At least two more Costco corporate employees have tested positive for the novel strain of the coronavirus since one of their colleagues died Sunday after contracting it, according to internal corporate communications obtained by BuzzFeed News. Another worker at a warehouse in Michigan also has COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
The employee who died Sunday worked in Costco's travel department in a building on campus known as LP2. One of the newly confirmed infected staff members also works in that building, according to an email sent to employees. The other person works in the company's IT department.
Costco has been supplying food and resources for communities across the US during the coronavirus pandemic, as panicked residents stock up amid ramped-up quarantine and lockdown measures.
However, employees at its corporate office in King County, Washington, which had been the epicenter of the outbreak, as well as across its warehouses, have expressed concerns about their own health and safety. Until Wednesday, Costco had kept its sprawling campus open and its several thousand workers in the office. Those who wanted to work remotely needed to get approval from managers.
After the company confirmed that the travel employee died of the virus, management then encouraged employees who felt uncomfortable coming into the buildings to work from home.
In two separate emails sent to the workforce on Thursday, management announced that two more employees who worked on the sprawling campus in Issaquah, Washington, had the virus. Employees often use shuttles to travel from the different buildings and its warehouse.
"We know this causes concern and anxiety," a supervisor wrote in one email to the IT department. "Please know that current health guidelines state that people who have not been in contact with a sick person are at low risk of infection."
People who had worked in close proximity to the infected workers have been contacted and asked to self-quarantine, the email, which was reviewed by BuzzFeed News, stated. The remaining employees who are still working onsite in that building are being encouraged to work remotely. A professional cleaning company is also coming to sanitize the building.
Representatives for Costco did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the new revelations, instead directing inquires to a Google form.
Until recently, Costco employees who were sick, high risk, or were concerned about coming into the office had to use their sick time or paid leave. As a result, employees told BuzzFeed News that many came into work because they didn't have those hours to spare.
"Had Costco implemented work from home early this would and could have been prevented," an employee in the IT department who asked to remain anonymous told BuzzFeed News.
CEO Craig Jelinek also addressed the conflict over not working remotely and the death of one of his staff members on Thursday, expressing his "deep sympathy and condolences to the employee's family members and Costco-coworkers," according to an email obtained by BuzzFeed News.
"As you know our perspective and ability to support remote work at the offices have changed over the past two weeks, just as the crisis itself has evolved," he wrote. "The COVID-19 crisis is new to all of us. We don't pretend to have all the answers, and we're not perfect. But please know that we're all working together in the face of rapidly changing circumstances."
Costco stores have been scrambling to keep up with the demand and endless customer lines for weeks. At a warehouse in Madison Heights, Michigan, an employee who works in receiving tested positive for COVID-19, according to a memorandum dated March 17 and sent to BuzzFeed News.
However, management said that it called the Oakland County Health Department, and since the employee had only been "at work from 4 am-5am on Monday 3/16/20 all our employees are considered 'low risk.'"
Again citing the Health Department, Costco said that because "no employees being within a distance of 6 feet for a CONSTANT period of time of 1 hour, all employees at our location are considered low-risk."
"In addition, the Health Department has informed us they do not require any form of employee quarantine at this time," the memo concluded, noting that the entire receiving area had been deep-cleaned and that managers would continue to sanitize the building "and do everything available to us to Stop the Spread of Germs."
The Oakland County Health Department did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
On Thursday, Oakland County officials reported104 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the second highest in the state, according to ClickOnDetroit.
"That response is unacceptable, it downplays it," an employee at a warehouse in nearby Auburn Hills told BuzzFeed News. "I know the need for warehouses like Costco to stay open, but for a warehouse to have at least one confirmed case is a serious deal. At grocery stores, we're the most at-risk people."