A receptionist at one of Amazon’s deserted corporate headquarters buildings spent part of a recent shift roaming empty offices, counting untouched boxes of Kleenex and bottles of hand sanitizer.
“Busy work,” she called it, because no one was there to use the supplies. But Amazon said these support employees, albeit in reduced numbers, are indeed “mission critical.”
Most of the time, the receptionist said, she was assigned to sit uncomfortably close — certainly closer than the six feet of social distance recommended to minimize the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus — to a co-worker also staffing the building’s front desk.
Occasionally, an Amazon employee comes in to pick up a desk chair or computer monitor, but far less frequently since Washington’s stay-at-home order was issued March 23. Mostly she sees other contractors — janitors, security guards and distributors — some of the approximately 10,000 hourly workers Amazon pledged to continue paying while its own salaried employees work from home.
Many of those workers said that despite the nearly empty buildings, they have been told by managers that Amazon considers them essential and, as such, they have to show up for their shifts to get paid. Many ride public transportation to the company’s South Lake Union and Denny Regrade headquarters campus and are concerned that this elevates their risk, the receptionist said.
“We couldn’t go home with pay because we’re considered essential,” the receptionist said, adding that there are about 130 people in her situation whose wages start at about $17.50 an hour. “I feel like they’re putting, at least within my company, hundreds of people at risk.”
In a statement Tuesday, Amazon confirmed that “a limited number of mission critical employees and support staff are working from the office — with the majority of support staff staying at home.”
The receptionist is one of several employees of Amazon contractors serving the company’s Seattle headquarters to question why it was essential to staff them — a question on the minds of many workers whose employers have required them to come in to work during the coronavirus outbreak. The people who shared their concerns for this story asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
Amazon issued a work-from-home recommendation to its corporate-headquarters employees in Seattle beginning March 6 and announced plans to keep paying hourly workers shortly thereafter. “We continue to pay all hourly employees that support our offices around the world — from administrative functions to food service to janitorial staff — during the time our employees who are able to work from home do so,” the company said in a statement Tuesday, noting that this was true whether hourly workers were coming in to work or not.
The move came close on the heels of a similar pledge by Microsoft, and it earned praise from Zenia Javalera, president of SEIU6 Property Services NW, a union representing many contract security and janitorial workers.
“COVID-19 will not distinguish between salaried, hourly, or contracted workers; corporations shouldn’t either,” Javalera said in a statement at the time.
Amazon said the employees and contractors who are still coming into its buildings are needed to maintain site security and safety, receive and distribute mail, and keep the buildings stocked and cleaned in support of a small number of Amazon’s own employees who have to be on-site to work on home delivery, cloud computing and other services.
An SEIU6 representative said many of its members, particularly janitors, have been asked to work overtime as companies enhance cleaning of their facilities.
Janitors are performing hourly sanitization of hand rails, elevator buttons and security gates at Amazon buildings, the company said.
Northwest Center (NWC), a nonprofit providing job placement, training, specialized child care and other services to people of all abilities, is one of the companies contracted to provide staff for a variety of functions in Amazon’s Seattle buildings, including reception.
Gene Boes, NWC’s chief executive, said his group has remained in close communication with Amazon’s leadership, relying on a relationship developed over the past 18 years that NWC has worked with the company.
“We’ve worked closely with them to understand what their needs are with our staff … whether it’s a job that has to be on site out of necessity or whether we can do it remotely,” Boes said. “We want to make sure that we’re adding value in whatever way we need to certainly while keeping our employees safe.”
Beginning this week, building reception hours were reduced to 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., the receptionist said. They were previously 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Amazon confirmed that building hours had been reduced. After this story published Tuesday evening, an Amazon spokesperson said the company had recently reduced its receptionist requirement to one per building, enabling receptionists to adhere to social distancing.
NWC has nearly 250 employees working at Amazon sites in the Seattle area and in Virginia, out of more than 1,000 employees across the organization. NWC employees are receptionists, call-centers workers, “move ambassadors” who help Amazon employees move from one office to another, staff and docents at the Amazon Spheres, and the “banistas” who in normal times hand out free bananas outside company buildings.
Boes said NWC, despite “pretty substantial 2020 revenue losses,” was providing more paid time off for essential workers and those who have seen hours or wages cut, transportation subsidies to help employees reduce their use of public transit, and a new “income protection” benefit available to all its workers.
Some NWC employees said it was difficult to apply for the benefits, or were told their condition didn’t qualify. Boes said that he hadn’t heard of such difficulties and that almost 100 employees — about 60% of whom are in higher-risk categories or who live with someone who is — are using the income benefit, which may be extended to as long as 10 weeks “for the majority of these individuals.” Five employees who applied didn’t qualify, he said.
“We do not want anyone coming to work who doesn’t feel safe doing so, and we are doing everything we can to accommodate each individual employee,” Boes said.
Allied Universal, which last year won the security contract for Amazon’s Seattle campus, “is continuing to safeguard Amazon’s state-of-the-art buildings located in the Seattle area,” spokeswoman Vanessa Showalter said.
The company is working with its employees to address impacts on their specific situations and complying with applicable state and local laws on paid sick leave, she said, adding that “we are continually adapting our operations and business.”