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Costco workers in Winnipeg quit over COVID concerns

Staff says the members-only warehouse was not following pandemic protocol including physical distancing measures and sanitization practices

At least 10 workers have quit their jobs in protest and one person has tested positive for COVID-19 at the Regent Avenue Costco in Winnipeg, with several staffers calling out the wholesale giant for not following government-mandated pandemic protocols.

In separate interviews, seven different Costco employees--two of whom have quit, four still working at the location, and one contractor refusing to take up shifts--described details of improper sanitization, irregular physical distancing among staff and customers, and supervisors "gaslighting" subordinates when they raised alarm bells about enforcing mask policies.

A worker in the tire department tested positive for coronavirus Oct. 7, according to an email notice to staff, obtained by the Free Press. Sources say he was told to continue to work his shifts despite showing symptoms for several days prior to that.

While Costco's management declined to comment on the specific details of coronavirus protocols at the location, some staff members at the wholesaler also claim there have been no shutdowns, or disinfection, since their colleague tested positive.

"As a policy for our company," said Michael Thompson, vice-president of Costco's regional operations in Western Canada. "We're not going to confirm or deny when one of our workers tests positive."

But Thompson said if an employee were to contract COVID-19 while working at Costco, the company's protocol was to "support them wherever possible" and call for a third-party to come in for deep cleaning overnight. Following the disinfecting process, he added a location could reopen as early as the next day.

"We strive to maintain transparency for our workers,'' he said Thursday. "And I'm sure all our locations are following these protocols."

As a wholesale outlet, Winnipeg's Regent Avenue location processes thousands of daily transactions and is staffed by as many as 200 people. On any given day, that could mean up to 1,400 or more customers in store--per capacity rules during the pandemic.

Della Burston says a lack of enforcing or following protocols despite the volume of customers is the reason she quit her job on Wednesday, after 15 years at the location.

"The fact is, I have a daughter with Down Syndrome who will literally die if I bring this virus home," the 52-year-old told the Free Press.

Burston said she saw customers walking into the store without masks every other hour for the last two months, even as COVID-19 cases kept rising in the city in the past few weeks and the province imposed mandatory masks.

"It'd be one thing if they weren't wearing masks," she said, "but our supervisors were telling us we didn't need to either--we had to get in fights with them about it."

"Every single day, I kept pushing and pushing and pushing for our managers to do something," she added. "And even after my co-worker tested positive, they still didn't do anything--nothing, not even answering our questions or closing the store temporarily to clean."

Another worker, who remains employed at the store, said she keeps asking herself whether going to work at the Regent Avenue location is worth the risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job.

"There's no distancing and frankly no one cares when we bring it up," said the employee, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation. "My boss laughed at me yesterday when I asked why he wasn't wearing a mask and why we aren't telling customers to wear them either."

"Frankly, I wasn't surprised when I heard one of us got tested positive," she added. "But I need this job badly right now, so I don't know what else to do."

Employees who spoke to the Free Press also shared concerns about continuing to do product demonstrations at the location, which allow customers to walk up to booths and sample food while shopping at the store.

Until last week, Robin Sawchuk was one of the contracted workers at the Regent Avenue Costco that would do such demonstrations.

"There's literally no way you can be doing this kind of thing when it's a global pandemic," the 65-year-old added. "Customers can't socially distance while they approach us and they're dropping used containers everywhere, while they take off their masks to eat."

Thompson said while Costco had stopped in-house product demonstrations for months over the summer, he doesn't see a reason why it would be unsafe.

"We have an expectation that our members wear masks and not eat the food in store when they take them from the booths," he said. "And we're really just showing the products."

He said contractors like Sawchuk are also not permanent employees of the store.

"We're not responsible for them like we would be for our other employees."

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