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Rantz: Costco coronavirus death days after ‘equity’ telecommuting ban

An elderly woman thanked a soldier, a stranger, for his service while in line at Costco. She took care of his bill. (AP)

A Costco employee at the Issaquah headquarters has died after testing positive for the coronavirus. This news comes days after Costco initially said they wouldn’t allow head office telecommuting due to issues around “equity and fairness.”

The Costco Travel employee died this past Sunday evening, according to an internal email obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

When the announcement was initially made, Costco officials downplayed a potential coronavirus connection. When it became clear the employee had contracted the coronavirus, the messaging changed.

Costco coronavirus death

Last week, I amplified a report of a remarkably ill-advised Costco coronavirus staffing decision by CEO W. Craig Jelinek. He originally prohibited telecommuting for head office staff. Despite recommendations by public health officials, Jelinek defended the unpopular decision because they “consider it a matter of equity and fairness” for employees who can’t work from home.

Jelinek later walked back the decision in an email to staff: “Based on recent developments, we’ve decided to allow some employees at Costco’s corporate offices to work remotely.”

Then, on Sunday night, March 15, a Costco employee died.

The details were not reported at the time, but in a Monday morning email to staff Costco Vice President Terry Williams pushed back against “misinformation that surfaced” and said “there have not been any employees or contractors confirmed with COVID-19.”

Instead, Williams said, one contractor “had flu like symptoms, and employees were prematurely asked to stay home. This is inconsistent with CDC guidelines.” He instructed people to continue working in the building, LP-1.

It’s not entirely clear if this email was directly related to the employee’s death or another employee.

The Costco coronavirus tragedy announced

Later Monday afternoon, Ron Vachris (Executive Vice President, COO – Merchandising) and Peter Gruening (general manager of Costco Travel) sent a staff email with the tragic news.

As some of you may have heard, we received sad news this morning that a Costco Travel employee passed away at home last night. Exact details of the employee’s passing are unknown at this point, and we have no information that this was related to COVID-19. However, to be cautious and because we lack important details, we decided to close LP-2 for the remainder of the day for a deep cleaning.

The very next day, however, they sent out an important update. This became a Costco coronavirus case.

COVID-19 confirmed

Vachris and Gruening sent a 5 p.m. email on Tuesday with the update: “We received confirmation this afternoon that the employee tested positive for COVID-19.”

They assured staff that the building has been sanitized and offered resources for employees who feel sick or have concerns. It’s unclear if anyone had direct contact with the employee.

“We understand this is difficult news and these are difficult times,” the email said. “We and the entire Costco management team are prepared to help employees get through this.”

Costco employees at coronavirus risk?

We do not yet have any details of the employee who passed, including his or her age or if they had underlying conditions. Out of respect to the family, KTTH does not plan to dig into the person’s background. It’s a tragedy and privacy should be respected.

But it is fair to question whether or not the initial Costco coronavirus staffing reaction was in the best interest of their employees.

Do I think they’re responsible for the death of this employee? No. Do I think they risked the health of some of their other employees? Yes.

When my original story was published, a number of current and former Costco employees emailed my show to speak out. Some argued the company is merely pretending to be “woke” and does not actually believe in equity and fairness.

They say that publicly, several people explained, but their initial refusal to allow for telecommuting comes from the stubborn nature of management who worked their way up to their positions without the luxury of telecommuting options.

Others suggests that their public facing claims of progressivism, legitimate or not, positioned them to keep employees in a position that needlessly could expose them to the coronavirus.

I’m glad that Costco changed their tune with employees to allow for telecommuting. But this should have been an option the moment public health officials made the recommendation. I don’t care about their desire for equity — nor do I care if it’s legitimate. I care that they’re doing what’s right by their employees and it seems clear they didn’t initially take the right position.

Costco coronavirus update.

Costco VP Terry Williams sent an email to staff this morning at 10:37am with additional information:

f your job does not require you to be on site, we encourage you to work from home. This includes all members of management. Please talk to your manager if you have any questions. For those working remotely, we are committed to making sure you still feel connected to your teams. Managers are having daily conference calls, and leveraging chat, hangouts and phone calls to make sure we keep things moving and you all still feel connected. If you have other ideas to help keep your team engaged, please share them with your manager.

I continue to receive emails from Costco workers upset with the way the company has handled the outbreak. As I verify stories, this page will be updated further.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz on Twitter.

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