Wenatchee Walmart staff report on-the-job COVID-19 infections

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WENATCHEE — Multiple employees at the Wenatchee Walmart Supercenter tell NCWLIFE that 17 staffmembers there have tested positive for COVID-19 in roughly the last week.

The employees say lax enforcement of mask-wearing and social distancing at the store have contributed to the spread, and that store managers have not communicated the extent of the infections in meetings with Walmart workers.

The Wenatchee store, 2000 N. Wenatchee Ave., employs roughly 200 people and has remained open to the public during the coronavirus pandemic. Walmart and other big-box stores, which sell food and household goods, are deemed essential businesses under Washington’s public health emergency.

The reports from inside the Wenatchee store came from three workers there, two of whom agreed to speak to NCWLIFE. The employees asked not to be identified by name or job position for fear of workplace reprisals, including possible firing.

Veronica Farias, public information officer for the Chelan-Douglas Health District, said the district does not have information on a possible cluster of cases at Walmart. Wenatchee store manager Brenda Sabatine couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.

An assistant manager referred a reporter’s call to Walmart’s corporate media office. Casey Staheli, senior manager of national media relations, said he would not confirm the reports.

By phone, Staheli said Monday, “The store has recently had third-party cleaning and sanitation done during an evening and a night. We continue to monitor our associates and follow our procedures that are in place to assure their safety, and our customers’ safety.”

In his email, Staheli said Walmart’s companywide policy requires both associates and customers to wear masks. But associates at the Wenatchee store said some employees, including people later found to have COVID-19, refuse to wear them when outside of customers’ view.

“Management doesn’t enforce the masks,” one associate said. “Only when the morning crew comes in because of complaints.”

Workers said the first COVID-19 detection, on the store’s overnight team, became known among staff about July 12. By the end of last week, the known count was 10 employees, by Monday 13 employees, and by this morning, 17. All those known to have received a positive test result have been sent to recover at home, they said.

Sources said the affected staffmembers are primarily on the overnight teams, who receive shipments and restock shelves for each morning’s opening. But they said employees known to have tested positive also include produce-department staff and customer support managers.

“What’s disturbing is that upon our first case, our store didn’t notify anyone until a week later,” one store employee said.

In an online message to NCWLIFE, another staffmember said, “Walmart’s reaction has (been) to finally hire a 3rd party to ‘clean’ the facility last night but remains obstinate in its refusal to shut down for a full sanitizing of the facility. … The entire facility needs a deep cleaning which the in-store staff are incapable of doing.”

One staffer provided photos showing Walmart crews at the store working closely in a team. Only one teammember can clearly be seen wearing a mask — worn across the worker’s chin and leaving nose and mouth exposed.

“As soon as the doors close to the general public, down come the masks,” one employee said. “Those of us that care are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation as the management team has failed us during this pandemic.”

This employee said those whose teammates are infected have not been told of the test results, despite having worked in close proximity to a COVID-19 positive person.

“… It is through our own associates and not our employer that we’re learning who’s infected and who potentially was exposed. We understand there are laws that protect individuals from being identified, but the fact that our store isn’t issuing mandatory quarantines for all potentially exposed (employees) is infuriating.”

Farias said staff nurses at the Chelan-Douglas Health District, based in East Wenatchee, reached out to Walmart today to gather more information. Because contact tracing of Wenatchee Valley COVID-19 cases is performed by the Washington State Department of Health, the district doesn’t immediately learn of so-called “clusters” of infection.

“There’s a little bit of lag when we don’t do our own contact tracing, so that’s one of the downsides,” Farias said. The state has carried out local contact tracing for about a month, she said.

Staheli, the national Walmart spokesman, said by email the company is “taking all measures necessary to safeguard the well-being of those inside our stores, fulfillment centers and distribution centers.”