Tech by VICE

Coronavirus Cases 'Likely to Exponentially Increase' in Amazon Warehouses

More than half of Amazon’s 110 warehouse facilities in the US have reported cases of coronavirus. Experts say that the number of cases could dramatically increase in the coming days and weeks.

by Lauren Kaori Gurley
Apr 16 2020, 4:10pm

Image: Getty Images

In late March, the governor of Kentucky ordered an Amazon facility to shut for a week after three workers tested positive for coronavirus, overriding Amazon’s decision to close the warehouse for 48 hours. Amazon has refused to close many of its facilities for longer than a day or two since the pandemic began. Some warehouse have even continued operations without a closure when workers test positive for coronavirus.

A report published on Thursday by the Athena Coalition and Hedge Clippers, two grassroots workers' rights organizations, says states and governors should be making more interventions when Amazon fails to take steps to protect its warehouse workers in facilities with confirmed coronavirus cases.

The report’s authors say that Amazon has failed to comply with CDC guidelines on how to clean facilities with coronavirus cases, which include closing off areas visited by infected workers, using ventilating fans, and waiting at least 24 hours before disinfection.

“Self-interested critics, particularly unions and groups funded by our competitors, have a vested interest in spreading misinformation about Amazon but the facts tell a different story," said Kristen Kish, an Amazon spokesperson. "Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams. Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with health authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve communities while taking care of our associates and teams. And, we have implemented more than 150 significant process changes to support our teams including increasing rates of pay, adjusting time off and providing temperature checks, masks, gloves and other safety measures at our sites."

On March 18, Amazon confirmed its first case of coronavirus in one of its warehouse facilities, when workers shut down the Queens delivery center where their infected colleague had worked. Less than a month later, the number of Amazon warehouse workers sick with Covid-19 has snowballed to at least 75 cases in more than 50 facilities from Oregon to Texas to Florida. On April 14, Amazon confirmed the first death of a warehouse worker.

The report makes a series of recommendations for improving the health and safety of Amazon’s frontline workers. The groups say that roughly half of Amazon's 110 warehouse facilities in the United States have Covid-19 cases, and that number is “likely to exponentially increase” in the second half of April.

“A single Amazon warehouse can employ thousands of people, which significantly concentrates the risk of transmission,” the report’s authors write. “As the coronavirus pandemic rapidly accelerates, workers are sounding the alarm: Amazon's health and safety measures and benefits are wholly inadequate.”

To date, Amazon has not implemented a comprehensive national health and safety plan for its warehouse and delivery workers, experts say, turning it into a vector for the spread of the virus. The company has, however, outlined a series of piecemeal benefits and policies posted on its online blog, including two weeks of paid sick leave for anyone who tests positive for coronavirus or receives directives from their doctor to quarantine, and a $2 an hour increase in wages.

The report’s authors recommend that Amazon immediately adopt a comprehensive health and safety plan for its warehouses and delivery workers, expand paid leave policies for anyone experiencing illness in their household, eliminate productivity quotas that prevent workers from following CDC guidelines for health and safety, and create a solid hardship fund for its workers without asking for the public’s donations. (Amazon is currently soliciting donations from the public for relief for its workers, despite the fact that its owner Jeff Bezos is the wealthiest person on the planet.)

These recommendations have been echoed by attorney generals in 14 states as well as Senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Sherrod Brown, and follow a decision by a court in France on Wednesday to temporarily shut down Amazon operations after it found that the company had failed to protect its workers against coronavirus. Until workplace safety issues have been addressed, Amazon deliveries in France will be restricted to food, hygiene, and medical supplies.

Are you working on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic? Do you work for Amazon and have a tip to share? We'd love to hear from you. Please get in touch with the writer by email Lauren.gurley@vice.com or on Signal 201-897-2109.

“The exponential growth rate of coronavirus in Amazon facilities is startling and points to the fact that the measures Amazon has put in place are inadequate,” Maggie Corser, the author of the report, and a senior research analyst at the Center for Popular Democracy, told Motherboard. “Amazon has touted piecemeal measures. It’s clear from the growth rate that what Amazon is doing is not working.”

Amazon has also struck back against worker organizing, firing two warehouses and two corporate employees who protested the company’s response to coronavirus.

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Coronavirus