Oklahoma City-based retail craft store giant Hobby Lobby announced Friday it will close all of its remaining stores and furlough nearly all store employees and a large portion of its corporate and distribution employees.

According to a notice published on the company’s website, Hobby Lobby, which has more than 900 stores and 43,000 employees nationwide, was ending emergency leave pay for employees and suspending the use of companyprovided paid time off benefits during the furloughs in order “to allow our furloughed employees to take full advantage of the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation and Recovery Rebates provided to eligible employees by the federal government …” The announcement stated the company would continue to provide medical, dental, life and long-term disability benefits for furloughed employees through May 1, and will cover the cost of employee premiums while furloughed. “Our sincere gratitude goes out to our dedicated employees at this difficult time, and we look forward to the day when we can welcome them back, once we are able to reopen,” the announcement said.

The furloughs add to thousands of other workers in Oklahoma who have been laid off as a result of the measure put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the sometimes-fatal disease caused by novel coronavirus.

As of Friday, Oklahoma had 988 confirmed cases of COVID19 and 38 related deaths. The numbers on Monday were 1,327 confirmed cases in the state and 51 deaths.

Between the beginning of March, when the disease first started spreading in the United States, and the last week of March, initial unemployment claims in Oklahoma increased by more than 2,800% to nearly 45,000 new claims, and nationally increased by more than 3,300%, to more than 6.6 million new claims, U.S. Department of Labor data shows.

In response to the unprecedented economic toll the pandemic is inflicting, President Donald Trump signed legislation that would provide funds to small businesses, increase and expand unemployment benefits and provide most households with $1,200 per-person in federal funds.

Hobby Lobby has come under fire from employees and officials in some states where the stores remained open or reopened after being told by officials to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has caused numerous businesses around the nation to close and government officials to issue “shelter in place” and business closure orders. The Attorney General of Colorado sent a letter to Hobby Lobby CEO David Green earlier this week

ordering Hobby Lobby stores to close there after many remained open despite being designated a nonessential business. In Dallas, a judge accused the company of endangering public health for refusing to shut down.

The company had also kept stores open in Arizona, Ohio and other states during the pandemic, despite public outcry.

Green is estimated to be worth more than $6 billion and was No. 70 in Forbes list of wealthiest Americans.

In its announcement, Hobby Lobby only stated the stores will be closed “until further notice” and did not provide an estimated date they would re-open.

In the announcement, the company stated that, despite being deemed a non-essential business by many states, it provided essential services.

“We know our customers relied on us to provide essential products, including materials to make personal protective equipment, such as face masks, educational supplies for the countless parents who are now educating their children from home, and the thousands of small arts and crafts businesses who rely on us for supplies to make their products,” the statement read. “Over the past several weeks, we implemented several best practices to provide a safer shopping environment, including the installation of physical barriers between customers and cashiers, enhanced cleaning, and the enforcement of social distancing measures. We are prepared to reopen our stores in a responsible way when the current situation improves, and look forward to welcoming our valued customers back to our stores. Until then, we pray for those affected by the virus, protection for the health care professionals caring for the sick, economic security for all impacted businesses and employees, and wisdom for our leaders.”

The Frontier is a nonprofit focusing on investigative and watchdog journalism. For more information or to donate, go to www.readfrontier. org.

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