change as shelter-from-home orders are lifted. Will the habits that shoppers formed while trapped at home become permanent? Or will people increasingly feel comfortable returning to grocery stores, shopping malls, and movie theaters?
I'm also curious about whether retailers will consider permanently adopting higher pay and more lenient sick policies once coronavirus restrictions are lifted. Workers have fought for changes like these for years, and only recently achieved them in the midst of a global pandemic. It will be hard to take these benefits away and make the argument that they are no longer needed or deserved.
Oran: You talk to so many frontline retail workers, from cashiers, to sales clerks. What do these workers most want people to know?
Peterson: It has been really eye-opening listening to the perspectives of frontline retail workers during the pandemic. In the beginning around late February to early March I heard from many frustrated and fearful workers who were begging for access to masks and more cleaning supplies as they reported to work each day and interacted with dozens and in some cases hundreds of people. As the weeks wore on, retailers started providing personal protective equipment, offering bonuses, and relaxing sick-leave policies. Now, workers are fighting to retain those benefits.
I think retail employees, particularly at "essential" stores, would want people to recognize how hard they are working to keep shelves stocked and would ask customers to practice patience and respect during their outings. While some workers have told me heartwarming stories about customers giving them home-made masks or other gifts, others have said that shoppers have grown increasingly impatient and angry in stores and have screamed at them for inconveniences like long lines.
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