“Employees at REI are struggling and it’s awful,” REI employee Camile Contañas said.

According to Washington State guidelines, only essential businesses are allowed to be open during Phase 1. Since bike repair shops are considered essential, REI decided to open, despite specific guidelines in the Washington State Coronavirus Response documentation that go beyond simple categories of ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’:

“Retail which is, in part, deemed essential shall, in total, be deemed essential. This does not apply to non-essential retail that is easily separable from the essential retail area. Easily separable means separate locations or buildings, separate staff, etc., such that the closure of the nonessential retail portion will not affect the essential portion.”

According to Contañas, the bike repair shop can be separated from the rest of the REI store.

“We used to do curbside bike repairs, so when we had a bike repair we would help [the customer] out and then bring the bike into the shop, without the customer, to fix,” said Contañas. “Everyone is just frustrated because if it is the [bike] shop that is the reason our non-essential business is open, then we have staff that is being exposed to people all day for no reason.”

On June 14, another employee of REI in Kennewick, Miranda Cutlage, sent management a spreadsheet she made showing the REI stores in Washington and the various phases of their respective cities. The REI in Kennewick was the only REI store in Washington State to reopen while our region was still in Phase 1.

Cutlage has had multiple email exchanges with REI Retail Director Janet Hopkins about the reopening of the Kennewick store. She says that the store manager is “exploiting a loophole to open earlier than they should.”

One of the letters to Hopkins says in part:

“I have been informed by my coworker that our complaints about our store being opened before it is safe have been deemed excessive and have been dismissed because it is technically ‘legal’ for our non-essential portions to be open. We are still hoping that REI will listen to our concerns and real fears for our health and safety, and limit the Kennewick store to bike shop and curbside only. Just because it is technically ‘legal’ doesn't make it right.”

In Hopkins’ response to Cutlage, they said, “It is appropriate and within local guidelines for REI to open to customers. Retail leadership and I are confident that opening the Kennewick store is the right decision currently.” Hopkins also said, “The safety team determined that the Kennewick store is following [] company, local, state, and CDC guidelines. The safety team reported that the observations and employee conversations they had in the store on 6/15/2020 confirmed that the required protocols, processes, and procedures are in place in the Kennewick store.”

Despite reassurances from REI corporate, we spoke to three employees who expressed their concerns about reopening. Since reopening in June, there have been multiple incidents in the Kennewick REI store that have caused health and safety concerns for employees.

“I would feel safe if our management team would enforce the proper way to wear a mask,” REI employee Rida Kirkpatrick said. “I see a lot of customers & employees who wear the mask under their nose or they will lift the mask off to talk to others in the store, and I feel like myself and a couple of my coworkers are the only ones who ask those folks to fix the way they are wearing their mask. Masks are pointless unless worn properly, and it’s frustrating when I have to take initiative as someone who makes minimum wage to confront customers who will likely become angry with me. There also is very little reinforcement from management to customers to maintain 6ft of distance, other than a brief reminder at the door before coming inside.”

Contañas said that a lot of staff, herself included, were working overtime to compensate for a large percentage of employees that stayed home after REI reopened, mostly due to concerns about health and safety.

“Even worse,” Contañas continued, “we’re promoting travel from all over the Pacific Northwest because we are one of the only REIs that are actually open. We have people from Yakima, Oregon, Walla Walla, etc. that come in every day.”

Contañas cited multiple incidents of customers coming into the store without masks, or removing their masks once they were inside. She described one incident where a customer demanded to be let inside without a mask, saying he had ‘breathing problems.’ When he left the store, he coughed in an employee’s face and licked REI’s box of face masks.

When she was unable to find any disinfectant wipes at the Kennewick REI store, she sent a message to corporate about her health and safety concerns. Seth Hughes from Asset Protection wrote back telling her to use “a big bucket of dry towels” and dip them in alcohol since “the US is really short on supply of pre-moistened disinfectant wipes.”

During our investigation into REI’s reopening and mask policies, Tumbleweird staff member Brendan Quinn was connected with an REI employee, Jennifer, via REI’s live chat on their corporate website on June 26. When asked about the enforcement of mask policies, Jennifer said, “Because we cannot prove who does and doesn’t have a legitimate health issue to prevent them from wearing a mask, we are doing what we can to accommodate.”

When Quinn responded that “ignoring the health and safety of staff and other customers” did not constitute “reasonable accommodation,” Jennifer responded by saying, “I think we are just trying to avoid a lawsuit [by] telling someone with a health issue that cannot wear a mask to go somewhere else.”

The reference to customers being unable to wear a mask may be sourced from face mask exemption ID cards that some people are using to claim they are exempt from any mandate to wear PPE (personal protective equipment) in public. These face mask exemption cards have been strongly opposed by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, which has called the exemptions “fraudulent” and urged the public to visit ADA.gov for information instead of relying on posts or flyers claiming that the Justice Department endorses such exemptions. The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) has asked that anyone who spots these fraudulent posts or documents report them to http://www.ftc.gov/complaint to help them in their efforts to stop such scams.

As of July 1, the Benton Franklin Health District announced the Safe Start Reopening Plan, and issued a directive to all businesses within Benton and Franklin Counties requiring that everyone wear face coverings in public.

On July 9, days after the Safe Start rollout, Contañas reported that many of the employees had heard nothing about the Safe Start restrictions: a 30-minute limit for customers shopping at any retail location and a limit 15% customer capacity. On July 14, employee Miranda Cutlage sent Tumbleweird a photo of a woman entering the store without a mask. She said the door greeter who is supposed to enforce mask wearing was bullied, and the customer refused to wear the disposable masks provided by REI. “The company and the store is getting more lax,” Cutlage said.

The necessary measures are not being met by either employees or customers,” said Kirkpatrick. “The plan being in place is not going to keep us safe.”

Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of REI employees.

Photo by Tai's Captures on Unsplash