Inside one of Amazon’s hardest-hit warehouses: ‘Why aren’t we closing the building?

by

May 20, 2020

In late March, workers at an Amazon warehouse near Hazleton, Pennsylvania, got the dreaded announcement.

Over the loudspeaker, a manager’s voice rang through the warehouse: “We have recently learned of two confirmed cases of COVID-19 at our site,” he said, according to a recording of the message obtained by Reveal for The Center for Investigative Reporting.

A couple of days later, there were more announcements: seven more cases, then two more.

Another voice on the loudspeaker, a different manager, anticipated the reaction: “What I imagine people are going to start to say is, ‘Based on the amount of cases that we have, why aren’t we closing the building?’ And the answer is because we’re already exceeding the CDC recommendations and guidelines to date,” he said. “And if you kind of remove the emotion from the situation, you’ll see we’re doing more than what’s being asked.”

Yet the announcements of confirmed cases of COVID-19 kept coming through the first half of April: four more, nine more, 11 more cases.

Employees at the facility took to Facebook groups to vent, reacting with facepalm emojis and complaining that the site wouldn’t close even for one day to deep clean. “They have failed us,” one said.

They wondered who got sick – which shifts, which departments? They complained about the lack of hand sanitizer. In an April 2 recording, the second manager said: “Don’t get overly concerned when we run low on hand sanitizer. It’s gonna happen. … So you gotta use soap.” Some put up posts vowing to stop going in to work; others said they couldn’t.

“I’m scared like everyone else, but I can’t afford to just stay home,” one worker, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, told Reveal. With cases mounting and continuing problems maintaining social distance among the hundreds of workers in the warehouse, the worker said, “I know I’m going to get coronavirus eventually.”

A manager on one early April recording exhorted employees to keep a 6-foot distance and asked them not to make it harder for supervisors who were trying to enforce it. “We’re already kind of all anxious and/or nervous and/or angry. So we don’t need to have any negative conversations with each other,” he said. “We’re doing the best that we possibly can here, OK?”

By April 10, when warehouse management started requiring workers to wear face masks, more than 40 employees had been confirmed to have COVID-19, according to recordings and text messages sent to employees and shared with Reveal. “A tad bit late,” one worker at the facility wrote in a Facebook post that Reveal viewed. The next day, Amazon started piloting disinfectant fogging there. The city of Hazleton itself is a hot spot for the virus.

After tallying 60 cases at the warehouse by mid-April, Amazon stopped telling workers there the number of new cases. Instead, they continue to get a regular drumbeat of text messages and phone calls from warehouse management that are more vague: “additional confirmed cases.”

Like nearly all institutions across the country, Amazon has had to adapt on the fly to an unprecedented pandemic, often without clear guidance from the federal government. And as the country’s second-largest private employer, changing quickly presents vast challenges. Still, many workers want to know why a company worth more than $1 trillion, led by the world’s richest person, hasn’t done more to protect them. And complaints about the lack of protections for workers fit a long-running pattern at the company.

Amazon’s warehouse workers have long borne the brunt of the company’s relentless drive to sell everybody everything, and quickly. Last fall, a Reveal investigation found that the company’s warehouses had become injury mills, where ruthless quotas left workers with a brutal choice: get disciplined or even fired for not meeting expectations or cut safety corners and push their bodies until they were injured.

That long-simmering tension has been supercharged in the coronavirus era. Now, with sales booming as millions of people shelter in place, Amazon workers say they face a new choice: Keep working without sufficient protection from exposure or lose their income.

Many workers at warehouses around the country say Amazon was too slow to respond to the threat of the coronavirus, and some say it still isn’t doing enough to protect them. They say that warehouse managers didn’t tell them right away when the virus started hitting their warehouses and that some employees came to work even when they appeared sick, because Amazon gives paid sick leave only to those who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or who are “presumptively positive (but unable to get a test).”

Amazon workers across the nation started getting notifications of confirmed COVID-19 cases at their workplaces before the company began providing face masks, taking workers’ temperatures and more strictly enforcing social distancing rules. Amazon warns workers that violations of its 6-foot social distancing policy “will result in disciplinary action,” according to a notice posted in the Pennsylvania warehouse, but workers say their jobs sometimes make that impossible – on the shipping dock, for example, where workers under pressure to quickly load trucks cluster around conveyor belts full of packages. Many wonder why Amazon hasn’t temporarily shut down facilities for deep cleaning after workers test positive.

Amazon has fired a number of employees who have spoken up about the treatment of warehouse workers. On March 30, the company fired Christian Smalls, a worker who organized a walkout in Staten Island, New York, saying he had violated quarantine. Afterward, the company’s top lawyer called Smalls, who is African American, “not smart, or articulate” and suggested making him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement,” according to an internal memo obtained by VICE News. The company also fired two user experience designers who criticized the company for how it managed its warehouses.

Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations, posted a message in early April that said, “We did not, and have not ever, terminated an associate for speaking out on their working conditions, but we will act swiftly with individuals who purposely put others at risk.”

Disgusted with Amazon for “firing whistleblowers,” one of the company’s vice presidents recently quit in protest. “It’s evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture,” Tim Bray said in a post on his website. “I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.”

The New York attorney general’s office said Amazon may have violated the state’s whistleblower law for firing Smalls and federal workplace safety regulations for not providing employees proper protections.

Meanwhile, Amazon workers continue to receive the unnerving COVID-19 notifications, usually by text message or robocall. Because Amazon won’t disclose the overall numbers, workers across more than 200 facilities are crowdsourcing the notifications, tallying close to 900 confirmed cases so far, according to a spreadsheet shared by Jana Jumpp, an Amazon worker spearheading the effort. The warehouse near Hazleton, according to that spreadsheet, was Amazon’s hardest hit.

Several Amazon workers have died from the disease.

George Leigh, a 59-year-old employee at an Amazon distribution center in New York, died of COVID-19 on April 9 after working without a face mask for much of March, according to his brother, Todd Leigh. He showed Reveal parts of an email he wrote to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos after his brother’s death.

“My mother is beside herself and his daughter will never see her dad again,” it said. “I am truly embarrassed to say I was an Amazon customer. Until justice and a thorough investigation is served I will never use amazon services again.”

George Leigh, a 59-year-old employee at an Amazon distribution center in New York, died of COVID-19 on April 9 after working without a face mask for much of March, according to his brother, Todd Leigh.

Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski issued a statement saying: “We are saddened by the loss of an associate who had worked at our site in Bethpage, New York. His family and loved ones are in our thoughts.”

Another Amazon spokesperson, Kelly Cheeseman, declined to answer questions from Reveal about the Pennsylvania warehouse and workers’ complaints nationwide that Amazon hasn’t adequately protected them. Instead, she referred to a company blog that outlines Amazon’s efforts to take care of workers and an April shareholder letter from Bezos, who said of his employees, “We are deeply grateful for their heroic work and are committed to their health and well-being.”

The letter says Amazon provides face masks and checks workers’ temperatures at sites around the world and sanitizes common surfaces regularly. It says disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer “are standard across our network.” The company also made changes to allow for social distancing, including scrapping group staff meetings during shifts, staggering break times and spreading out chairs in break rooms.

In a May 11 letter to Bezos, 13 attorneys general called on Amazon to provide a state-by-state breakdown of how many of its workers have been infected and how many have died, as well as to adopt a more generous paid leave policy.

Levandowski said rates of COVID-19 among workers vary depending on the communities where the employees live.

“What we see is that our rates of infection are at or below the communities we’re operating in at almost all of our facilities,” she said in a statement, though she declined to provide data supporting that claim. She said that whenever there is a confirmed case, Amazon alerts every employee at that site.

Some workers say they have stopped going in, afraid they’ll contract COVID-19 and spread it to their families. Amazon, meanwhile, is on a hiring spree, having announced April 13 that it hired 100,000 new employees and would add 75,000 more to handle the massive influx of new orders. Stuck at home, many Americans are turning to Amazon more than ever. Sales have surged, and while companies across the globe struggle to stay afloat or watch their stock prices tumble, Amazon’s stock recently hit a record high.

In his first-quarter earnings announcement, Bezos said the company would spend all $4 billion of its expected operating profits in the next quarter on “COVID-related expenses getting products to customers and keeping employees safe,” including protective gear, warehouse cleaning and building its own COVID-19 testing operation.

“There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, and the best investment we can make is in the safety and well-being of our hundreds of thousands of employees,” he said.

The company says it offers two weeks of paid sick leave only to workers who are diagnosed with COVID-19, are “presumptively positive” but unable to get a test or are ordered to quarantine. For everyone else, aside from their regular accrued time off, staying away from work means not getting paid. For the first months of the pandemic, the company gave workers unlimited unpaid time off. But starting in May, workers now have to apply for a leave of absence if they want unpaid time off.

It’s a no-win situation for many. In Southern California, Heather Harr said she needed her job at an Amazon fulfillment center in Eastvale to make rent. But she was terrified of exposing her 10-year-old daughter, who she said has severe medical issues that weaken her immune system.

At the beginning of the pandemic, she said, Amazon management didn’t seem to take the risk of exposure seriously.

“The first few weeks,” she said, “they would just tell people, you know, ‘Stay away from others. If you’re coughing, cover your mouth.’”

People would come to work sick, coughing in the warehouse, because they couldn’t afford to take unpaid time off, she said. She said she asked for disinfectant wipes, a mask and gloves, but was told there weren’t any.

Harr was working the night shift as a picker, grabbing consumers’ orders from tall racks carried by robots. The speed of her work was tracked by Amazon down the second, so she worried that going to the bathroom to wash her hands would hurt her productivity rate.

At times, she said she found it hard to keep her distance from co-workers. Because of a previous work injury at Amazon, when a large jar fell and smashed her hand, she needed help lifting the heaviest items. When a co-worker would come over to help her heave a pack of soda or Gatorade, neither of them had face masks or gloves, nor had either typically been able to wash their hands in the last few hours, she said.

At the end of March, she too started getting notifications about cases of COVID-19 at her warehouse. Harr said she added her name to a petition demanding that Amazon close the facility for two weeks for cleaning while paying workers and that the company provide paid sick leave regardless of a worker’s diagnosis. Workers there also filed a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, claiming Amazon had provided “grossly inadequate” measures to protect workers from COVID-19. Cal/OSHA has an open inspection of the facility, which is still pending.

Harr decided it wasn’t worth the risk to her daughter. So she stayed home without pay for much of April. Recently, a doctor determined that her hand injury had worsened, which allowed her to qualify for workers’ compensation, she said.

“Amazon doesn’t care,” she said. “They want you there to move the boxes.”


This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.

Will Evans can be reached at wevans@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @willcir.

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