Best Buy Is Working 'Full Capacity' During Coronavirus, Despite Huge Risks

Best Buy employees who feel sick but haven’t been diagnosed with coronavirus are being asked to use vacation time or borrow against future vacation time.
March 17, 2020, 6:11pm
Best Buy store
Image: Philip Pacheco/Getty Images

Update: After the publication of this piece, Best Buy announced several changes to how its stores will operate, according to a copy of the announcement obtained by Motherboard. The story with the additional changes is below.

Electronics giant Best Buy is pushing full steam ahead throughout the coronavirus, with multiple employees telling Motherboard that they believe Best Buy sees a business opportunity in remaining open in a time of crisis despite the risk it poses to customers and workers.

The news comes as cafes, restaurants, and shops around the country close in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus and ensure people practice so-called social distancing. Best Buy employees said that some stores are crowded beyond CDC guidelines and said they have taken to bringing in their own gloves to protect themselves.

Best Buy employees, and particularly those in the company's Geek Squad whose jobs require them to repair, set up, and touch customers' phones and computers, are especially at risk and have little support from the company. At the time of writing Best Buy stores are still generally open. Motherboard granted five current Best Buy employees anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak to the media.

One source provided Motherboard with screenshots of an internal Best Buy messaging system where the company published information for employees to read. Under a section on "Absence and Leave Policies," Best Buy wrote "If you are feeling sick, please stay home and use your paid time off, where it applies. If you do not have paid time off, we will allow you to borrow against your future paid time off." Employees who are asked to self-quarantine "for reasons outside of their control" will be paid for the time they are quarantined up to two weeks, the internal message adds.

Do you have internal emails related to Best Buy, or those relating to how another company is dealing with the coronavirus? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de__, or email joseph.cox@vice.com__.

The notice also says that "employees who are self-quarantined because of their own decision to travel internationally […] to any area where the CDC recommends quarantine will not be paid but may use their paid time off. They will not be penalized for missing work."

One current employee described how their direct manager was taken off the work schedule for two weeks, presumably to quarantine. In response, several employees in contact with the manager called out for the foreseeable future to protect themselves and others as they each know people with weaker immune systems or live with people who do. The employee said they had to borrow their next year's paid-time-off to do this.

Another said, "I myself have started borrowing from next year's PTO because of the complete lack of action from corporate."

"Unless we have been tested positive for COVID, we will not be paid for any of the time off we take, which is not an option for most of us," they added.

"How the policy has been laid out is that stores are to remain working in full capacity."

In one store, a manager told their staff that they should "try to keep call offs to a minimum if possible as it impacts everyone on the team."

"I know coronavirus has people on edge but just remember the flu has killed way more people than this has. PTO must be used as of right now and taking off DOES count as a call off as the way things stand in the company right now," the email, obtained by Motherboard, said.

The broader internal message added that Best Buy anticipates federal legislation addressing the issue soon.

"What it looks like to us employees is that the company is just throwing up their hands and just stating, 'it's not my problem, it's your problem so use your own PTO'," one of the employees said.

"How the policy has been laid out is that stores are to remain working in full capacity," another current employee said. "Best Buy will contribute to this spreading, and my store is located in a county with the highest reported cases in my state," they added.

Best Buy sells televisions, computers, games consoles, appliances, and other electronics. It does not sell food, medicine, or other goods that countries would typically label as "essential." Current employees said they believed that Best Buy is capitalizing on a chance to sell more products at a time when people are preparing to self quarantine.

"I am pressured to stay at work because we are getting a high volume of Apple customers," another current employee said, with another of the employees saying they're also receiving a higher number of Apple queries. Apple temporarily closed all of its stores outside of China in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. "I am at high risk because I touch peoples' phones and computers," the employee added.

"It feels like we are still open practically begging to get sick in an effort to gain profit for a company whose leaders are at home right now."

Another employee described how quickly Best Buy is selling products.

"We have resorted to selling things like monitors and adapters as they are coming [off] the truck. Yesterday, we had all of our boxes open on the floor and we were just digging through product[s] to find the correct cables for customers," they said, adding they tripled their sales target, which they added is unheard of.

With little support from the company itself on minimizing coronavirus exposure, Best Buy workers are taking measures into their own hands. Two employees who work on Best Buy's Geek Squad said they had to bring in gloves themselves. One added they had to bring in their own masks.

"Literally the worst place to be as our main clients are the elderly and all those devices are covered in people's everything," one of the employees said, referring to working on the Geek Squad. A second Best Buy employee also highlighted that some of the staff interact with multiple people a day, especially the elderly.

"I am ridiculed and patronized daily for wearing a mask and gloves. Best Buy doesn't plan to close," another employee said. There doesn't appear to be "major" cleaning in at least their store, one of the employees added. (One store in Rapid City, South Dakota, did close for two days for cleaning last week).

Another said that although the CDC currently recommends groups of fewer than 10 people at the moment for organizations that serve higher-risk populations, their BestBuy store is staffed with twenty to thirty people at any given moment, and they are seeing hundreds of customers a day.

Best Buy said in a statement, "As we said in an email to store employees last Saturday, March 14, employees who are sick, or have been around someone who’s been diagnosed with COVID-19, are asked not to come into work and will receive up to two weeks pay. For those employees who don’t feel comfortable coming in to work, they will not be penalized under our absence policy."

After the publication of this article, Best Buy updated a number of its policies, according to the internal update obtained by Motherboard. They include starting March 18, store hours will be 10am to 6pm; and starting March 23, at least for the next two weeks, the company will serve retail customers through limited access to stores and curbside pickup.

"This will be done with the intent of substantially reducing in-store customer traffic (10-15 customers at a time)," the announcement continues. Customers seeking specific products will be escorted by an employee maintaining recommended social distancing spearation of six feet, it adds.

"A limited fulfillment model requires fewer employees working at any one time, and we intend to give everyone else two weeks' pay equivalent to the average number of hours they worked in the previous ten weeks," the update reads.

One of the employees said, "All in all, it feels like we are still open practically begging to get sick in an effort to gain profit for a company whose leaders are at home right now."

"It's a disgrace to their motto 'Be Human'," another said.

Jason Koebler provided additional reporting for this piece.

Update: This piece has been updated to include a statement from Best Buy and an internal announcement from the company.

Subscribe to our cybersecurity podcast, CYBER.

Advertisement