As the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, an otherwise marginalized class of workers is suddenly in the spotlight. Often undervalued and poorly paid, they are grocery store clerks, sanitation workers, medical professionals, and other employees who can’t stay home—even when the nation is on lockdown. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of these so-called essential workers are employed by or contract for Amazon, whose delivery network has emerged as a vital service for millions of Americans stuck inside their homes.
WIRED spoke with nine people working for Amazon during the Covid-19 crisis over the past two weeks and is publishing their accounts of being on the job, in their own words. They work in Amazon fulfillment centers, deliver packages and groceries, and stock food in Amazon cafeterias. Some are employed by Amazon directly, while others are contractors. Each of them say they are terrified for their health and that of their families, and many believe Amazon isn’t doing enough to ensure their safety. While the company has often framed its frontline workers as heroes, the people WIRED spoke with say they didn’t sign up for this level of risk.
Covid-19 has now spread to at least 50 Amazon facilities in the US, out of a total of more than 500, according to The New York Times. Amazon says it has 110 fulfillment centers and 150 delivery stations in North America. The outbreaks have led to employee protests in Detroit, New York City, and Chicago, where workers said Amazon was slow to notify them about infections and failed to conduct adequate cleaning. At Amazon-owned Whole Foods, staff staged a nationwide demonstration citing similar safety concerns and calling for free coronavirus testing for all employees. And more than 5,000 Amazon workers have signed a petition asking for additional benefits given the health crisis, including hazard pay and for the company to shut down any facility where a worker tests positive so it can be properly cleaned.
Amazon’s practices have attracted the attention of lawmakers including senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Robert Menendez, and Sherrod Brown, who sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos last month demanding answers about the company’s workplace safety measures. “Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” they wrote. On Wednesday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced it was investigating an Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania after workers there said their health wasn’t being protected. Workers at a warehouse in California filed similar complaints with state and county regulators the same day.
“Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis. Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances.”
Do you know more about Amazon working conditions? Email Louise Matsakis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amazon says it has made over 150 changes to help protect its workforce, including distributing face masks to all staff, instituting social-distancing protocols, staggering shift start times, and adding more space between workstations. The company is also checking whether employees have a fever when they show up for their shifts, though the practice won’t detect the significant number of Covid-19 cases that are asymptomatic. The Amazon spokesperson said it’s just “one of the many preventative measures Amazon is taking to support the health and safety of our customers and employees.”
In recent weeks, Amazon has raised wages for hourly workers and said it would let anyone concerned about coming into work to take unpaid time off through the end of April. After receiving criticism from lawmakers, it will also now allow anyone suspected of having Covid-19 or placed into quarantine to take two weeks of emergency paid sick leave. Prior to March 27, the company required that workers obtain a positive test result to use the benefit, but a nationwide testing shortage made that extremely difficult.
The following interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Warehouse worker, early forties, Texas
My partner and I have both been working at Amazon for a few years. We’re awesome at what we do. I love the job itself, but I don’t like how the company handles people—almost like they’re disposable.
Since the virus came, for the last couple of weeks, we’ve taken advantage of the unpaid—not paid—time off. This next upcoming paycheck, I think I will be paid for six hours of work. I’m staying home because my mom, she had a pacemaker put in not too long ago, and she lives with me. We don’t want to go without money. In fact, I don’t know how we’re going to pay our bills this month. I’m down to about $200, and this stimulus check is probably not going to come for another month.
Amazon releases their own little news alerts, and one of them told us that we need to make sure we’re cleaning our scanners. They told us to do it—the people who are also working on the floor, who are also responsible for getting a certain number of packages out every shift. This is what kills me: When we walk through the main front doors, we hit these turnstiles to enter. Everyone has to touch them, and I have never, not one time in my life, seen anybody clean those things. I know that in my fulfillment center, we’ve got over 900 people who work there, and we have three entrances to choose from. All it’s going to take is one infected person.
You’ve got people that are working for $15 an hour, that now have to be excited that they’re making $17 an hour, going out there and basically putting their family at risk. If you’re saying our job is so damn important, and that everybody else should stay home, yet we have to show up like soldiers, why not protect us?
The day this interview was conducted, Amazon notified the worker about a confirmed case of Covid-19 at their workplace.
Food vendor, early thirties, Ohio
I’ve been at my job for under a year. I wasn’t aware that I would specifically be vending at Amazon, and that it would be my only location. We run open air markets within the warehouse, where employees can go and purchase things for lunch, your typical chips, soda. We have a couple of different sandwiches and stuff in coolers, that sort of thing. It’s a big job, there’s a lot to do. During peak, which is usually around Christmastime, we can be there up to 11, 12 hours a day. But it’s starting to be more like that now, as Amazon is hiring more and more people to keep up with demand for essential items. They just hired another 100 people today.
My employer never gave us any specific guidelines as far as social distancing goes. It’s kind of impossible to socially distance with our jobs, because our storage room is so small. They had us take out at least 70 percent of the microwaves, in the hopes that things would be more spaced out in the break rooms. But the problem is now we have an overwhelming amount of employees trying to use way fewer microwaves. An employee asked today if we had any milk crates, because there’s not enough chairs. So we have people sitting on the floor, in the hallways, because there just simply isn’t enough room for everyone to be spaced 6 feet apart. [In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson says the company has "recently implemented a new policy: individuals who intentionally violate our social distancing guidelines will receive two warnings—on the second documented offense, termination may occur."]
I’m petrified. It’s just me and my 16-year-old son, and he’s a type 1 diabetic. I’m scared of bringing something home to him with his diabetes, because I know that’s a much higher risk factor. I can’t even let him have his boyfriend over right now. I tell him, “Hey man, I would, but I’m such a high-risk person to be around right now working at Amazon.” It makes it rough for everybody.
I do feel essential. While I’m not working at Amazon shipping things out to people, I’m helping feed the people that are doing that job. I had that realization even before the “essential” term became popular. Things started shutting down around here, and I was like, Why the hell can’t I stay at home? All I’m literally doing is putting sandwiches on a shelf. But the more I think about it, the more I think of it in terms of, I’m helping to sustain somebody so they can do their job. To me, that is essential. I’m definitely looking at it differently nowadays.
After this interview was conducted, multiple confirmed cases of Covid-19 were reported at their workplace. They are now taking unpaid time off.
Warehouse worker, late thirties, Illinois
I started working at Amazon in 2018. A couple of weeks ago, they started doing superficial stuff for the coronavirus. They put tape on the ground by the time clocks for social distancing, and they removed some of the time clocks. But then they hired more people, which made the crowding worse in some areas.
Now, when you walk in the door, they scan your head for your temperature. If it’s high, they send you home. But the issue is if you come in late, nobody is there to scan your head. Also, none of the managers know how to use the scanners, which I don’t get. You pull the trigger, aim at the person’s temple, and done. So they were just waiving people in anyway, it’s not really accomplishing anything. I think it’s too little, too late. [In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said that temperature checks are mandatory and that "if we found someone attempting to bypass this safety measure we would pursue disciplinary action."]
I feel that there’s no effort, and they’re not taking it seriously. They kept saying they were doing extensive cleaning, extensive cleaning—they weren’t. There aren’t enough wipes and spray; one wipe is used to clean four people’s stations. I said something to my manager, and he just shook his head and said, “It’s better than nothing.”
Yesterday we got emails and text messages saying that there’s now several confirmed cases at our warehouse. I think they should at least close the warehouse down for cleaning. Once somebody in the building has got it, they’ve touched so much, and everybody else has touched it, too. Nobody is going out and getting tested, so you don’t know how many cases there actually are. It wouldn’t take much—just shut it down for a day, do a deep cleaning, and then have everybody come back. If you did that once every other week, I’m sure it would help. Amazon is definitely more focused on their product moving out of the building than anything else, clearly. [In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said that not all instances require shutting down a facility entirely: "If someone hasn’t been at the building for quite some time, they were onsite only briefly, or the area they were in was already deep cleaned several times as a regular course of business, we may not need to close."]
Delivery driver, late forties, South Carolina
I actually love the job, I really do. I work for a delivery company that contracts with Amazon. It pays the bills with a little left over, and you’re just out there, free. When you pull up in front of a little kid’s house and give him a box and he smiles and says thank you, it makes you feel like you’re doing something.
I just found out five minutes ago that someone tested positive at our building. They have not closed the building, they have not done anything. Before this, I wasn’t getting much information about the virus at work. My boss didn’t know anything, because Amazon wasn’t communicating with him. The only way I was finding out things was going online and looking at NPR, looking at your website. Today, after someone already contracted the virus, was the first time I’ve seen wipes and gloves available.
I’m trying to do my part in staying 6 feet away from people, but you still have customers coming out to the van, expecting us to give them their packages in hand. I have four grandkids, two kids, a wife, and two dogs. It’s very scary, because I may not be in the most vulnerable age range, but it’s still possible I could get sick. I just wish Amazon would step up to the plate and protect us.
Whole Foods delivery driver, late fifties, New York City area
I’m a writer, and I started writing about the automotive industry about a decade ago. A few years back, I became fascinated with the potential for local delivery to help reduce carbon emissions. In 2018, I started doing delivery work for Roadie first, and then Whole Foods, to learn more about the industry from the inside. When one of my primary writing gigs evaporated, I was like Oh my god, I gotta pay the bills. Delivering for Whole Foods pays the bills, but only if you do it right.
The appreciation I feel from customers has an effect on me. When people thank you profusely for what you’re doing, even though it’s a menial task, it makes you feel good about it. Feeding people is really important. But the gig has always had its ups and downs. When I first started doing it primarily as research, my wife said, “Look, if you do it when you’re in town, you better pull your baseball hat down over your eyes so nobody knows who you are.” It’s like dad’s delivering groceries—that’s embarrassing. That kind of sucks.
Now the coronavirus looms over me. Every time now when I wake up, I’m scared. It’s just like, Oh man, I gotta go into one of those contagion zones. I made my own mask and hand sanitizer. This first mask is duct taped together and it’s made from an old Nike golf shirt. I try to be really cautious about wiping down the steering wheel, wiping down the gearshift, any place I could touch—I wipe it down.
After this interview was conducted, the driver reported that Whole Foods has instituted more protections for workers, including social distancing measures, temperature screenings, and providing gloves.
Warehouse worker, early sixties, California
I’ve been with Amazon 11 months now. I went there with the idea that it was just going to be a temporary job until I could find something that was better suited for me. When I first started there, it was a great job, because it’s only part-time, it’s fairly flexible, and it gave me the opportunity to look for other things. I have been going to work through the pandemic, but I am starting to contemplate staying home because of some of the issues at Amazon.
Amazon, at least our facility, hasn’t enforced the policies as much as they could have. One problem we’re encountering is that once we’re on the floor and we’re doing our work, they don’t mandate social distancing. People aren’t staying 6 feet away. Instead of going around me, workers cut right in front of me, they bump into me. I’ve asked, please, 6 feet away, but they just ignore me and keep on going. Every time I’ve gone to management, their response is, “There’s nothing we can do about it, if there’s a problem you can just stay home.”
My feeling is they want to do the right thing, but they don’t know how to enforce it, so it’s not really happening. We have no hand sanitizers. We have no wipes. They’re not providing face masks.
My biggest concern is my parents, they’re 82 and 88 and they live close by. I call them every day to make sure they’re OK, but I’m very hesitant to go see them because I don’t know what I might be bringing to them. Especially my father. He’s 88, he’s blind, he’s frail. I don’t want to make him sick. So until this is all done, I can’t come up and see them, because I can’t risk making them sick.
Warehouse worker, early thirties, Florida
I previously worked in events and conferences, but when the virus hit, they started cutting my hours, so I applied to work at Amazon. I’ve been there about three weeks, or maybe a month. At my location, I was noticing that they have wipes, but they’re not actually disinfecting wipes. I picked up the can the other day to check, and they’re not. They’re for painters to use to remove paint that drips onto the floor. [An Amazon spokesperson disputes this: "Disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer are already standard across our network, and the procurement teams have worked tirelessly to create new sources of supply to keep these critical items flowing."]
Amazon is trying to do social distancing. They put markers on the floor, but the thing is, a lot of people are not taking this seriously. If there’s no supervisors on the floor that care, it’s not being enforced. I’ve had to tell people to back off from me a few times.
It’s very scary. I’m a single mom. My mom lives with me, and she doesn’t have any income. She has a lung condition, and she’s older, she’s 72. I try to stay away from them. I haven’t held my 6-year-old son since I started at Amazon. It’s very hard. He still doesn’t understand it. He’s always mad at me, he says that I’m mean.
I feel like this job is essential because people need deliveries, but it’s also essential for me because I need the money to feed my family. My son’s dad stopped working too, so it’s not like I’m getting child support. I have no choice. But I’m also thinking of stopping because I don’t want to put my family at risk. I’m not the only one thinking of not going to work. Amazon needs to take care of what they have, and I don’t think they’re doing that.
Warehouse worker, late twenties, Washington
The first US case of Covid-19 was in Seattle, so I was like, this is really bad news. I was thinking ahead, planning for quarantine and stuff, buying food. As the story got worse, I wondered what Amazon was going to do. I’ve worked there for two years. For me, the pay is good. I know it’s not the best pay in the world, but the benefits and pay work well for me. I’ve become friends with a lot of the people I work with. But now, with all the craziness, and with the recent Covid-19 case at my warehouse, I feel like they’re not doing enough. They’re putting profits over people right now, that’s what I want to express.
I found out there was a case of Covid-19 at my warehouse through a manager. I was just talking to him, and I told him I was stressed. He said “Yeah, especially with the announcement.” I said, “What announcement?” He told me there was a confirmed case of the coronavirus at our warehouse, but I hadn’t heard anything. They should have let everyone know. I feel like they only let people in that person’s department know. I later got a notification about daily temperature screenings, but there was no email or notification about the case. The real official confirmation was through the news, not from Amazon. [In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said that the company communicates confirmed cases of Covid-19 to all employees who work at the affected site.]
I want to be taking time off, but Amazon has been deemed an essential business. I have to be there, and if I wasn’t, I would still be struggling with bills. I have rheumatoid arthritis, which makes me immunocompromised. It’s really stressing me out to go to work every day. I do have some paid time off saved up, but it wouldn’t sustain me for very long. I’m saving it—I feel like it isn’t even the peak of the craziness yet.
Grocery warehouse worker, late twenties, Washington
I’m what’s called a Flex employee, which basically means part-time—you set your own hours. Ninety percent of my fulfillment center, and lots of other fulfillment centers, are grocery-based. We put together grocery orders for people. Compared to what I used to do, it’s an easy job. Sometimes there’s a little bit of pressure, but most of the time, you just walk around using a portable scanner. No one is breathing down your neck.
Because of the coronavirus, I haven’t been going in. For me, it’s just not worth the risk. While they are taking basic precautions, the fact of the matter is there are over 200, maybe 300 people that come in and out of this warehouse every day. They can’t possibly sanitize every single surface every two hours.
The last time I worked was a few weeks ago. We had a meeting where the managers read a statement about the pandemic. They set up hand-sanitizing stations and told us to try to keep a 6-foot distance. But the fact of the matter is, you’re in a warehouse. Most of the time you can keep that radius, but the cooler space and the freezer space are very compact. The aisles are narrower, and there’s not nearly as much square footage.
The suits were the final nail in the coffin for me. In the freezer, it’s around zero degrees Fahrenheit. Amazon has these big puffy bodysuits that you put on over your whole body, including your mouth, which you need to keep you insulated. You find one that fits you, you do your time in the freezer, then you come out and you take it off, and some other poor bastard uses it.
Updated, 4-10-20, 4:21 pm EDT: This story has been updated with additional comment from Amazon.