At least five Barnes & Noble employees at a distribution center in Monroe, New Jersey, have been diagnosed with coronavirus.
Employees at the facility received a letter from management Tuesday morning telling them as many as nine of their coworkers are currently suffering from Covid-19 symptoms, according to a spokesman for the Laundry Distribution and Food Service joint board union, which helped organize a planned protest by Barnes & Noble workers Tuesday. Only five of the nine alleged Covid-19 cases have been confirmed by doctors, Barnes & Noble director of communications Alex Ortolani told CNN Business.
"The other [four] cases are employees with reported symptoms," Ortolani told CNN Business.
The company said it has been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the matter, noting that the Monroe facility is cleaned daily and will receive an additional "deep cleaning" when it closes for Good Friday. Until then, the facility will remain open for business, Barnes & Noble said.
"We have been working with employees at our Monroe, New Jersey, facility to keep everyone safe during this difficult time," the company said in a statement "We prioritize keeping our working environment as safe as possible and, on learning of the positive cases and those suffering symptoms, we closed the facility and had conducted a thorough clean. ... We appreciate all the hard work and efforts of our staff, and will continue to listen to their concerns and work with them to make a safe and secure work environment."
The news came a few hours before a planned 3 pm ET walkout protest by Barnes & Noble employees who are demanding the Monroe facility be closed for a deep cleaning for at least two weeks.
Barnes & Noble book packer Elsa Rodriguez, 56, said she and the rest of the Monroe facility's staff of about 800 were informed on March 12 about an employee testing positive for coronavirus, but it took 10 days for management to implement social distancing protocols and provide sanitary wipes to wipe down work stations.
Rodriguez said she and other employees complained to management about coworkers coughing and showing signs of illness during their shifts after hearing about one of their colleagues testing positive.
She and others workers took particular issue with a fingerprint scanner that all employees were required to use to clock into work.
"No wipes for the scanner," Rodriguez told CNN Business, speaking through a Spanish translator. "They eventually changed it so you only have to put the [time] card in the machine, but for 10 days we had to still put in the finger."
Rodriguez said many of the Monroe facility workers -- who are paid by the hour, but receive health benefits and paid time off -- used their vacation days to avoid coming into work and risking infection, but they were encouraged by management to come back into work once they used up all their vacation days. She said she and others felt they were being forced to choose between keeping their health and keeping their jobs.
"I also feel like a lot of my work buddies are being forced to work despite how they're feeling and how they're doing health-wise," Rodriguez said. "It is disappointing to see my company treat me like this. It is very sad to me that this company doesn't really care about my health or my well being."
Barnes & Noble denied urging unhealthy employees to work.
"Employees are told not to come to work if they have a temperature or show any other symptom, or have come into contact with anyone who displays symptoms," the company said in an emailed statement. "We would certainly send home anyone who showed any sign of illness, obviously also including the overt symptoms of Covid-19."