SAN FRANCISCO — Amazon said Thursday that nearly 20,000 of its U.S. employees had tested positive, or had been presumed positive, for the coronavirus since the pandemic started spreading through the country this year.
The retailer has faced harsh criticism this year as hundreds of workers and critics have said it hasn’t done enough to keep employees safe as they work in its warehouses amid a surge in demand to send items to shoppers across the country.
Amazon said in a blog that the number of employees who have had the illness includes its workers at its grocery store chain Whole Foods Market. In total, 19,816 employees have had COVID-19 between March 1 and Sept. 19, it said, or about 1.44% of the 1,372,000 front-line workers for Amazon during that period.
The Seattle-based company said it compared the COVID-19 case rates to the general population, as reported by Johns Hopkins University for the same period. Based on that analysis, if the rate among Amazon and Whole Foods employees were the same as that for the general population, it estimated it would have seen 33,952 cases among its workforce. That is 42% higher that Amazon’s actual rate.
(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The tech giant has had a year of intense ups and downs because of the pandemic. Its sales have soared as people shopped more online, especially while shelter-in-place measures have been in place in many states. But some employees pushed back publicly on its working conditions, and shipping delays caused customers to vent their frustrations online.
Amazon emphasized that it is at a lower infection rate than the U.S. population’s, citing Johns Hopkins University numbers.
The numbers did not include the company’s delivery drivers, who are typically contracted workers, according to Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman.
The numbers only show Amazon’s infection rate in the United States, and only include front-line employees, such as warehouse workers and Whole Foods cashiers. In March, workers in Spain and Italy tested positive for the virus and joined those in the United States and across Europe in signing a petition that called on Amazon to adopt stricter safety guidelines, The Washington Post reported.
More than 1,500 workers signed the petition, and one employee called the working conditions “totally insufficient” to keep people safe.
Since then, Amazon has rolled out stricter safety measures and started its own coronavirus-testing lab to screen workers. Amazon said Thursday it now conducts “thousands” of tests each day, and it has a goal to get to 50,000 tests daily at 650 sites by November.
Amazon released the state-by-state breakdown of the cases. Amazon employees in Washington state had a 0.58% infection rate, compared to 1.09% for the state as a whole.
In most states, Amazon’s infection rate was below the population as a whole. But not in Minnesota and West Virginia. In Minnesota, Amazon employees had a 3.17% infection rate, compared to 1.58% for the state. In West Virginia, Amazon’s number was 1.31%, compared to 0.77% for the state.
Amazon urged other companies to also disclose their coronavirus infection rates.
“This is not an arena where companies should compete — this is an arena where companies should help one another,” Amazon said in its blog. “We all have a vested interest in returning to some version of normal and safely helping our communities and the economy.”
Companies have no legal obligation to publicly reveal how many of their workers have contracted the virus, and few are doing so.
Employers do have to provide a safe working environment, which means they must alert staff if they might have been exposed to the virus, according to guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency that enforces workplace safety. They are also obligated to keep track of COVID-19 infections contracted on the job, and must report to OSHA if there is a hospitalization or death related to the disease.
A perceived lack of transparency has left workers at various retailers, including Amazon and Walmart, to become amateur sleuths in their spare time. Unions and advocate groups have taken up the cause, too, creating lists or building online maps of stores where workers can self-report cases they know about.
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents grocery and meatpacking workers, called Amazon’s disclosure as “the most damning evidence we have seen that corporate America has completely failed to protect our country’s front-line workers in this pandemic.”
UFCW is calling for immediate action by federal regulators and a full congressional investigation.
“This titanic safety failure demands the highest level of scrutiny,” Perrone said.
Amazon’s shipping and safety struggles during the pandemic have resulted in some boosts to its competitors, including Target and Walmart. But Amazon’s revenue surged 40% to $88.9 billion in its first full quarter affected by the coronavirus-fueled economic downturn.
The Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler, The Associated Press and The Seattle Times’ business staff contributed to this report.