Bed Bugs were found at Urban Ore on October 30, but during inspections on November 22, no bugs were found. While relieved, some workers say they are unhappy with how ownership has handled the issue, including how and what information about the bugs was shared to the public.
The discovery of bed bugs at Urban Ore, Berkeley’s massive and popular 42-year-old salvaged goods store, has caused tension between ownership and some workers despite the fact that recent inspections did not find any bugs still present.
Owners and staff first became aware of the matter on October 30, when workers found a collection of living juvenile bed bugs in a box in Urban Ore’s receiving area along with another dead adult bug outside the box. On October 31, two customers were bitten by bed bugs after taking home clothes bought at Urban Ore and wearing them as Halloween costumes. In an interview, store owners Mary Lou Van Deventer and Dan Knapp said Urban Ore paid an extermination company to treat the customers’ shared home.
Recent inspections by the pest control company Orkin, along with a health inspector with the city of Berkeley, however, found no bed bugs currently at Urban Ore. During these inspections, which occurred on November 22, a bed bug finding dog sniffed through five spots and clothing at the site that were suspected to be infested, and the health inspector looked over 74 bed bug traps.
Despite finding no bed bugs, the owners still had Orkin spray areas of the store that had been suspected of infestation with a Berkeley approved minimally toxic spray used to kill and prevent bed bugs.
While some Urban Ore workers expressed relief that no bed bugs were found, they also said they worried the inspections could have missed bugs. Going forward, the owners said they intend to bring the bed bug finding dog back on a monthly basis and continue to lay out bed bug traps to monitor for any possible infestation.
Some workers said they disagreed with choices ownership made following the initial discovery of the bugs, including ownership’s decision to limit what workers could and couldn’t say about the bugs. In total, over five workers spoke with and/or forwarded emails to this reporter about the bed bugs under the condition that they be granted anonymity due to feeling that ownership had limited their ability to openly talk about the issue.
In an email from October 31, the day after the bed bugs were found, Van Deventer told staff they were not “authorized” to speak about the bugs to customers.
“We must avoid alarming our esteemed customers,” Van Deventer wrote. “We have no information to provide, and communicating fear without information would be the worst thing we could do.”
Workers said that shortly after receiving the email, they began urging ownership to inform the public that bed bugs had been found. The owners made Facebook and Instagram posts containing a statement about the bugs, but waited until November 15, 16 days after the bugs were found, to do so. The statement informed the public about discovery of the bugs on October 30, but did not mention that customers had been bitten by bed bugs on October 31.
Prior to publishing the posts, Van Deventer told staff in an email they were “empowered” to answer questions using information contained in Urban Ore’s statement, but that if customers wanted more details, staff should refer them to ownership or management. She also asked staff to refrain from saying the words “bed bugs” and to use the word “insects” instead.
In an interview, Van Deventer said she didn’t want staff members who might not be fully informed saying things about the bugs that “might or might not be factual.” Van Deventer also wanted to use her skills from her past experience working in journalism and public relations to prevent bed bugs from “sticking to [Urban Ore’s] name.”
“I wanted to be in control of the message,” said Van Deventer. “I wanted to restrict the information presented to the public so it would be consistent and coherent.”
Some Urban Ore workers felt the store’s statement was misleading and left out potentially helpful information.
“They didn’t mention that multiple people have had bed bugs because of Urban Ore,” said a worker. “And they were vague about the location of the bed bugs and how long clothing remained on the floor.”
Urban Ore’s November 15 statement said no bugs were found inside the store and that staff had “removed all clothes from the sales floor within a week.” But it did not mention that two customers had gotten bed bugs from items purchased in the clothing section, and that clothes had remained out after the customers were bitten.
In a group interview, Van Deventer and Knapp said that they felt if customers had legitimate concerns about being bitten by bed bugs from Urban Ore, they would let them know. Knapp said that informing the public that customers were bitten could “spread panic.” Van Deventer expressed concerns that people “looking for a deep pocket” could sue the store.
“I’m not going to ring church bells to let the community know,” Van Deventer said. “We hope that people that have a legitimately sourced complaint will let us know. But we don’t want to attract the human fleas who are looking for money.”
In an email on November 6, 11 workers signed an email to Van Deventer and Knapp asking for hazard pay related to the bed bugs. They also asked for paid time off and the store’s closure until a full inspection and any necessary extermination steps could be taken.
“In our view, not closing the business could be catastrophic” the workers wrote in the email. “Every day the store remains open without knowledge of all possible bed bug locations, we increase the risk of further spreading the infestation.”
Van Deventer and Knapp agreed to temporarily raise wages by five dollars an hour as the bugs were being dealt with, but did not close the store, except for one day, when the owners canceled a planned tenting and fumigation treatment at the last minute, largely due its unexpectedly high cost of about $100,000. On that day, scheduled workers were given the day off with pay. In an interview on November 16, before the inspections, Van Deventer and Knapp said they were not willing to close the store for longer because they thought bed bugs were confined to a small closed off section. Additionally, they felt an extended closure could force the store, an important community resource, to go out of business.
Urban Ore diverts a massive amount of donated items that would otherwise end up in landfills into the hands of customers. The store is densely packed with a vast array of second hand goods including appliances, art, media, furniture, clothing, antiques and thousands of doors in its 44,500 square feet of shop floor space, which is about a quarter of the area of a football field.
The massive space and large quantities of second hand goods coming in and out of the store provides a lot of opportunities and nooks and crannies for infestation, which is one reason some workers worry that inspections might have missed bed bugs. Workers also cited the fact, in a 2014 study that measured bed bug finding dogs ability to search bed bug infested apartments, the 11 dogs in the study only discovered bugs a little less than half the time they were present.
Van Deventer and Knapp feel that by continuing to use a bed bug finding dog in combination with traps, they can detect bed bugs early if they return, and prevent their spread.
“Urban Ore looks like this big impregnable fortress,” said Knapp. “But we know it’s not.”
Notes: A shorter version of this story is scheduled to appear in The Oakland Post this Friday. A slightly different version of this story is scheduled to appear on the Post News Group website soon.