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Sunday, March 3, 2024

What Amazon Workers Are Facing as Coronavirus Spreads in the US

Jana Jumpp has been working at an Amazon fulfillment center in Jeffersonville, Indiana, for over four years. Until recently, her experience at the company had been great. Amazon helped pay for Jumpp to go to massage therapy school, and even sent her to assist with the opening of a new facility in Texas last year.

Then, the pandemic hit, and everything changed. “Amazon’s reaction to the coronavirus has left me shocked, scared, and disgusted,” Jumpp said on a call with reporters Wednesday. The call was organized by Athena, a coalition of local and national organizations critical of Amazon. Jumpp says the company hasn’t provided enough supplies like hand sanitizer at her facility, and that its current leave policy won’t be enough to prevent people from coming to work sick. “Because of my age, I am more susceptible to the virus,” said Jumpp, who is 58. “I am taking unpaid time off, my only option, because I’m scared to go back.”

The United States now has more confirmed cases of Covid-19 than anywhere else in the world. With millions of Americans across the country ordered to shelter in place, Amazon’s vast delivery network has emerged as a vital service for people stuck inside their homes. To meet soaring demand, the company has prioritized delivering essential goods like medical supplies and food, and it has announced it will hire an additional 100,000 workers in the US, as well as give $2 an hour raises to existing employees. But workers in multiple states say Amazon is not doing enough to protect their health and that of their families. They say they are scared, that they are not getting information they need. Some, like Jumpp, are forgoing paychecks and staying home; others have left their jobs entirely for fear of being exposed to Covid-19.

Is there something you think we should know? Email the writer at louise_matsakis@wired.com. Signal: 347-966-3806. WIRED protects the confidentiality of its sources.

While there have been no reported cases of Covid-19 at the Jeffersonville warehouse where Jumpp works, three workers tested positive for the virus at a returns center in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, just 30 miles away. It was shut down Wednesday for additional cleaning, Bloomberg reported. Amazon says it will reopen on April 1. So far, Amazon workers have tested positive for Covid-19 in at least 10 facilities in the US, according to media reports.

“Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with local authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and teams,” a spokesperson for Amazon said in a statement. “We have also implemented proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance in the FC, and adding distance between drivers and customers when making deliveries.”

‘We Heard More From the Local News’

When a case of Covid-19 does emerge, some Amazon employees say they are not being properly notified by the company. Two workers at a warehouse in Michigan, where a case of coronavirus was confirmed earlier this week, told WIRED they found out through the grapevine, not via the company itself. Both workers asked to remain anonymous because they feared retribution from Amazon. They say only associates who worked the same shift as the person who tested positive were informed about it. “We heard more from the local news,” said one of the workers. The other quit after learning through a coworker about the positive case. “I actually resigned, because two of my children and myself have asthma, and it’s not worth it right now to work there,” the person said. “Our health comes first, not packages.” Amazon says it communicated to employees about the confirmed case.

The novel coronavirus is highly contagious, and it may live on surfaces for several hours or even days, according to some studies. “People start shedding even before they get symptoms,” says Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco. Many people who have the coronavirus also exhibit only mild symptoms, making it easy to unwittingly pass along.

Amazon warehouses are a particularly fertile ground for transmission, workers say, because they often need to walk long distances to reach bathrooms where they can wash their hands. Breaks are also strictly timed, disincentivizing lingering at the sink or taking a few extra minutes to disinfect work stations. Amazon says it has relaxed performance requirements and is allowing workers more time to go to the restroom, speak to managers, and communicate with family members and childcare providers using their phones.

Amazon has also taken additional measures to ensure workers are practicing social distancing, including putting tape down on the floor in break rooms to keep people at least 6 feet apart at all times. Many of these changes were implemented after media reports of workers’ growing concerns. Some workers say those precautions did not come soon enough. “Last week, when everyone was going into quarantine, we were still sitting together in our lunchrooms and on our breaks,” said Stephanie Haynes, an Amazon worker in Illinois who joined the Athena call. Amazon announced Wednesday that an employee at the facility where she works had tested positive for the coronavirus. Local media reported that the center would remain open.

Taking Leave

Throughout the pandemic, public health experts have urged people to stay home if they feel sick, to slow the spread of the disease. At the beginning of March, Amazon announced a new policy for hourly employees to be able to take unlimited unpaid time off through the end of the month; that policy has since been extended through the end of April. If a worker tests positive for Covid-19 or is placed into quarantine, Amazon says they are eligible to receive up to two weeks of paid time off. That money has been difficult to obtain in some cases, according to The Atlantic. Workers worry that with coronavirus testing still extremely limited across the country, colleagues who are sick but haven’t been tested will keep coming in. “All of this goes back to us not having paid sick time for everyone,” Rina Cummings, an Amazon worker in New York City, said on the Athena call.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

It’s not only workers inside Amazon’s warehouses that are vulnerable, but also the drivers tasked with delivering packages and Whole Foods groceries. “Drivers lack safety equipment and direction, with no management on the ground,” said a Whole Foods delivery driver in the New York City area who asked to remain anonymous. On Wednesday night, Amazon sent out an email to drivers, outlining new social distancing rules they must follow. The message, which was obtained by WIRED, said that drivers must now wait in their cars for Whole Foods orders to be ready and that they shouldn’t enter the pick-up area unless they can stay 6 feet away from others. It also advises them to stay home if they’re feeling sick. Amazon says it was not the first communication it sent about the coronavirus.

Delivery drivers are in a particularly risky position because they are contractors and historically have been unable to collect unemployment benefits or take paid sick leave. Amazon has set up a relief fund for delivery drivers experiencing financial hardship because of the pandemic, with an initial contribution of $25 million. Applicants can apply for grants ranging from $400 to $5,000 per person.

Amazon workers say these policies are not enough. Over 1,500 Amazon employees have signed a petition asking for additional benefits given the pandemic, including paid sick leave for all workers regardless of diagnosis, hazard pay for workers who must be on site, and for the company to shut down any facility where a worker tests positive so it can be sterilized and others can be tested. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who has been an outspoken advocate for Amazon workers, repeated their demands on Twitter this week.

Sanders had also sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos last week, along with senators Cory Booker, Robert Menendez, and Sherrod Brown, demanding answers on 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,” the senators wrote. A group of 15 attorneys general have also chastised the company for its policies. In a letter to Amazon and Whole Foods on Wednesday, the AGs called the companies’ current sick leave policies “inconsistent” with recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon.) “By limiting paid sick leave to only those employees who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or who have been placed into quarantine, the Companies are placing their other employees, their customers, and the public at large at significant risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

This health crisis is exacerbating a wide range of issues already present in America’s capitalist society. Amazon is a microcosm of many of them: The company has been criticized for its labor practices for years, including high injury rates, astronomical performance expectations, and low pay. Some workers have even gone on strike. But the power that Amazon has, and its immense resources, can also be put to good use. “Corporations, because they have a lot of heft, can help protect their people,” says UCSF’s Chin-Hong.

As Amazon continues supplying vital services to millions of people across the US during the coronavirus pandemic, workers hope they will pay attention to their welfare too. “I hope that people really think about us before they order unnecessary items,” Jumpp said.

Updated, 3-30-20, 11:10 am EDT: This story has been updated to clarify that Amazon's warehouse in Shepherdsville, Kentucky is no longer closed indefinitely. It will reopen on April 1.

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