Amazon confirmed its first U.S. case of an hourly employee with COVID-19 in New York while workers at two of the company’s major fulfillment centers in the Seattle area said they were not being screened for coronavirus symptoms as recently as Wednesday.
That’s despite U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations issued March 11 for every workplace in the region calling for daily temperature and respiratory symptom checks of all staff and visitors entering buildings, and a statement from Amazon’s top operations executive on Monday saying the company was taking “all recommended precautions in our buildings and stores to keep people healthy.”
The employees, who work at major Amazon facilities in Kent and Kirkland — two of more than 175 around the world where thousands of workers gather, pack and ship customer orders — also described operations that appeared to fall short of the social-distancing measures recommended by the CDC. Shift start times were not being staggered — although a company spokesperson said this was changing — and people were still working “shoulder to shoulder” in some parts of the facilities, they said.
The company confirmed that an employee in a Queens, New York, delivery station had tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, as first reported by The Atlantic. The spokesperson said the employee is now in quarantine. The company temporarily closed the facility “for additional sanitation and sent associates [employees] home with full pay.”
But the first COVID-19 case in Amazon’s enormous U.S. fulfillment and delivery system will add to concerns among employees who find themselves on the front lines of supplying homebound people during the pandemic, and who already were concerned about safety. The company previously confirmed two positive cases among its headquarters staff in Seattle and in warehouses in Europe.
Amazon employees, gig workers and job applicants who spoke to The Seattle Times in recent days described handheld scanners and racks at the Kirkland facility that were touched by many hands between cleanings, if they were cleaned at all; no easing in rigorous productivity targets to give employees extra time to clean their workstations — which the company said it now requires them to do at the start and end of each shift — or their hands; and recruiting centers where people responding to the company’s call for 100,000 new hires crammed together into small rooms to complete paperwork.
One Amazon Flex contract driver who asked about the cleanliness of racks in Kirkland last weekend was told, “If that matters to you, maybe you should wear gloves.” (An employee there said gloves were sometimes available.)
The employees, most of whom asked not to be named because they were unauthorized to speak or feared reprisals, paint a picture of a company straining to meet an unprecedented surge in demand while struggling to consistently apply the safety practices described in its corporate pronouncements in response to the pandemic.
An Amazon spokesperson did not address whether the company was screening employees for symptoms, one of the CDC’s recommended mitigation strategies for workplaces in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, announced by the White House on March 11. She said new social-distancing measures were implemented Monday.
“Health and safety are a top priority with all of our roles and sites,” Dave Clark, Amazon’s head of worldwide operations, said in a blog post Monday announcing its push to hire 100,000 full- and part-time employees to handle the surge in demand for online shopping. “We continue to consult with medical and health experts, and take all recommended precautions in our buildings and stores to keep people healthy.”
Some fulfillment-center employees said company managers have not listened to their concerns, responding to questions about things like social distancing written over the past 10 days on a large “Voice of Associates” white board at the Kent fulfillment center with vague statements such as “we are evaluating the situation.” Some said they fear the company isn’t doing enough to protect workers’ health at a time when an economic crash and suddenly flooded job market leaves them with fewer employment alternatives.
Amazon has directed workers who are sick to stay at home, offering anyone unlimited unpaid leave and two weeks of paid leave for employees diagnosed with the virus. Meanwhile, employee advocates and company critics are calling on Amazon, and companies across the country, to offer paid sick leave to all employees, lest they be forced to choose between their livelihood and staying home to protect their health and slow the virus’ spread.
Apart from their personal concerns, some employees worried that Amazon is jeopardizing its own operations at time when delivery services have quickly gone from modern convenience to vital support for tens of millions of people — perhaps soon to be hundreds of millions — sheltering in place. COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, has already struck Amazon employees in warehouses in Spain and Italy, although the company has so far kept those facilities open over the objections of unions there.
One Kent fulfillment-center employee who has worked for Amazon for multiple years said he and many colleagues had no complaints about the increased pace of work, recognizing the emergency situation. They just want the company to do everything it can to protect them, so they can keep going, the employee said.
“People know they’re making a difference, and they’re excited about that. They’re excited to serve their community,” he said. “I want to put out as much stuff as possible. I just want to do it in a responsible way.”
He said workers arriving at the facility facing South 212th Street are not being screened for symptoms. The company has suspended its security checkpoints to avoid crowding at exits as hundreds of employees come and go with shift changes, the spokesperson said.
She also said shift start times and breaks are being staggered, but no employees had noticed that yet, including one who worked Wednesday.
Employees and the spokesperson said Amazon has done away with start-of-shift stand-up meetings to go over safety, proper procedure and other important information. But that was perhaps the least concerning part of the workday, the Kent employee said, because people could easily step away from each other during the brief gathering.
Once at their station, workers are provided no extra “time off task” in the parlance of the company’s closely monitored workplace to clean or frequently wash their hands, the employees said. The corporate spokesperson did not respond to questions about this.
In the Kent facility, many workstations are already spaced far enough apart to meet social-distancing guidelines. The corporate spokesperson said the company is directing people to stay at least three feet apart, per World Health Organization guidance, though other authorities recommend at least six feet. At other stations, such as those where orders with multiple items are packed together, people are much closer — “shoulder to shoulder,” the Kent employee said — and frequently moving around each other as they go to and from shelves full of products.
“That’s the area I’m most concerned about,” he said.
At the Kirkland facility, where people are constantly pushing carts through aisles of groceries and other products to assemble orders for rapid delivery, “there is no way to avoid being really close to other people,” the employee working there said.
She added that the company had spread out tables in the break room. “I think that’s because they think people won’t be as close together and congregate as much, but people still do,” she said.
Concerns over sanitation and social distancing extend from the fulfillment center into the local Amazon delivery network, which has struggled to deliver orders at Amazon’s usual pace. A dispatch system failed Sunday, causing significant delays of Amazon grocery orders across the country.
The company is attracting many new drivers and would-be employees — including many who are newly unemployed — helping it quickly replenish its workforce during a period when it is normally slowing down from its holiday peak. But social-distancing concerns have arisen in its recruitment and onboarding practices, too.
After a Seattle-area woman’s job at a local restaurant fell through, she completed an online application to be an Amazon Flex driver — an independent contractor using a private vehicle to deliver packages. It wasn’t something she’d considered previously, but in addition to the opportunity to earn some cash, bringing needed items to housebound people seemed like a way to help during the crisis. “Delivery driving feels like something I can do,” she said.
She was directed to complete paperwork Wednesday any time between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. at either a Holiday Inn Express & Suites on Aurora Avenue North or an Amazon Recruiting Center in Kent. But the crowded scene she encountered at both locations was off-putting, said the woman, who is staying with her 50-something parents and is concerned about bringing the virus home.
“They have a huge number of people packing into small spaces, and it just seems extremely irresponsible to me,” she said, asking not to be named out of concerns it would jeopardize her ability to work for the company.
She wondered why Amazon couldn’t assign people, or even small groups, individual time slots to complete paperwork. The spokesperson did not address concerns about crowding at recruitment sites but did say the company was training employees in smaller groups and using in-app tools.
Tom Fullum, a longtime Amazon Flex driver who delivers Prime Now grocery orders from the Kirkland fulfillment center, said he’s made changes to protect himself, all the way to the end customer. For example, when delivering alcohol, drivers still must scan the recipient’s identification for age verification and get their signature.
“I don’t allow people to sign my phone anymore,” he said. “I just sign COVID-19.”