SEATTLE – The U.S. coronavirus outbreak has spread to at least six Amazon warehouses, infecting workers racing to deliver massive volumes of packages for consumers leery of leaving their homes to shop.
In the past few days, Amazon workers tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel virus, in New York City; Shepherdsville, Kentucky; Jacksonville, Florida; Katy, Texas; Brownstown, Michigan; and Oklahoma City, according to Amazon and local media reports. In some cases, Amazon shut down facilities for cleaning, and some co-workers who were in close contact with their infected colleagues have been quarantined.
Just last week, warehouse workers sounded alarms that the company is not doing enough to protect them from the virus. That came after workers at Amazon warehouses in Spain and Italy tested positive for the virus. Since then, more than 1,500 workers from around the world have signed a petition that calls on the company to take additional steps to ensure safety in the workplace.
Some workers complained that Amazon pushes them to meet the per-hour rate at which it wants orders fulfilled, a practice that they worry discourages safe sanitary practices such as washing hands after a cough or sneeze. Others have complained about “stand-up” meetings, where workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the start of each shift.
The new outbreaks at Amazon’s U.S. facilities come days after the online retail giant announced plans to hire 100,000 new workers to help cope with the flood of orders that have clogged its system. That unexpected surge has rendered Amazon unable to stock and ship household staples to many customers who had come to rely on the company’s convenience.
(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“We are supporting the individuals, following guidelines from local officials, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of all the employees at our sites,” Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski said in an emailed statement.
The company has recently adopted new policies for its warehouses including more regularly cleaning door handles, stairway handrails, touch screens and more, Levandowski said. It’s nixed stand-up meetings, staggered start and break times to aid social distancing and suspended screening workers as they leave to improve the flow of workers, she said.
Amazon, though, is struggling to get workers all the protection it wants them to have. The company placed orders for “millions of face masks” to give to employees and contractors who cannot work from home, Bezos wrote in a letter to employees Saturday. Because of the global shortage of those masks, though, very few of those orders have been filled, he wrote.
And while Amazon allows warehouse staff to take time off if they’re concerned, Bezos also expects the company’s warehouses to keep operating, saying in the letter that much of “the essential work we do” requires employees to clock in at the company’s warehouses, in its delivery vehicles and more.
Amazon has more than 175 warehouses around the globe, including more than 110 in North America. Levandowski declined to say if workers at any other Amazon facility have tested positive for COVID-19.
Sweetening its new job offers, Amazon increased pay for hourly employees through April by $2 an hour in the United States, 2 pounds an hour in the United Kingdom, and about 2 euros an hour in parts of the European Union. The company, which generated $280.5 billion in sales last year, said the pay hikes will cost $350 million.
Despite the spread of the coronavirus in Amazon’s U.S. warehouses, it probably will find workers for the new posts, said Elaine Kwon, founder of e-commerce management and software firm Kwontified and a former Amazon manager. With unemployment claims already soaring as businesses shutter from the coronavirus fallout, laid-off workers will need income to pay their rents and feed their families.
“Quite a few people will be willing to take the risk,” Kwon said.
Amazon has long had a contentious relationship with some warehouse workers, fighting efforts in the United States and abroad to unionize. The company, which has nearly 800,000 workers worldwide, most of whom work in its warehouses, has faced criticism for harsh working conditions, insufficient bathroom breaks and difficult-to-attain goals.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has denounced the company for paying subsistence wages to its warehouse staff. And after the company raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2018, it caught heat for taking away some bonuses and stock grants for warehouse workers.
Last week, four U.S. senators – Sanders and three Democrats, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Robert Menendez of New Jersey – sent Bezos a letter expressing concern that the company isn’t doing enough to protect its warehouse workers from the coronavirus outbreak.
“We write today to strongly urge you to prioritize the health, safety, and well-being of your employees who are also our constituents, friends, family, and neighbors,” the senators wrote.
The senators noted that Amazon could also put “the entire country at risk” if warehouse conditions aren’t sanitary because the coronavirus can live for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel. They asked Bezos to respond to a series of questions by Thursday.