Amazon Workers Still Fear Working Conditions as Coronavirus Infections Found in at Least 10 U.S. Warehouses

Amazon workers have continued to raise safety concerns after an employee working in a Moreno Valley fulfillment center tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

The retailer says it has increased the frequency of cleaning across sites and changed its staff setups so employees can adhere to social distancing measures, but workers claim more should be done, as novel coronavirus infections have now been recorded in at least 10 U.S. Amazon warehouses.

Staff are still clocking into shifts despite showing flu-like symptoms and bosses are not closing down sites to ensure proper sanitization has taken place, one staffer said.

“They care about money, not their people. But, we robots, or I mean associates, are what keeps that business running,” that Moreno Valley associate, Laura Williamson, told CBSLA.

“Shut it down for two days. Sanitize it,” she added, noting staff touch the same materials. “We’ve got people that are coming to work sick because they can’t afford to stay home.”

The mother of an employee in the Moreno Valley center, identified only as April, told CBSLA that her daughter had complained about a sore throat this week but went back to work while waiting for her COVID-19 test results as there were bills to pay.

Amazon told The Press-Enterprise the infected employee had received medical care and was now in quarantine. All staff members who contract the disease receive up to two weeks of pay.

The company said the unnamed worker was last in the center on March 18. “We… are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site,” a spokesperson said.

Positive COVID-19 cases have been reported in almost a dozen centers in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Connecticut and Kentucky, according to The Washington Post.

In a March 24 blog post, Amazon said it was consulting with health authorities in the U.S. on how best to handle building closures for deep cleaning, if an employee tests positive.

“Our process evaluates where the employee was in the building, for how long, how much time has passed since they were onsite, and who they interacted with, among other items, in determining whether we need to close,” the company continued. “We also ask anyone at the site who was in close contact with the diagnosed individual to stay home with pay for 14-days in self-quarantine.”

But some employees told The Verge they only learned about positive cases in their warehouses from social media or news outlets, and called for a better warning system to be put in place.

AmazonAn employee carries a package at the distribution center of US online retail giant Amazon in Moenchengladbach, on December 17, 2019. INA FASSBENDER/AFP/Getty

Earlier this month, a petition urging Amazon boss Jeff Bezos to enforce better protections for staff attracted more than 1,500 signatures, calling for paid sick leave regardless of diagnosis.

“In the event a coworker tests positive for coronavirus, the facility must be shut down and workers given paid leave at their normal pay rate while the facility is thoroughly sterilized and workers are tested for the virus,” the petition appealed. Following positive cases, Amazon temporarily closed facilities in New York and Kentucky, but the majority of the busy fulfilment centers across the U.S. remain open.

Company spokesperson Kelly Cheeseman said in a statement released this month the retailer is “going to great lengths” to ensure all buildings are clean. “Those who don’t want to come to work are welcome to use paid and unpaid time off options and we support them in doing so,” she added.

Employees who want to stay home have the option to take unpaid leave throughout April however that obviously means they would take a significant financial hit for that month.

The two weeks paid leave for hourly associates is currently for those who contract the illness or have to go into quarantine, although Amazon said on Monday that part-time and seasonal delivery employees can now apply for paid leave as a result of the new coronavirus situation, CNBC reported.

Multiple warehouse employees told CNBC working conditions remain unsafe, saying that pressures to meet company targets means they don’t always have enough time to wash their hands.

“The workplace is overcrowded,” Hibaq Mohamed, an employee working in Minnesota said, describing the break room and facility. “I am afraid, but I cannot stop working without pay.”

Amazon had seen a surge in demand during the outbreak as U.S. citizens sought food, cleaning supplies and other products that could be needed in the event of a mass lockdown. The company has long been plagued by complaints about allegedly poor working conditions from warehouse employees.

In an email to employees on March 21, Bezos outlined why Amazon is considered an essential service during the outbreak, saying most of the work “cannot be done from home.”

“We’re providing a vital service to people everywhere, especially to those, like the elderly, who are most vulnerable. People are depending on us,” the billionaire businessman wrote.

In broader guidance that was also published online, the online shopping giant stressed: “If any employee feels unwell, they must stay home and call their healthcare provider.

“All Amazon employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two weeks of additional paid time off, so they can get healthy without worrying about lost income.”

An Amazon spokesperson told Newsweek via email: “Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with health authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and teams. 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.”

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks.
  • Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.

Credit: Newsweek