Amazon confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in one of its warehouse facilities on March 18, after workers shut down its Queens delivery center where their infected colleague had worked. Since then, the number of Amazon workers with COVID-19 has grown to at least 75 cases spread over 50 facilities from all over the country. On April 14, Amazon confirmed that one of these warehouse workers had succumbed to the disease.
Despite the increasing number of infections in its warehouses, Amazon has refused to close many of its facilities for longer than a day or two since the outbreak began. In one instance, the governor of Kentucky had to override Amazon’s decision to close a facility for just 48 hours, ordering it to be closed for a week after three workers tested positive for the coronavirus. (Related: At least 11 Amazon warehouses infected with coronavirus, still shipping packages.)
According to the report, the number of infections in Amazon warehouses is “likely to exponentially increase” by the second half of April. The authors say that states and governors should be intervening more whenever Amazon fails to take steps to protect its warehouse workers in facilities with confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“A single Amazon warehouse can employ thousands of people, which significantly concentrates the risk of transmission,” write the authors of the report. “As the coronavirus pandemic rapidly accelerates, workers are sounding the alarm: Amazon’s health and safety measures and benefits are wholly inadequate.”
According to experts, Amazon has yet to implement a comprehensive national health and safety plan for its warehouse and delivery workers. This makes its warehouses vectors for the spread of the coronavirus. The company did, however, announce a series of piecemeal benefits and policies, including two weeks of paid sick leave for anyone who either tests positive for the virus or receives doctors’ orders to quarantine, on top of a $2 an hour increase in wages.
The report’s authors, however, recommend that the company immediately adopt a comprehensive health and safety plan for its warehouse and delivery workers, eliminate productivity quotas that prevent workers from following CDC health and safety guidelines, expand paid leave policies for anyone experiencing illness in their household and create a solid hardship fund for its workers without asking for public donations -- Amazon is currently soliciting donations from the public for relief for its workers.
Attorney generals in 14 states, as well as Senators Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown, have all echoed these recommendations. The recommendations also follow a decision by a French court to temporarily shut down Amazon operations in France after it found that the company had failed to protect its workers against COVID-19. Until the company addresses workplace safety issues, Amazon deliveries in France will be restricted to food, hygiene and medical supplies.
For its part, Amazon has disputed the claims against and accused those who’ve made them as having “a vested interest” against the company and even of being paid by their competitors.
“Self-interested critics, particularly unions and groups funded by our competitors, have a vested interest in spreading misinformation about Amazon but the facts tell a different story,” stated Amazon spokesperson Kristen Kish. “Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams. Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with health authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve communities while taking care of our associates and teams.”
Kish added: “We have implemented more than 150 significant process changes to support our teams including increasing rates of pay, adjusting time off and providing temperature checks, masks, gloves and other safety measures at our sites.”
In addition to accusing critics of having ties to its competitors, Amazon has also started punishing some employees who’ve raised their voices. User experience designers Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa said on Tuesday that the company fired them after they internally circulated a petition about health risks for Amazon warehouse workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Cunningham had worked for the company for more than five years while Cunningham had been with Amazon for over 15 years.
“I don’t regret standing up with my co-workers,” said Costa in a statement to the Guardian. “This is about human lives, and the future of humanity. In this crisis, we must stand up for what we believe in, have hope, and demand from our corporations and employers a basic decency that’s been lacking in this crisis.”
According to an Amazon spokeswoman, the two employees were fired for “repeatedly violating internal policies,” which prohibit employees from commenting publicly on its business without approval from executives.
“We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies,” the spokeswoman said.
In addition to firing Cunningham and Costa, reports have come out that Amazon had also censored invitation for a virtual event that would have allowed warehouse workers to share their concerns in regards to working during the pandemic with white-collar employees. A spokesman for the group organizing the event confirmed that Amazon deleted all invitations and emails regarding it.
“Why is Amazon so scared of workers talking with each other?” Costa said. “No company should punish their employees for showing concern for one another, especially during a pandemic.”