About 40 current and former employees of the outdoor equipment store REI in Grand Rapids, Michigan, regularly communicate using the messaging app GroupMe. On July 6, they received a jarring note from a colleague.
“Hey guys just so everybody knows I tested positive for COVID-19,” the employee wrote. “I was told not to tell anybody and that the store would let everybody know what was going on. I assumed everybody knew but apparently that was not the case. I’m glad the store is now taking it seriously and we are closed for a while. I have no symptoms and am feeling good.”
The sender, according to screenshots reviewed by The New York Times, was immediately bombarded with well wishes — and questions. When? The results came in at 10:30 p.m. July 2, just before a holiday weekend that included travel with family for some employees. Why didn’t store managers alert employees? “I was told that management would let people know what was going on and to not post or say anything on social media,” the employee wrote.
The Grand Rapids store was closed July 3 to investigate “potential” COVID-19 exposure, but according to voicemail messages that managers left for the staff, they said no one had been exposed to the virus, and the store reopened the next day.
“Until the person had sent that group message, I didn’t realize that so many people didn’t know, and that brought up a lot of issues,” said Devin Hilla, a 26-year-old part-time store employee who resigned July 12 in part because of how REI handled the incident. Nobody expected the employee to be named, he said, but “saying that an employee tested positive, they worked on these days in the past week — that’s information everyone has a right to because it directly affects them and they might have a reason to be concerned about exposure.”
At that point, the retailer’s policy regarding any employee who tested positive for the virus was to inform anyone who had “close contact” with them at work — within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes, as per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines — then ask those people to quarantine during a 14-day paid leave. Some workers felt that was inadequate, noting that employees are often within 6 feet of one another in hallways or break rooms and that they sometimes pull down their cloth masks while working.
An outcry from the Grand Rapids workers was soon joined by employees at REI stores in states like Arizona and Texas using social media to say that their store managers had not properly informed them about colleagues who had tested positive. When leadership from the Grand Rapids store eventually acknowledged the case in a July 9 email, it said its decision-making involved “a small army of people and departments across the co-op.”
REI, a consumer cooperative that is based in Kent, Washington, and traces its roots to 1938, said that while its previous approach to handling cases among employee was in compliance with guidelines from the CDC, it changed its policy Tuesday “to expressly give managers the authority to notify the full team at their store if there is a known COVID case” and when that employee was last at work, Rob Discher, an REI spokesperson, said in an email. That same day, Eric Artz, REI’s chief executive, disclosed in a companywide meeting that there were 18 active coronavirus cases across the co-op, which has roughly 13,000 employees.
“Some employees wanted transparency above what CDC guidelines and our policies directed, so we made that adjustment,” Discher said. He did not address the allegation that the Grand Rapids employee was told not to tell anyone about the positive test.
Retailers across the country are having to adjust to the surging pandemic and its effects on stores and employees, but the criticism of REI is especially notable given its corporate ethos. REI is a consumer cooperative made up of customers who pay $20 for lifetime memberships, which the roughly 160-store retailer said allows it to “put purpose before profits and act in the long-term interests of our members.” It had $3.1 billion in sales last year and said it invests at least 70% of its annual profits in the “outdoor community,” through nonprofits, employee profit-sharing and dividends for members.
REI closed all of its stores in March and, according to an internal memo from Artz, it reopened in seven waves, with most stores operating as of July 6. But it has been forced to cut jobs across the organization as it navigates the crisis, and a rise in cases across the country has retailers worried about the possibility of closing stores again.
“I would expect this behavior from a lot of companies, but REI’s entire thing is they’re a different type of company and that the people and their employees are such a priority,” Hilla said.
Before the company’s policy was changed, store workers had created an online petition accusing REI of prioritizing sales above employees and demanding steps like more transparent policies around COVID-19 exposure and hazard pay. It has passed 2,700 signatures. Workers have also shared concerns through Instagram and Facebook pages for REI Employees for Real Change, an advocacy group that has been pushing for labor rights for REI’s hourly workers for years.
Discher said that REI’s previous policy was meant “to preserve confidential health information, to limit possible exclusion and judgment around having the virus.” He added that “this situation and its challenges are incredibly fluid.”
The rapid onset of the virus and shifting guidelines from the CDC have forced retailers to figure out new safety protocols on the fly, from whether employees (and now customers) should be required to wear masks to deciding how to notify workers that they may have been exposed to the virus. Popular chains like Trader Joe’s and Costco have been criticized for their handling of positive cases among workers.
“Ethically, it would be appropriate to inform employees that someone tested positive, but I don’t think there is a uniform standard at this time,” said Nicole Huberfeld, a public health expert and law professor at Boston University. “We need to figure it out. We’re always running to stand still during this outbreak.”
At the Grand Rapids store, some policies left employees confused. For example, Hilla said that he was among a group of employees who went out for drinks with the sick employee the night before the person was tested. REI’s human resources department initially told him that did not count as exposure. Rather, they said, exposure was tracked within 48 hours of the test results, which were available two days later. REI said that it had since changed this policy to track exposure “48 hours before the test was taken.” (Hilla said the employee with the positive test alerted him before sending the group text.)
At an REI store in Tucson, Arizona, employees were frightened after learning that a colleague who had COVID-19 had worked in the store within a week of being tested. While the timeline fell outside REI’s procedures on contact tracing, its updated policy allowed store managers to email employees about the case Tuesday, Discher said. Employees in Houston also received an email about a positive case in their store Tuesday.
Caleb Lawson, who worked at the Grand Rapids store before he said he felt pressured to resign last month after expressing concerns about safety, was on the group chat about the positive case and created the petition demanding changes from REI. (REI did not comment on Lawson’s resignation.) He remains frustrated by the retailer’s actions.
“The most egregious part was that it took so long to acknowledge what was happening,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and it’s a crisis, and I really do feel like individuals have a moral and ethical obligation to do what is in their power to prevent the spread of this virus.”