Amazon workers at a New York warehouse are walking off the job until the place is thoroughly sanitized, after at least two of their co-workers and possibly more became ill with the coronavirus.
The walkout began at 12:30 Monday afternoon with at least 50 workers joining in and up to 200 expected to participate; on a weekly basis, between 4,500 and 5,000 people work at the facility, according to Christian Smalls, an organizer of the walkout and assistant manager at the JFK8 Amazon Fulfillment Center, in the New York borough of Staten Island.
Earlier this month, the company said it would hire 100,000 additional people and offer workers a $2-an-hour raise to deal with a coronavirus-related spike in online shopping that’s been compared to Amazon’s Christmas rush.
The walkout action started coming together last week, Smalls said, after the online mega-retailer confirmed that at least one employee at the JFK8 Amazon site tested positive for coronavirus. Smalls says, however, that even more workers have tested positive than Amazon has publicly admitted; a friend of the worker who’s known to have been diagnosed with COVID-19 has also tested positive, he told VICE News. New York is the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.
“How essential are we if we’re spreading this virus to customers?” Smalls said. “Amazon is a breeding ground for the coronavirus. We’re going to be the second wave. Right now, I’m trying to prevent that.”
Monday morning, Amazon texted workers confirming that a second worker, who was last at work on March 24, had tested positive, according to a screenshot of the tweet Smalls posted to Twitter.
“That’s not confidential,” Smalls said. “The number [of positive cases]? That should be public and employee knowledge. You’re putting people at risk who’ve got underlying health conditions. God forbid if somebody passes away.”
The workers are asking for the building to be closed, cleaned, and sanitized, as well as pay for workers who won’t be able to fulfill their duties during that time. “All we want is the building to be closed down and sanitized like the building in Queens and for us to be paid while that’s happening,” Smalls said.
Earlier this month, Amazon closed down its Queens facility for a day to be sanitized after an employee there tested positive for coronavirus, and reopened it a day later. So far, workers at over 10 Amazon warehouses have tested positive for the virus. “We’re not just doing this for our building. We’re doing this for all of the Amazon buildings around the nation,” Smalls said.
In an email, Amazon pushed back on Smalls’ allegations, which they called “simply unfounded,” and criticized him for what they called “a number of incorrect comments.” They also said Smalls is being paid while on a 14-day self-quarantine.
“Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement, adding that it’s taken “extreme measures to keep people safe.”
Amazon also said it’s implemented a daily temperature check before workers begin shifts at the Staten Island facility; is consulting with health officials on its deep-cleaning processes; and has recently rolled out new benefits, including paid-leave options for full-time employees, double time for overtime, and PTO for part-time and seasonal workers.
The change in PTO policy came after a monthslong pressure campaign from employee advocacy groups across the country, including in Chicago and Sacramento, California, although Amazon has denied that those groups had anything to do with their decision.
The 100,000-member Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), with which some workers at the facility have attempted a unionization effort, released a statement in support of the strikers. “All employers need to prioritize the health and safety of their workforce at this time,” RWDSU president Stuart Applebaum said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Amazon appears to be prioritizing maximizing its enormous profits even over its employees’ safety — and that is unacceptable.”
For Smalls, the issue is bigger than the Amazon facility he works at. “This is a cry for help. We expect Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo to take notice,” he said. “The government needs to take a serious look at Amazon.”
Later Monday afternoon, Smalls told VICE News via text that he was fired over the phone for “violating quarantine.”
“It’s [shameful] how they are getting away with this,” Smalls said. VICE News reached out to Amazon regarding why they dismissed Smalls.
Check back for updates.
Cover: A worker replaces a bin that has been robotically delivered to her workstation while filling orders at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Staten Island, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)