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Workers at Costco warehouses across the US have been testing positive for COVID-19, according to bulletins seen by BuzzFeed News, and their colleagues say the retail giant is not being transparent about how they are informing staff or taking the proper precautions to prevent further spread.
Costco, which is the second-largest retailer in the world behind Walmart, has become a vital resource for millions of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. Lines continue to stretch around buildings and parking lots as record numbers of people purchase goods at one of the company’s nearly 550 warehouses.
Its 163,000 full- and part-time US employees, like scores of other grocery store and food retail workers, have now been deemed essential, but some say their employer has not been giving them the proper training, protection, or compensation to work in what is now a high-risk environment, especially now that their colleagues are testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Over the past few weeks, dozens of Costco workers have told BuzzFeed News they’ve been handling products and interacting with hundreds of customers per day without proper social distancing or gear.
In at least eight locations, employees told BuzzFeed News that management had informed staff that a coworker had tested positive by posting letters in places inaccessible to customers, in the break room. At another store in Colorado Springs, Colorado, an employee said they did not have a notice posted, but found out about a positive coronavirus case through word of mouth. These employees say their stores did not close for deep cleaning, nor were shoppers notified, and feel that managers tried to “hide” or downplay the situation.
“It has taken a toll on every employee. I'm just shocked that the public was not made aware of this,” a worker at Costco’s Manhattan location, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, told BuzzFeed News. “I wouldn't want my family showing up, so I'm sure others would feel the same if they knew.”
Costco did not return BuzzFeed News’ request for comment. However, the company has maintained in internal messages that it is following federal safety guidelines, prioritizing the health and safety of its staff and members, and is allowing workers to take unpaid sick leave if they are showing symptoms, are high-risk, or are concerned about endangering their families. However, many employees live paycheck to paycheck or are part-time workers who can’t afford to miss days and not get paid. As a result, employees say they and their coworkers have been coming into work, even if they are not feeling well.
On Monday, CEO Craig Jelinek said in an internal email that “all full-time, part-time, and limited part-time hourly Costco employees in the US and Puerto Rico will receive an additional $2 per hour for hours worked during the five weeks of March 2 through April 5, 2020.”
BuzzFeed News obtained letters posted at warehouses in Manhattan; Avon, Ohio; Long Island, New York; Glen Mills, Pennsylvania; Nesconset, New York; and Madison Heights, Michigan. The notices inform workers that a colleague tested positive for COVID-19, list that person’s most recent day at work, and explain the company’s “immediate response plan.”
In each memo, Costco states that it had contacted the local health department and is working closely with officials, “undertaking additional thorough cleaning and sanitation protocols,” and communicating directly with “co-workers who have been in close contact.”
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“Current health guidelines state that people who have not been in contact with a sick person are at low risk for infection,” the letters say.
Given the rapid rate at which coronavirus cases are climbing in the US, workers at these warehouses were concerned about what they feel is a lax and risky reaction that puts them and the public at risk. The letters list the most recent day of work and normal schedule, but symptoms can be mild or take days to appear, if they do at all
"For those who don't go into the breakroom, we, I would never know," an employee at a warehouse in New York told BuzzFeed News on Thursday after seeing the new notice. "I only found out that we have a COVID because a coworker came up and told me, 'Hey did you see the sign?' and I said, 'What sign?'"
At another New York store in Nesconset, a worker said that "it was hidden that the employee was feeling symptoms for a week."
"When the test came back positive, all we got was a letter posted in our breakroom with management not saying a word,” this person said. “This employee worked with people’s food and was in the building with thousands of members. No members were notified at all.”
Like several other workers, this employee said that Costco staff cleaned and sanitized the area where the infected person worked, wiping down the “deli and rotisserie departments” with “gloves and sanitizing spray, nothing more.” The employees added that the warehouses never fully closed for a deep cleaning, rules for which vary by local health department.
At a store in Madison Heights, Michigan, an employee tested positive for COVID-19 on March 16. In the notice posted on a board in the break room, the general manager said all employees are considered “low risk” and that they had “performed extreme deep cleaning of the entire Receiving and RTV area.”
However, according to an employee familiar with the situation, hourly employees who usually work at the cash registers were the ones who sanitized the area.
“They didn’t know what they were cleaning or why,” this employee said. “They were given gloves and disinfectant, but no masks. Managers selected employees, told them they were working on a ‘special project’... They ended up putting two and two together after the letter was posted. The employees who did clean are very, very upset now that they know why and what they cleaned.”
According to another coworker, staff were not given extra protective gear after managers posted the single letter, which was the only official communication about the positive case.
The general manager at the Michigan location would not take BuzzFeed News's call about the store's handling of the COVID-19 case.
At a warehouse in Colorado Springs, an employee said he never saw any official posting from his employer notifying them that a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19, but found out from his direct manager and is also friends with the alleged infected worker.
“Literally no one told us anything about it,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Once word got out that some of our coworkers had been infected, management had completely turned a blind eye to the situation, resulting in many of us remaining at home, in fear, without pay, uncertain of what’s to come.”
On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration posted guidelines for food and grocery retailers now on the frontlines of the pandemic. The agency noted the importance of social distancing, but pointed out that if “effective hygiene practices” aren’t in place, standing 6 feet apart may not be enough. The CDC has also said that wearing masks is not essential, unless you have the disease or are showing symptoms. If an employee is confirmed sick, which is hard to do given the shortage of tests, the FDA says the company must tell its workers.
Costco employees across the US have told BuzzFeed News that social distancing is not being upheld in their stores, which they say are logging record numbers of shoppers every day.
Steffanie Strathdee, an infectious disease epidemiologist and global health expert at the University of California, San Diego, said there need to be stronger guidelines on a broader scale for companies that are now considered essential services. Otherwise, places we very much rely on, like grocery stores, can end up becoming “an incubator.”
“Paid sick leave is incredibly important. If a worker is pressured to come back to work after they have been exposed or showing symptoms, that’s wrong,” she said. “People need to be notified when they are working with an infected person because of all the people they are putting in harm’s way. We are about to become the world’s epicenter [for COVID-19] and we need to take it seriously. The longer we allow policies to be lax, the more contagious it becomes.”
Correction: BuzzFeed News obtained a letter posted at the warehouse in Nesconset, New York. This location was misidentified in an earlier version of this post.