Costco Is Thriving During The Coronavirus Pandemic. Its Workers Say They’ve Paid The Price.

Costco has long been beloved by employees, some of whom have worked there for decades. But the retailer’s decision-making during the coronavirus pandemic has tested their loyalty and compromised their health.

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The last day Regina Lee was in the office, she was coughing so badly it rattled her whole body. The Costco Travel agent didn’t often work on Saturdays, but she’d picked up an extra shift on March 14 to help field the barrage of calls from customers trying to cancel cruises amid the coronavirus pandemic. Beloved in the office, the 59-year-old rarely missed a day of work in her 20 years at the company. That day, though, her coworkers kept wondering why she was there.

Ten days earlier on March 4, officials in King County, Washington — home to Costco’s headquarters and the initial epicenter of the US outbreak — called on businesses to let their employees work from home during a “critical moment in the growing outbreak.” Major Seattle-area companies like Microsoft and Boeing heeded that warning, shuttering their corporate operations and shifting employees to remote work. Costco did not. That same day, Costco CEO Craig Jelinek emailed thousands of workers at the company’s sprawling corporate campus in Issaquah, Washington, to say that allowing corporate employees to work remotely wouldn’t be fair to the “great number of Costco employees locally and across the country” in its stores who could not. “Our jobs here are to support our retail business, and we’re not prepared at this point to have corporate employees work from home,” he wrote.

“‘We take care of employees.’ Bullshit.”

Throughout her Saturday shift, Lee, who had diabetes, struggled to control her dry, hacking cough while processing refunds for some of the hundreds of customers calling Costco’s 20-year-old travel business. “She should go home,” Lee’s concerned colleagues whispered among themselves as she struggled to catch her breath. A supervisor eventually checked on her, but the agent remained at her desk until the end of her shift at 3 p.m. By Monday morning, she was dead.

Lee was the first known Costco employee in the US to die of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, after she collapsed at the Everett, Washington, home she shared with her sister, Willa, and their mother, Susie. Two weeks later, they were dead too. The Lees are now three of the more than 31,000 people who have died in the US — and nearly 140,000 people globally — from the novel coronavirus.

With 547 retail warehouses across the US, Costco has become a lifeline for millions of people during the pandemic. However, more than 100 employees and contractors told BuzzFeed News that the $140 billion global retailer placed thousands of workers at its corporate offices and stores at risk through its lack of transparency on confirmed cases, disregard for warnings, and inability to adjust long-standing policies during a critical period. These people, most of whom asked for anonymity for fear of losing their jobs, said Costco left its workers unprotected and uninformed on the front lines of the worst global health crisis of their lifetimes.

“Is business that much more important?” Regina’s brother Raymond Lee told BuzzFeed News. “Shame on Costco. They say, ‘We take care of employees.’ Bullshit.”

“No higher priority than your own well-being”

Costco employees said the company should have seen this coming.

In conversations with BuzzFeed News, both corporate and warehouse workers wondered why Costco management was so slow to enact firm coronavirus protocols at its North American locations, given what the global retail giant had seen in its stores in Asia, where the pandemic first spread.

And that hesitation may have let the virus spread further than it otherwise would have.

According to interviews and internal memos obtained by BuzzFeed News, at least 21 people at Costco’s corporate offices and at least 62 workers at warehouses across the US have tested positive for COVID-19. According to employees, at least two have died after contracting the disease.

Meanwhile, workers at Costco’s warehouses — what the company calls its stores — said the retailer didn’t do enough to prepare or protect them from thousands of customers who flooded in to stock up on toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and bulk groceries as coronavirus fears ramped up in March. Some employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News said warehouse managers failed to properly inform them of confirmed coronavirus cases among their colleagues and were slow to shut down or professionally sanitize their stores — leaving them and their members at risk.

“Working for Costco during this devastating point of time has become a living nightmare,” a Los Angeles–based warehouse employee told BuzzFeed News, noting that the company’s coronavirus response has disillusioned workers. “They will continue to prioritize the needs of the business over their employees’ well-being, even when we are in a state of emergency. We were never prepared for this.”

“Working for Costco during this devastating point of time has become a living nightmare.”

Costco, its CEO, and members of its leadership team did not respond to repeated requests for comment on a detailed list of questions regarding its response to the coronavirus pandemic. In a March 21 memo obtained by BuzzFeed News, Jelinek suggested he would not be responding to press inquiries. “As we’re dealing with this unprecedented situation we aren’t spending a lot of time engaging with the media and other occasional critics,” he wrote.

While many companies in the US, including Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and Amazon, were slow to respond, in part because their leaders followed the federal government’s haphazard messaging and response, Costco’s management had plenty of warning. On an earnings call 11 days before Lee died, the company’s chief financial officer touted its response to the spread of the coronavirus in China and South Korea, both countries where it has stores. Costco has also weathered previous health crises, including the 2002–03 SARS outbreak.

In conversations with BuzzFeed News, Costco workers from an array of positions across the US detailed circumstances they deemed irresponsible. Two pregnant women in Texas were so concerned about their working conditions they took extended, unpaid leaves, their manager said. In Ohio, a manager described the “carelessness” of ignoring social distancing protocols by keeping every checkout register open. Employees in Las Vegas wondered why their stores were letting customers mill around and touch nonessential items like clothes and patio furniture. A manager in Michigan said elderly hourly workers were made to sanitize an area of the store where an infected employee had been without being told what and why they were cleaning.

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“I do think Costco has implemented some good practices now, but it just took too long,” the Michigan manager said. “They were reactionary the entire time instead of taking the opportunity to be a leader in the industry.”

Since BuzzFeed News first reported on working conditions at Costco facilities during the outbreak, the company has strengthened its response. More than a week after Lee’s death, it enabled most of its corporate employees to work remotely. It also confirmed it would temporarily boost warehouse pay by $2 an hour, promised to provide masks and gloves, shortened store hours, required plexiglass shields on registers, and limited how many customers were allowed in a store at a time, though some employees say those aren’t being followed. BuzzFeed News obtained an internal memo sent earlier this month that shows that Costco now monitors employees’ temperatures in accordance with federal guidelines. The company has also ramped up its messaging to employees and its CEO has visited multiple warehouses to thank his workers.

“While we should be very proud of serving our communities, at the same time I know Costco employees have personal concerns and anxiety as well,” CEO Craig Jelinek said during a rare company-wide video address on March 30. “So I want to be clear about this: The business of Costco is important, and our communities and coworkers depend on us. But there’s no higher priority than your own well-being and the well-being of your families.”

“We are all expendable.”

For some workers, Jelinek’s message seemed like damage control. Many people worked at Costco for years, citing the company’s health care benefits, retirement plans, and relatively high pay as reasons why it was a good place to work. The company’s delayed and deficient handling of the coronavirus pandemic, however, has dampened those sentiments, making employees feel as if they had to choose between their health and their livelihoods. Without accumulated holiday or sick pay, some employees living paycheck to paycheck said they were told they had to come to work or take unpaid leave — even if they thought they had been exposed to the disease.

“We are all expendable,” said one Costco shift supervisor in Oregon. “Who talks about protecting us? I am not hearing anyone stand up for us.”

“Everyone is sharing gloves”

Detailing potential risk factors in its 2019 annual earnings report, Costco warned of potential “public health issues” that “could disrupt our operations ... or have an adverse impact on consumer spending and confidence levels." But the coronavirus pandemic, at least in its early weeks, seems to have had the opposite effect.

As people flocked to warehouses to stock up for weeks of self-isolation, Costco’s sales jumped more than $1.6 billion, or 11.7%, in the five weeks leading up to April 5, according to a recent financial report. E-commerce sales were up nearly 50%. Those numbers were “strong,” said CFRA Research analyst Garrett Nelson, who noted that the pandemic was an “opportunity for them to pick up customers” and build upon its membership count of some 100 million cardholders.

Costco had seen crisis-inspired sales booms before. In 2003, as SARS wreaked havoc on Asia, its stores in Taiwan — where it now has 13 locations — not only weathered the storm but thrived. “People would come to Costco to buy food because they trusted it,” Richard Chang, Costco’s senior vice president of Asia, said in a 2018 interview.

So as the coronavirus outbreak gained momentum in China and South Korea, company leaders who’d been through the SARS crisis temporarily closed and cleaned affected locations while implementing strict daily disinfecting and social distancing regimens.

“Our warehouses have overall remained open with only a few total days of closures at a couple of locations in Korea, as well our Shanghai location, [and] there has been some limitations required on the number of people in the facility at a given time,” Costco Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti said on a March 5 earnings call.

In the US, Costco’s workers aware of the measures taken to protect their foreign colleagues wondered why the same wasn’t being done for them. In private Facebook groups for employees and in interviews with BuzzFeed News, they fumed about the disparity between the precautions taken abroad and what was happening in the US.

“When you look at the Costcos in [South] Korea, they shut down the entire store and cleaned it,” one employee at the company’s Hayward, California, warehouse told BuzzFeed News in mid-March. “We only shut down to control how many people were in the store. There hasn’t been one deep cleaning. The employees there are decked out with masks. [There’s a] commitment to protection.”

“We were having 3,500 people allowed to come in at a time and no masks have been required.” 

Meanwhile, as wave after wave of customers clamored for paper towels and pasta at US locations, employees at a number of Costco warehouses said managers floundered amid a lack of clear direction from higher-ups about social distancing and customer limits.

At the store in Culver City, California, on March 13, two days after Gov. Gavin Newsom advised citizens to avoid large crowds, door count sheets provided to BuzzFeed News illustrated the chaos. From 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., employees at the door checked in 4,015 Costco cardholders. The total door count for that day was 10,371 members, which does not account for the fact that multiple people can enter the store on the same membership card.

“We were having 3,500 people allowed to come in at a time and no masks have been required,” a supervisor at that location told BuzzFeed News on March 19. “Everyone is sharing gloves. We’re bringing our own, and if we have enough we give them to each other.”

At one point, as Costco stores racked up banner days, with some regularly exceeding sales of $1 million every 24 hours, employees struggled to buy supplies for their own families. They’d often find that crucial items like baby formula and disinfecting wipes were sold out by the time their shifts ended. Multiple warehouse workers told BuzzFeed News they felt expendable.

“I feel like we weren’t considered and we are like little guinea pigs looking at sales,” said one Culver City warehouse employee, adding that management took nearly a day to tell them about a colleague’s positive COVID-19 test, after cleaners in hazmat suits wiped down the areas where they worked. “The store will manage $600,000 to $1 million on a normal day. The other day we were at $1.4 million.”

At the end of March, Costco mandated that every location let employees shop from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. every Friday, according to internal documents seen by BuzzFeed News.

“Business as usual”

Gregory Ulrich had just acclimated to his new warehouse in Norwalk, Connecticut, when he abruptly called in sick around mid-March. His colleagues immediately worried that the manager, an esteemed Costco veteran of nearly 20 years, had contracted the virus. The affable 57-year-old had been “coughing up a storm” for a few days, an employee told BuzzFeed News, explaining that “Norwalk had a huge outbreak, so people were getting a bit on edge.”

On Friday, March 27, Ulrich was rushed to the hospital, a friend told BuzzFeed News. He died the following Monday from complications associated with the novel coronavirus. Alicia Ramnarine, a former Costco colleague, told BuzzFeed News that Ulrich was always cheerful, kind, and “a gentle man in a place full of chaos.” Ulrich’s family declined to comment.

According to two employees, warehouse leaders held two “emergency meetings” addressing the coronavirus panic. At the first, around March 16, management told staff that no one at the store had the virus and that people who spread rumors to the contrary could be fired because of the “severity of the misinformation,” a worker in attendance said. At the second meeting, about a week later, management said they “did not know about his positive results” and that they were going to enact more safety measures. Norwalk, Connecticut, had 17 confirmed COVID-19 cases at the time. That number has since swelled to 747 cases and 32 deaths.

In a note posted in the warehouse break room the day Ulrich died, management called his death “a great loss” and said that the longtime employee would be “profoundly missed.” As the store closed for the night, workers watched as a hazmat crew came in and disinfected the store’s cash registers.

The following day, the Norwalk store’s general manager posted a second letter in the break room, saying he did not know Ulrich had the coronavirus because “his doctors did not feel he had it, nor would they test him.” The store leader told staff in bold letters to “DEMAND” to be tested if they were feeling symptoms as “doctors are waiting far too long to test people on their assumption that their patients don’t have it.”

A spokesperson for Greenwich Hospital of the Yale New Haven Health System declined to comment on Ulrich’s case, citing patient privacy laws.

At the time, his Norwalk colleagues had been hearing about coronavirus cases at other warehouses and saw every cough as a potential danger. Two employees who worried Ulrich had the virus feel that management should have been more vigilant in monitoring for early warning signs and done a better job enforcing social distancing rules.

“I remember posts in our employees group page about measures some warehouses were taking, and many of us did wonder what we were waiting for. It was like business as usual,” one employee told BuzzFeed News, adding that his colleagues were “scared” to come into work.

However, another worker there said he was “happy” with the warehouse’s response. Costco did not respond to requests for comment on safety protocols at the Norwalk location.

As of April 6, three other workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, bringing the Norwalk warehouse’s total case count to at least four.

“His doctors did not feel he had it, nor would they test him.”

The experience of the employees in Norwalk is not unique. At more than a dozen warehouses across the country, workers told BuzzFeed News that management at their locations was often slow to implement safety measures and failed to adequately inform them of new or suspected coronavirus cases among their colleagues. Some workers have taken it upon themselves to tally the cases, using a private, employee-only Facebook group to share information about coworkers who have reportedly contracted or died from COVID-19.

Labor advocates said the federal government’s own dismissiveness of the virus, blundered response, and weak guidelines set the tone for Costco and other major retailers. Protocols from the CDC and FDA offer “very minimal guidance” on how to protect workers and could enable businesses to pressure employees to return to work even if they’re sick, Peter Dooley, senior project coordinator for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, told BuzzFeed News, calling essential workers the “most at-risk and the most neglected.”

“The messaging from the top was of total denial for action or precaution, and the shame of it is that we had examples of what had been put in place in other countries,” Dooley said. “The real problem is the deception for people to think that they're not at risk, or in the low-risk category, and now we have grocery workers dying from the virus. If a worker gets sick with the illness it should be a presumption it was work exposure.”

Costco’s corporate leaders have been issuing new temporary operational guidelines for all its US warehouses. On March 27, they told managers that they’re required to provide masks, gloves, and plexiglass screens at checkout stands, sanitize registers every 15 minutes, and limit common contact points like silverware dispensers in break rooms. Some changes are happening, workers said, but many feel it’s too late. In New York, the Westbury warehouse on Long Island has at least eight infected workers, according to company notices provided to BuzzFeed News.

Amanda Rosado, a deli worker at Costco’s Port Chester, New York, location told BuzzFeed News that by this month four of her coworkers had tested positive for COVID-19, a situation she described as “a holy fucking clusterfuck.”

The 31-year-old told BuzzFeed News that during a recent Saturday shift, she noticed that a supervisor overseeing the registers was coughing and had red eyes, but he continued to work without gloves, handling cash that was later touched by dozens of employees. Later, he went home sick. Another colleague she worked with recently in the meat department had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to letters sent by another employee to BuzzFeed News.

And she couldn’t help but wonder: “How many people might have gotten sick because they walked into my warehouse?”

“How many people might have gotten sick because they walked into my warehouse?”

Rosado has worked for Costco since she was 19. Now a single mom with three kids who also cares for a brother with HIV, she said she felt vulnerable because of her managers’ lax approach to safety. She told BuzzFeed News that one person she’s worked closely with in the small deli room has been sick, and that another coworker went home with a terrible cough, only to come back a week later. The warehouse where Rosado works is just 15 minutes away from New Rochelle, New York, an early coronavirus hot spot and containment zone, but it only started giving employees masks at the beginning of April, she said.

Fearful of contracting the virus and bringing it home to her kids and immunocompromised brother, Rosado decided to take a leave of absence, using some of her vacation days to cushion the financial blow. At first, she said she was told she did not “fall under the criteria” to apply for a coronavirus-related break, where employees could request unpaid time off if they’re high-risk, concerned about working, or have symptoms — though she said she’d been in contact with an infected coworker and has chronic asthma.

“I want to do what I feel is right for me and my family,” she said. “Working at Costco is like fighting an invisible enemy with a blindfold and no weapons.” Costco did not respond to requests for comment on the exchange.

Among the most marginalized workers at Costco are its contractors, some of whom were thrown into difficult roles to keep up with demand, from packaging to loading supplies in crowded distribution centers. After Costco shuttered its famous food sample stations in early March, it placed the sample servers, who were employed by a third-party company named Club Demonstration Services, on sanitization teams to keep them on the payroll.

It was a tough spot to be in, several former CDS sample servers told BuzzFeed News. They needed the money — but some of the tasks, including walking the length of warehouses to clean where a potentially sick person had been, were difficult for the workers, many of whom were over 65 and had preexisting health problems. Less than a month later, CDS abruptly fired all 30,000 workers, as BuzzFeed News first reported, without warning or severance. In an announcement, Costco said it would be using its own employees to clean.

Employees out, seasonal workers in

Costco’s response to the coronavirus pandemic varied across its 547 locations in the US. Employees at some warehouses told BuzzFeed News their managers have been proactive, strictly enforcing limits on customers allowed in stores and mandating social distancing in the break rooms.

But for every story of the company’s success, there seems to be another of its failures. In Hayward, California, home to the second-largest Costco warehouse in the Bay Area, employees continue to complain of lax safety measures. Minutes after management announced its fifth COVID-19 case at the end of March, half of one manager’s employees walked off the floor. Most haven’t come back, and the manager told BuzzFeed News he doesn’t blame them. Over the past few weeks, he has logged and photographed what he believes to be at least 10 sanitization and safety failures at the 154,000-square-foot warehouse.

The manager told BuzzFeed News that Costco’s decision to expand open hours at an already overworked store has made things worse. Hayward, which used to open its doors at 10 a.m., now officially opens at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 6:30 p.m. But hours before that, at 3 a.m., it welcomes health care workers and first responders who are unable to shop during normal business hours. At 6 a.m., seniors and Instacart workers can begin shopping. It’s a grueling schedule that makes coronavirus safety protocols tougher to manage.

“We’re not taking care of the community if none of the employees are protected.”

Since the end of March, about 100 of the Hayward store’s 330 employees have taken leave, the manager said, some forgoing pay after exhausting their sick days and paid time off. To supplement the loss of full-time employees, the warehouse, like many others across the US, has hired scores of seasonal hourly workers who require training. These temporary employees said they, too, have become essential parts of the workforce but have remained largely invisible, with no hazard pay or sick time. Some contractors said they were given scant protections for working in crowded environments and handling supplies.

“The aggressiveness is not there. You hear it from [the governor], but it's not trickling down to the businesses and their essential workers,” the manager in California said. “I do like Costco — in dire times we take care of the community — but we're not taking care of the community if none of the employees are protected.”

Costco … won’t close for anything”

By early February, Regina Lee and her Costco Travel colleagues were already feeling the impact of the coronavirus on their work. As news filtered to the US that hundreds of passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise liner had been quarantined in Japan, customers began flooding the phone lines, asking if they should cancel trips or if there were any deals to be had.

Agents told BuzzFeed News that, at times, more than 850 people would be waiting on lines for up to three hours, overrunning their systems. To manage the volume, some travel employees worked 12-hour shifts, while others came in seven days a week, even as the state of Washington received early signs of what lay ahead.

“Here we are in a very close working environment amid the outbreak, and we’re right up the road from Kirkland, [Washington,] and that retirement home where all the first deaths came from,” one travel employee told BuzzFeed News, referencing Life Care Center, a nursing home that accounted for the nation’s earliest coronavirus cases and fatalities. “I pass it every day on my way to work [and] wondered what happens when it hits here at Costco Travel. It would be like a bomb going off.”

“What happens when it hits here at Costco Travel. It would be like a bomb going off.”

By Friday, March 13, Washington had recorded 694 cases of COVID-19 and more than 100 deaths, the majority of which were in King County. The news deeply unsettled employees at Costco Travel and the company’s corporate offices, who told BuzzFeed News of their mounting anxiety as coworkers developed coughs or flulike symptoms. The risk for contagion was high, they said, pointing to their open floor plans with close-quartered pods, crowded shuttles that ran between parking lots and other buildings, and shared eating areas.

Many employees wanted to work from home but were forbidden from doing so. Some told BuzzFeed News that Costco’s resistance to remote working stemmed from its “old-school” culture, where long-serving executives didn’t understand its merits. Employees said management refused to give them laptops and often cited solidarity with their warehouse colleagues as justification for forbidding remote work. The stores were renowned for staying open in harsh weather, and if warehouse workers could brave snowstorms, management said, so should office employees. If you got snowed in, that counted as a sick day.

“Costco thinks it is the USPS and won't close for anything,” one former employee of 15 years said. “You have to bring your butt into work, despite the conditions.”

As the coronavirus spread across King County, executives stuck to the same logic, sending emails that they were monitoring the outbreak, telling sick employees to stay home, and suggesting that those people who were considered “high-risk” use paid time off. The majority of office workers, though, were expected to come in if they wanted to collect a paycheck, and those without vacation time were left in difficult positions.

Costco did not respond to repeated requests for comment about these policies.

The death of Lee shocked her coworkers. She was a favorite among colleagues, who remembered her smile and knack for leaving chocolates on people’s keyboards. On the Monday she died, Lee’s fellow agents had been answering the onslaught of calls when at around 11:30 a.m., management cut off their phone lines. The office became abruptly, eerily quiet. Then an email arrived in their inboxes.

“I was so mortified that they didn’t close the office when my friend died.”

“As soon as I read her name, I leaped out of my chair,” one agent who sat near Lee for years said. “My headset was still on my head, and I pointed to her nameplate, which was still on her cubicle.”

In announcing her death, Costco Travel Vice President Peter Gruening said Lee died “unexpectedly” and that the company had “no information that this was related to COVID-19.” As a precaution, the company would close the building for a cleaning, he wrote, adding, “As of now, we expect to open tomorrow as usual.”

Shortly after the announcement, supervisors came to the floor and ushered everyone out. Agents remembered checking their phones all night for a message, wondering if they’d be quarantined at home. “The next morning, they said, ‘We are open just as usual,’” a current employee told BuzzFeed News. “There was so much confusion and anxiety. So many people didn’t show up.”

Those who did come back on Tuesday furiously wiped down their desks while wondering aloud if they should have stayed home. Later that afternoon, corporate leadership confirmed in an email that Lee had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, acknowledging that the news “causes a great deal of concern and anxiety among employees.” The building, though, remained open.

“I was so mortified that they didn’t close the office when my friend died,” said one travel employee who has been with the company for more than a decade. “Costco is my family, and I love them — but that really tore it for me right there.”

The morning after Lee’s death, CEO Craig Jelinek said in an email that company leadership was “now encouraging more employees at the Home and Regional office to work remotely.” Later that evening, the retailer posted a message from Jelinek on Facebook addressed to Costco members, noting that it “is firmly committed to the health and safety of our members and employees” and was “complying with public health guidance.” At the time, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had closed schools and banned gatherings of more than 250 people in certain counties but had yet to issue a stay-at-home order.

According to corporate employees, Costco began disclosing confirmed COVID-19 cases in company-wide emails three days after Lee's death, sometimes sending multiple notes in a day. It kept employees at its corporate offices until March 25 — long after its corporate peers had shuttered theirs and two days after Inslee’s executive order mandating residents stay home. The campus, though, has remained open and some employees have told BuzzFeed News that they’ve seen colleagues and their managers taking conference calls from the offices.

On March 25, Gruening congratulated his team on the shift to working from home. By the end of that workday, Costco corporate had confirmed that at least nine of its employees, including a worker at a campus deli, had tested positive for COVID-19.

“Frankly, it is absolutely amazing that we’ve been able to transition from 100% onsite to a fully functioning remote-work program in under two weeks,” the Costco Travel vice president wrote in an email to staff. “It is a testament to the hard work, quick thinking and resourcefulness of many.”

As of April 9, at least 21 corporate and travel employees have tested positive for COVID-19, according to internal emails obtained by BuzzFeed News. Ten of those people work in the travel department, and four of them sit on the same floor as Lee. One of those agents, who was officially diagnosed March 19, had been complaining on Facebook about her high fever and loss of taste two weeks earlier. "This is what happens when people are so afraid and they can’t afford to stay home and they come in,” an employee told BuzzFeed News.

Workers said they’re infuriated and frustrated that their leaders did not enact stronger precautionary measures. Some, like an IT employee who worked in another building down the road from Lee and contracted the virus, wondered what would have happened if management had simply listened.

The first week of March, when the total of coronavirus cases in King County surpassed 70, the IT employee had come down with aches and a fever but couldn’t get tested due to the scarcity of kits. Reading headlines about hospitals rationing masks and infected Washington residents quarantined in motels, the employee sent multiple emails to several leaders notifying them about their coronavirus-like symptoms, expressing fear for the worker's close-quartered colleagues, and asking to work from home. It was going to get bad, the employee warned in emails, and no one was taking it seriously.

In response, this employee said, they were reprimanded for overreacting. It took nearly four days, but they were approved to work from home right before Lee died.

Shortly after, the employee tested positive for COVID-19. Now their entire family is sick too. So far, according to internal emails, eight people who work in the same building have told Costco they have the virus.

“I was sick and trying to shout from the rooftops: ‘This is serious!’” the employee said, voice breaking. “I was sitting there, absolutely helpless.”

The Costco family

It’s been nearly a month since the pandemic brought the country to a tumultuous halt, forcing millions of Americans out of work and to stay at home. As the initial panic subsided, so too has the early chaos at Costco’s warehouses. Though stores often see significant lines, the people who work at them are better protected and better compensated. There are fewer shoppers in stores and more masks, and temperature checks.

In certain states, lawmakers have heard and acted upon food service workers’ fears and concerns. Washington state passed new protections on April 13, prohibiting companies from forcing high-risk employees into unsafe conditions or penalizing or firing them for refusing to work in them. The governor’s proclamation came just days after the Trump administration announced that employers do not have to officially document coronavirus cases.

Back in Issaquah, Costco’s corporate employees have settled into their new remote working routines. Travel staffers are still fielding calls, occasionally from people inquiring about deals on cruise packages.

On April 3, agents received a message about Regina Lee. Kathy Robinson, Costco Travel’s associate vice president of operations, sent an email to employees noting that the “rapid transition to work from home did not allow us to fully digest the news of Regina’s passing.” In her note, the executive called the 59-year-old a “quiet and beautiful person” who “always included your name when she walked by and said hi.” She included a link to her obituary page for people to share their thoughts.

They did. Although Lee was soft-spoken, she lit up the office with her giggle, kind gestures, and giant cookie trays. She will be greatly missed, they wrote. They’re in shock that she’s dead.

Raymond Lee is too. He continues to struggle with the idea that most of his immediate family is dead. His sisters, Regina and Willa, were getting ready to retire, he told BuzzFeed News, and they had just paid off the mortgage on the home they shared with their mother.

“I’ve lost a total of two younger sisters and my mother in two weeks,” he said. “The week before, I buried my baby sister. And the following Friday, I buried my mother and my other baby sister.”

Some of his sister’s colleagues have called him to offer condolences. It’s been nice, he said, but it’s not the call he’s been waiting for.

“No one from Costco has made one call to say that they’re sorry for the loss of Regina,” he said. “Isn’t that something? Costco says they treat their employees like family.” ●


After publication, more Costco warehouse employees sent us documents confirming 9 more COVID-19 cases at stores in New York and Colorado.

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