As at least 11 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods Market stores in the U.S., employees say the company’s statements on safety measures don’t line up with what they’re seeing. Some fear for their safety and the safety of customers.
“People are trusting they will use sanitary practices, but it is nothing of the sort,” said an employee at an Amazon warehouse in Kirkland that handles groceries. “Most employees are handling all the food without gloves…. I think this is a serious health risk to the Seattle area as thousands of bags of groceries are being delivered each day from this one location.”
A lack of gloves was one of several deficits this employee and several others have described in recent days at local Amazon facilities and Whole Foods stores. Other inadequacies they cited include a lack of time to properly wash hands or sanitize shared equipment, a constant emphasis on speed and management indifference.
Moreover, the employees, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said Amazon is still not performing recommended regular health checks, including temperature and respiratory symptom screening, as employees arrive at work.
“They do not screen employees, just tell them to stay home unpaid if they feel it’s unsafe to be there,” the Kirkland employee said.
“No temp checks, no one asking if we’ve had symptoms within 72 hours, no conversation about our health, period,” said an employee at a Whole Foods store in King County.
An employee at an Amazon fulfillment center serving New York City, now the U.S. epicenter of the outbreak with the most confirmed virus cases, said, “Not only are they not screening for symptoms, they are also not following CDC social distancing guidelines.” (Signs posted in warehouses instruct people to stay three feet apart, rather than six feet.)
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance March 11 for every workplace in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties calling for such screenings to be performed daily. Public Health — Seattle & King County issued an order and guidance for businesses March 17 that says, “Employees must be screened for coronavirus symptoms each day and excluded if symptomatic.” The Washington State Department of Health has also issued screening recommendations to employers, noting they can “help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in your facility by screening employees and visitors on a daily basis.”
A company spokesperson said Wednesday evening, “we are educating associates to self-screen through onsite resources including posters and signage, and manager briefings reminding employees to stay home if they have a fever.”
Meanwhile, attorneys general in 14 states and Washington, D.C., said Amazon’s sick leave policies are “inadequate to protect the public health during the developing COVID-19 crisis,” according to a letter they sent to the company Wednesday.
Amazon has said it will provide up to two weeks of paid leave for employees who have confirmed cases of the virus or are placed in quarantine. That isn’t enough, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey wrote in the letter, which was signed by other attorneys general from states including Washington, California, New York and Pennsylvania.
“We urge you to adopt a more generous paid leave policy for the Companies’ employees and independent contractors,” the letter said. It was written to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and John Mackey, the CEO of Amazon-owned Whole Foods. Amazon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.
The Washington Post, citing local news outlets and company statements, reported that Amazon employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, at facilities in New York City (where two tested positive); Shepherdsville, Kentucky; Jacksonville, Florida; Katy, Texas; Brownstown, Michigan; Oklahoma City; Moreno Valley, California.; and Wallingford, Connecticut. Last week, two Whole Foods employees tested positive in New York.
Amazon closed the Kentucky facility this week — a warehouse dedicated to returning apparel — after three workers tested positive for COVID-19, the first known instance of the company indefinitely idling a U.S facility in response to the pandemic.
The move comes after employees expressed concern that returning to work to process returned sneakers and wristwatches wasn’t worth the risk of contracting or spreading the respiratory disease.
Workers will get their regularly scheduled pay, said four employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from their employer. Amazon hasn’t identified any of the sick warehouse employees but says, in each case, it informed those who came into close contact with them. An Amazon spokeswoman declined to respond to questions about the number of coronavirus cases in its warehouses or potential adjustments to facilities built to carry non-essential items.
In the last week, Amazon started eliminating warehouse shift meetings, staggering start times and rearranging warehouse break rooms to discourage congregating.
Bezos addressed shortages of protective equipment for employees in a staff letter publicized on Saturday, noting that the company had ordered millions of masks to give to employees and contractors who can’t work from home, but the orders haven’t been filled due to global supply shortages and the more pressing needs of health care workers.
“When our turn for masks comes, our first priority will be getting them in the hands of our employees and partners working to get essential products to people,” Bezos wrote.
Amazon’s busy Kirkland fulfillment center, which has appeared overwhelmed with grocery orders at times in recent days, has added new hires and Amazon workers from other local facilities to provide extra help. Amazon is seeking 100,000 new workers across the country as it struggles with demand surges that have pushed delivery times far beyond the same-day or next-day promises it used to make customers.
The Kirkland employee said managers provided no instructions on cleaning equipment that is “constantly passed between workers” and there was no extra time allotted for hand-washing. Bottles of hand sanitizer often sit empty. COVID-19 wasn’t discussed during a recent shift. But productivity was.
“We were constantly told that we need to work fast and everything is timed,” the employee said.
A company spokesperson said employees are allowed to log out to wash hands whenever they choose to — and are instructed to do so often — with “no impact on their performance.” She reiterated the preventive measures and guidelines Amazon has put in place, and said they are being implemented at the Kirkland site. She said it has multiple cleaning stations with hand sanitizer, wipes and gloves.
The Whole Foods worker reported seeing multiple employees coughing, despite management telling anyone with symptoms of the virus not to come to work for at least 72 hours. “I have no reason to believe this is being enforced in any tangible way, based on conversations I’ve had,” the worker said.
Employees said managers have been indifferent and even dismissive of concerns.
“It’s very anxiety provoking to be there,” the Whole Foods worker said, “and I do not see true leadership and concern for our health being demonstrated by my superiors in this crisis.”
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.