Health

Amazon workers worry about catching coronavirus on the job

Amazon’s vaunted “to-the-door” delivery model has become a lifeline for millions of U.S. consumers stuck at home because of the coronavirus. But many Amazon workers say those exacting delivery demands could make them sick.

Drivers and warehouse workers at the ecommerce giant say they lack protective equipment and aren’t given enough time to wash or sanitize their hands. Compounding such concerns are that employees don’t get paid sick time off — unless they present a coronavirus diagnosis to managers. 

At least 10 Amazon warehouse workers across the U.S. have contracted the virus, according to workers and media reports. A worker at an Amazon facility in Staten Island, New York, tested positive on Tuesday, the retailer confirmed. Amazon did not say whether the warehouse would be shut down, but two workers there say it remained open. 

At least six more more warehouse workers in different Amazon locations — Queens, New York; Connecticut; Illinois; Kentucky; Michigan and Oklahoma — have tested positive for the virus, according to multiple media reports. Amazon closed the affected Kentucky warehouse for two days so it could be cleaned; the others remain open, according to media reports and workers.

Amazon declined to confirm the exact number of workers who tested positive, nor which facilities were closed.

“I’m scared and feeling like they’re trying to hide health risks from the workers. And we’re not being kept in the loop about our safety,” said Terell Worm, a worker at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse. He said that after workers were informed that someone had tested positive on Tuesday, the building continued operating as usual. “It was just business as normal.” 

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An Amazon driver named Ronald who works in Massachusetts said he has not been equipped with protective equipment beyond a single pair of gloves (he asked that his last name be withheld because he fears retaliation from his employer.) Other drivers wore masks they had purchased themselves, he said. 

“I don’t feel so well protected,” Ronald told CBS MoneyWatch. “It’s a matter of health. We’re out in the streets, walking around, delivering packages — all they want is for you to get the package there.”

Monica Moody, a sorting worker at an Amazon warehouse in Concord, North Carolina, said staff weren’t provided with protective equipment like N95 respirator masks and latex gloves, and that they lacked supplies to sanitize their workstations.

“Associates are told to wipe down our stations, but given just a couple of wipes. We’re praying that the person before us did it right,” she said. 

Her warehouse also isn’t taking appropriate distancing measures, she said: “We keep hearing that people should not be gathering in groups larger than 10, but that’s exactly what we do every day.”

The three workers interviewed for this article are active with community groups that have sprung up in recent years to pressure Amazon to enhance labor protections, including Make the Road and United for Respect. The groups are now part of Athena, an umbrella coalition of about 50 worker advocacy groups and community organizations opposed to Amazon. 

Athena has pressed Amazon to provide paid leave to all its workers and to be more aggressive about shutting down facilities where employees could be at risk for exposure to the virus.

Mask shortage

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos wrote on Saturday that the company has struggled get enough masks for its workers because of overwhelming global demand for the items.

“We’ve placed purchase orders for millions of face masks we want to give to our employees and contractors who cannot work from home, but very few of those orders have been filled,” Bezos said in a post on the company’s blog. “Masks remain in short supply globally and are at this point being directed by governments to the highest-need facilities like hospitals and clinics.”

Many Amazon employees have been clamoring for the company to improve its paid time off policy, saying they’re afraid of getting sick. Currently, only workers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or put under quarantine can get up to two weeks of paid time off. Others can take unlimited unpaid time off until the end of April, the company has said.

If workers feel ill but can’t present a positive coronavirus test, they are permitted to use accrued paid time off or vacation time. That often isn’t much of an option — Moody said she has amassed less than one full day of vacation time and PTO.

Jana Jumpp, who works at an Amazon facility in Indiana, said she knew of people coming in to work sweating or with a high temperature. “People are not being given sanitizer or wipes and not being provided masks,” she added. 

Jumpp, 58, has stopped showing up for work because coronavirus poses higher risks for older adults. “I’m taking unpaid leave because it’s my only choice,” she said.

Amazon defends “unique” role

In a statement to CBS MoneyWatch, Amazon pointed to its role as an essential provider of goods and services to millions of people:

“The health and safety of our employees and contractors around the world continues to be our top priority. As communities around the world are requiring social distancing, we’re seeing that our teams — much like grocery stores, pharmacies and other essential services — have a unique role getting customers the critical items they need and this is especially vital for the elderly, people with underlying health issues, and those sick or quarantined.”

Amazon has taken steps to reduce the chances that workers could get infected, the company told CBS MoneyWatch in an email. Those measures include pausing daily shift meetings, barring public visitors to its buildings, conducting training in smaller groups and no longer requiring workers to be screened at the end of their shift. Amazon also said employees are able to take breaks from their shifts to wash or sanitize their hands, and that the breaks would not affect their performance reviews.

In another move that benefits workers, Amazon is boosting pay by $2 an hour to a minimum of $15 an hour. The company said it would raise overtime pay to be double a worker’s regular rate of pay, up from the standard 1.5 rate. It is also moving to hire 100,000 new associates as it faces record demand for its services.

However, Amazon has not allowed its workers to do what many health professionals have called for: stay home. While workers are currently allowed to take unlimited time off work without pay, many can’t afford to.

“The No. 1 thing that would keep everyone in a facility safe is if everyone who was worried about being exposed could stay home,” said Dania Rajendra, director of the Athena coalition.

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Rajendra pointed out that other large employers, including Starbucks and Best Buy, have committed to paying workers even as they close facilities or make showing up optional.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has called on Amazon to provide 14 days of additional paid sick leave to all its workers, noting that requiring a diagnosis is onerous at a time that coronavirus tests are in short supply and even many people with symptoms of COVID-19 aren’t getting tested.

“Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk — it puts the entire country at risk,” Senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown and Robert Menendez wrote to Amazon, separately. “Americans who are taking every precaution, staying home and practicing social distancing, might risk getting infected with COVID-19 because of Amazon’s decision to prioritize efficiency and profits over the safety and well-being of its workforce.”


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