An Apple store in Southlake, Texas, is closed Wednesday through Sunday this week following an outbreak of positive Covid-19 cases among staff members. The store, which has 151 employees, reported four positive cases immediately after Black Friday on Nov. 26, according to an internal email obtained by NBC.
Now, 22 employees “have shared that they’re positive for Covid-19,” a store manager told staff during a Webex meeting on Wednesday, according to employees who attended.
“They received a positive diagnosis and will return to work after 10 days of isolation as well as 48 hours of being symptom free,” the manager said. All employees will be required to take a rapid antigen test on Sunday before the store’s scheduled reopening on Monday, Dec. 13.
The outbreak hints at a breakdown in policy between Apple’s corporate offices and its retail locations. While the tech giant was among the first national retailers to close all its U.S. stores in 2020, employees at the Southlake location say they have not always been able to operate with the same level of caution.
All Apple retail employees at stores nationwide are required to take a Covid-19 survey before coming into work. The survey asks if they’re experiencing coronavirus symptoms and if they’ve been in close contact with someone who tested positive for the disease. All U.S. employees are also required to wear masks.
NBC spoke with four current and former employees at the Southlake store who said they’ve received calls from their manager encouraging them to come to work, even when they called out sick. In two of these cases, the employee had taken the Covid-19 survey and the results said not to come in. The manager did not respond to requests for comment from NBC.
The experience is echoed by an Apple retail employee in another Southern state, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution and said they worked on Black Friday despite experiencing Covid symptoms. The employee had previously asked their manager to take special sick leave, which is an Apple policy that applies to employees experiencing Covid-19 symptoms. But the employee was reportedly told the leave only applied to those who tested positive for the disease — which they had not. According to Apple’s policy, this is false.
“It was really bad, my voice was really scratchy and my customers definitely noticed,” they said. “It was worse because it was Black Friday and the store was busier than normal, and my customers were not wearing masks.”
An Apple spokesperson told NBC that the company has prioritized the health and well-being of customers and employees since the early days of the pandemic. “As we continue to face these ongoing challenges, we remain committed to a comprehensive approach for our teams that combines regular testing with daily health checks, employee masking, deep cleaning and paid sick leave,” they said.
Shoulder to shoulder
Jeff Miller, who has worked at the Apple store in Southlake for three years, said the store has been getting busier throughout the pandemic. “There were several occasions prior to Black Friday where I expressed concern about the inability to maintain even a semblance of social distancing,” he explained. “Then all hell broke loose on Black Friday.”
Miller and another employee who worked on Nov. 26 said the Southlake store was packed “shoulder to shoulder” with a line of people extending out the door. Customers were not required to wear masks, as face coverings are not mandated in Texas.
One employee, who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak publicly about Apple, said they started experiencing symptoms after working on Black Friday at the Southlake store.
“I was symptomatic throughout the week but I came into work in the store. [The manager] has called me in the past and tried to push that if you’re vaccinated you’re probably fine, it’s probably not Covid,” the employee said.
The employee has since tested positive for Covid, which is a breakthrough case, as the employee is fully vaccinated.
“I’m more than confident I got it on Black Friday,” the employee added, noting they’re experiencing body aches, headaches, fatigue and loss of smell.
The Apple spokesperson told NBC that the company has a team of case workers who will be monitoring and assisting employees who tested positive at Southlake, as well as other workers in the store.
Apple’s health protocols require employees to report their vaccination status. Employees who are vaccinated must take an antigen test once a week. Employees who are unvaccinated must take an antigen test twice a week. The company has a special sick leave policy that allows retail workers to take paid time off if they’re experiencing Covid symptoms. But two Southlake employees said they were told the policy wouldn’t apply to them if they tested negative, and one was explicitly told to come in while experiencing Covid-19 symptoms.
After Apple closed all its retail stores in 2020, it gave employees at certain retail locations the option of enrolling in an at-home adviser program to help customers over the phone. The experience was initially meant to be voluntary, meaning that employees would get paid either way. But at Southlake, the store manager called some workers and said that the program was mandatory, according to two employees.
The experience reflects complaints among some Apple retail workers that it can be difficult to get help from corporate staff when they have recurring issues in the stores. In September, a retail employee in Durham, North Carolina, died by suicide after emailing the employee relations team with complaints about his manager, whom multiple workers had reported over the years. He said he’d been bullied and publicly humiliated during his time at Apple.
The Southlake employee who got Covid-19 said the issue goes beyond a single manager.
“I think our store leader is partially to blame. But I think it goes deeper than that,” the employee said, adding that managers are “getting hit with report after report about different metrics.”
“It’s not just the net promoter score anymore,” the score that customers give Apple retail employees based on their experience in the store, the employees said. “Now it’s, ‘Hey make sure we’re selling iPhones and Apple Care and accessories.’ There’s so much pressure on the leadership team. If you don’t have a leader whose focus is their people, their people will be the first thing to fall away.”
During the Webex meeting for Southlake employees on Wednesday, an employee asked how Apple was determining who was considered a close contact. A manager explained that close contacts are defined as people with whom the affected individual has spent a minimum of 15 minutes, at 6 feet or less, within a 24-hour period. The manager added that there were three staff members currently being considered close contacts.
An employee responded: “During the Thanksgiving holiday stretch, it would have been impossible to not have close contact. I support the privacy of the individuals who have tested positive, but given the order of magnitude and just how crowded it was, and I know for the majority of us it was a full shift, that saying there was not possible contact is ignoring the obvious.”
Later, the employee added: “I don’t want to feel like I’m being asked to make a choice between my personal health and doing my job. And that is very very much in question these days, especially with the lack of transparency as this started unfolding.”