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Amazon Isn’t Doing Enough To Protect Its Workers From Coronavirus, Report Says

Warehouse workers say time pressure leaves them unable to properly wash their hands, and have reported an increase in mandatory overtime, which creates crowded conditions.

Workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse strike on March 30 in New York. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

Amazon’s practices are contributing to the spread of the novel coronavirus, putting the lives of their workers and customers at risk, a new report charges. 

“Amazon’s responsible for the health and safety of not just the 300,000 people who work for it, but the millions of Amazon customers who are relying on the company,” report author Maggie Corser, senior research analyst at the Center for Popular Democracy, told The Appeal. “They don’t fully comply with public health guidelines and they don’t come close to addressing the urgency of this crisis.” 

The report was released Thursday by Athena, a coalition of organizations that advocate for Amazon workers, and Hedge Clippers, which works to expose the role of private equity firms in government.

Workers in at least 74 of Amazon’s U.S. warehouses and delivery centers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Washington Post.  

When asked for the number of confirmed cases and impacted warehouses, Amazon spokesperson Kristen Kish wrote in an email to The Appeal, “Like most global companies, we’ve had employees affected by this, and we’re doing all that we can to protect our employees and take the proper precautions as guided by health officials.”

Kish dismissed the report’s findings. Amazon has implemented many changes, including temperature checks before shifts and changed time-off policies, she said They have also provided workers with masks and gloves, according to Kish. Warehouse workers who violate social distancing rules may be fired, according to a report by CNBC.

“Self-interested critics have a stake in spreading misinformation about Amazon, but the facts tell a different story,” she wrote. “Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams.”

But workers and their loved ones say otherwise—and have done so despite the risk of retaliation

Public health experts say handwashing and social distancing are necessary to help curb transmission of COVID-19, which has led to governors issuing stay-at-home orders throughout the country. 

But these precautions can be difficult for Amazon workers to take. At some Amazon warehouses, more than a thousand people work in the same space, sharing break rooms and bathrooms. Workers say they are often under strict time pressures to complete tasks and are not given enough time to clean their stations or wash their hands, according to the report. 

They have also reported an increased use of mandatory overtime, which can lead to even more crowded conditions, according to the report. 

“When they add mandatory overtime, what they are doing is knowingly, directly increasing the risk for workers,” a spouse of a warehouse worker told The Appeal. She asked not to be identified for fear the company would retaliate against her husband, who works at a warehouse in New Jersey, one of the states hit hardest by the virus. As of April 20, there were 88,806 confirmed cases of COVID-19; 4,377 people have died. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has issued several executive orders, closing businesses, schools and parks, and mandating social distancing in public. 

But at the New Jersey warehouse where her husband works for $17 an hour, she said, “You’re still stuffing 600 people into the warehouse every shift.” 

If an Amazon worker does become ill, they face losing weeks of pay. Amazon employees who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two weeks of paid time off, according to Kish, the company spokesperson. Hourly employees have unlimited—but unpaid—time off through the end of April, she wrote. 

But this policy  excludes thousands of workers, such as seasonal workers and delivery drivers, according to the report. If these workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine, they can apply for a grant from the Amazon Relief Fund for between $400 and $5,000. Started with a $25 million donation from Amazon, which is valued at $1 trillion, members of the public can also donate. 

The report calls on Amazon to guarantee paid time off for all workers, and to provide paid leave for those who cannot find childcare, as schools across the country are closed. “Amazon workers are facing a childcare crisis as they balance getting paid and caring for their families,” the report says. It calls for the company’s minimum wage—raised by two dollars to $17 an hour through April—to be increased to hazard pay at time and a half. 

Last month, Chris Smalls was fired from an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, hours after he led a walkout over unsafe conditions, according to news reports. After warehouse staff at the facility tested positive, Smalls and others walked out to demand that Amazon shut down and clean the warehouse, and provide pay during the temporary closing, according to Vice News. Amazon has denied it was retaliating against Smalls, although documents leaked to Vice show the company planned to attack his credibility. 

Amazon can certainly afford to make changes, the company’s critics say. Bezos is the richest person in the world—and is getting richer as more people rely on Amazon during the shutdown. Last week, the value of Amazon’s stock increased, which raised his net worth by almost 5 percent in a day, an estimated $6.4 billion, according to Forbes. As of April 20, his net worth was $144.2 billion, according to Forbes.

“My husband is out there working for all of us,” said the warehouse worker’s spouse. “I hope that the people who are at home are ready to stand up for him and ask the government, and ask Amazon to protect these workers.”

For their part, customers can temporarily stop ordering nonessential items and urge Amazon to stop shipping them, she said. Despite Amazon’s public statement that it is prioritizing essential items, workers say they are still packing and shipping nonessential items like dolls, dog brushes, video games, and rhinestones, according to the report. 

When customers place their orders they don’t see a “crowded Amazon warehouse with workers in it who are getting sick,” she said. “If it is something that is essential for keeping you alive this week, by all means go ahead and order it,” she said. “A good metric is if you walked into a hospital right now and you saw a busy nurse, would you interrupt her to ask her for those things?”

She and her husband have been living apart for five weeks to help protect her from contracting the virus. She has lung damage, she said, and presumes she wouldn’t survive a bout of COVID-19.

“Hopefully, one day six months from now, he and I can sit down to dinner together,” she said. “That’ll just be heaven.”