Amazon told employees at its Kent fulfillment center Friday that one of their co-workers has tested positive for COVID-19, adding to the tally of reported cases within the company’s enormous distribution network.
The huge facility south of Seattle handles general Amazon.com merchandise and has about 2,000 employees, some of whom had decried what they called inadequate coronavirus safety measures earlier this month. The Kent fulfillment center was not closed, which alarmed some employees there.
“We are supporting the individual who is recovering,” Amazon said in a statement. “We are following all guidelines from local officials and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site.”
The company said it had informed all employees on-site during Friday shifts, and will alert any worker who had close contact with the person who tested positive at the building, asking them not to return to work and to self-quarantine for 14 days, during which they will be paid.
Some Amazon Kent employees said they had not been informed by the company, as late as midday Saturday. “I found out on Facebook,” one said in an email. “Emails should have been sent out asap to every employee.”
Other Amazon employees at the Kent site, and other local fulfillment centers, said company managers were slow to address their concerns about coronavirus safety, with some even expressing indifference earlier this month. On a big “Voice of Associates” whiteboard where employees raised questions about things like social distancing in the first weeks of March, managers responded with statements such as “we are evaluating the situation.”
Amazon has steadily introduced policies and procedures — though it remains focused on speed and productivity, employees said — but not before coronavirus struck its huge hourly workforce. Most of Amazon’s more than 500,000 U.S. employees work in warehouses, delivery stations and other facilities that make up its distribution network — a modern marvel of humans and machines that in normal times speeds a vast array of products to customers in as little as two hours.
A count of local media reports on Amazon employees testing positive for COVID-19 suggests the Kent case would be the 12th in the U.S., including cases at Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market. The company previously had several employees in its fulfillment centers in Italy and Spain test positive. At least two employees in the Seattle headquarters tested positive. Amazon is not sharing a companywide account of employees who have tested positive or their worksites.
Although it has temporarily closed for deep cleaning other facilities where COVID-positive employees worked, Amazon did not do so with the Kent fulfillment center, an approximately 885,000-square-foot warehouse along 64th Avenue South.
“We are consulting with health authorities and medical experts on how to handle building closures for deep cleaning, if an employee tests positive for COVID-19,” Amazon said in a blog post this past week. “Our process evaluates where the employee was in the building, for how long, how much time has passed since they were on-site, and who they interacted with, among other items, in determining whether we need to close.”
One Kent employee said they were concerned that the entire building wasn’t closed and sanitized, though Amazon has implemented stepped-up cleaning measures across the company. Employees are worried about carrying coronavirus home to their families, the employee said.
As of late Friday, there were 3,723 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Washington, resulting in 175 deaths.
Amazon fulfillment-center workers typically work four, 10-hour shifts a week, though Amazon has lately asked employees to work overtime as it tries to handle a surge in online shopping at a time when it is usually ramping down and shedding temporary employees hired for its holiday peak. The company has offered employees twice their base rate of pay for overtime worked between March 15 and May 9 and has boosted hourly pay, which is a minimum of $15 across the U.S., by $2. The company is also trying to hire 100,000 new full- and part-time employees in response to the unexpected demand.
Last year, Amazon’s median U.S. full-time employee earned $36,640 in total compensation including wages, bonuses and stock awards but not counting benefits, the company disclosed Friday.
Amazon had not been screening employees for symptoms, despite recommendations from local, state and federal health officials that everyone should be checked daily for elevated temperature and respiratory symptoms before entering a worksite. A company spokesperson said earlier this week that Amazon had begun “educating associates to self-screen through on-site resources including posters and signage.”
The company also requires employees to stay 6 feet apart, following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before this past week, it had allowed employees to be as close as 3 feet, under earlier guidance from the World Health Organization. Some work stations have been closed and break-room furniture separated to enable the greater social distancing requirement. Amazon warehouses and delivery stations are festooned with signs and markers reminding workers to stay apart, though some say it is not feasible in some parts of warehouses, particularly those where grocery orders are packed.
Employees are also required to stay home if they are not well, and Amazon has allowed them to take unpaid time off, a policy extended into April, the spokesperson said.
Amazon warehouse and delivery employees and contractors have repeatedly raised concerns about the company’s policies and practices in response to the pandemic, which has strained its systems as demand for delivery skyrockets with hundreds of millions of people staying home to slow the spread of the virus.