The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

WeWork under pressure as more members contract coronavirus in co-working spaces

There’s a growing chorus of small business owners who are angry that WeWork is refusing refunds for a space they can no longer use

A WeWork office space in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Doria Lavagnino was already working from home when she got the announcement she feared: Someone who shares office space at her WeWork location in New York tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

The company assured members of the Madison Avenue location on Wednesday that it cleaned the floor on which the infected individual worked and visited just three days earlier. The site was back in business by Thursday.

But Lavagnino is disturbed that WeWork — known especially for its communal perks, such as cold brew coffee or beer on tap — did not shutter the location completely or even try to help its members determine whether they interacted with the infected individual. Hours after the site reopened, the company announced that someone else tested positive and two more floors needed to be cleaned.

As government officials encourage workers to stay home, there’s a growing chorus of small-business owners — a group that is likely to be hit hardest in the economic fallout from the virus — who are angry that WeWork has refused members refunds for a space they can no longer use.

“We’re told by our government that for our health to stay at home, and I’ve told my employees all to stay at home,” Lavagnino, co-founder of financial planning platform CentSai, told The Washington Post. “I’m paying close to $5,000 a month in rent, and I’m not there. Imagine how crippling that is to a small business.”

And the uproar is only likely to grow as the pandemic spreads. WeWork members at at least seven other New York locations tested positive for the virus, the New York Post reported. And there have been reported cases at locations in other major cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago.

Some members have signed a petition on the worker advocacy platform calling on WeWork to close its 848 locations worldwide. There are more than 300 locations in the United States.

Jill Raney, a Washington-based WeWork member who launched the petition, says the company’s decision to remain open during a public health crisis is “unconscionable.” They said it effectively forces businesses with small margins to choose between wasting money or putting themselves at risk.

“Psychologically, it’s messing with me that I’m paying for a service [that’s] not safe for use,” said Raney, who founded the digital strategy group Practice Makes Progress and is the only employee.

WeWork’s position is in stark contrast to some competitors, such as female-focused co-working collective The Wing and Washington-based meeting and event space The Cove, which shut down their sites in light of the public health concerns.

The Wing also offered members refunds. WeWork’s biggest competitor, Regus has not closed its offices and did not respond to requests for comment about whether it plans to offer refunds.

WeWork argues that staying open is, in fact, in the public interest and that the business is an essential service — especially during the outbreak. That phrasing seems designed to position the company to continue to operate even in states such as New York and California, which have issued orders for nonessential companies to close or reduce their workforces, though the company would not directly comment on this.

“WeWork is a service provider and we have an obligation to keep our buildings open,” the company wrote in a statement on Twitter, echoing an internal memo from chief executive Sandeep Mathrani and executive chairman Marcelo Claure. “We too have members counting on us to remain open so they can run their companies.”

The tweet quotes three anonymous members who say their companies are providing essential health-care and financial support services during the pandemic.

The company insists it’s taking all the proper health precautions. “Since the start of the Coronavirus outbreak, WeWork has been closely monitoring the situation and ensuring preventative measures are implemented in line with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], [the World Health Organization] and local government guidance to protect our employees and members around the world,” Ralph Patrone, WeWork’s head of global security and safety, said in a statement to The Post.

“We have a robust emergency preparedness plan in the event any member or employee contracts the Coronavirus, which includes notifying members, closing impacted floors or buildings, and working with our cleaning partners to deep clean and disinfect the space.”

The company has also suspended events at its locations around the world and allowed employees, including front desk and other operations staffs, the opportunity to work from home.

WeWork did not respond to questions on whether it would consider refunding members and declined to comment on Raney’s petition. WeWork members, on Twitter and on the company’s internal app, say their request for refunds were either refused or have gone unanswered by the company.

WeWork has undergone significant turmoil at the corporate level in the past few months, something that some members say has trickled down to its coronavirus response. WeWork founder Adam Neumann stepped down as chief executive in October after the company delayed its public offering amid concerns over his behavior and questions over the company’s finances. And Japanese investment firm SoftBank is considering backing out of part of a planned massive bailout, the Wall Street Journal reported this week. (WeWork executives disputed that characterization in an internal memo.)

Despite WeWork’s assurance that it’s following all local government guidelines, Raney and other WeWork members expressed concerns that the WeWork offices — which can house hundreds of employees — go against warnings from local and federal officials to cap the size of gatherings.

Raney said when they last went into the Manhattan Laundry location in the U Street corridor a week ago, nothing had been done to separate communal furniture. Raney noticed no difference in cleaning schedules, and communal drinks were still readily available.

The announcements of new cases illustrate the difficulties in containing the spread of such a highly contagious disease. “Anyone who’s been in a WeWork knows if you can’t get a conference room on your floor, you’re going to another floor. You go to mail for another floor,” she said. One of the floors set to be deep-cleaned at the Madison Avenue location after its second positive case was near the mail room, Lavagnino said.

Lavagnino is troubled that the company has not answered her questions about its cleaning policies, while WeWork sent out a music playlist on its internal app to help them work from home.

Raney hopes that if WeWork doesn’t choose to shut down, local governments will step in. As for Lavagnino, she doesn’t plan on renewing her lease when it expires in May.

“They have an opportunity to help small businesses — but the way this has been handled was so mismanaged."