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‘They’re putting us all at risk’: What it’s like working in Amazon’s warehouses during the coronavirus outbreak

A worker assembles a box for delivery at the Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., April 30, 2019.

Clodagh Kilcoyne | Reuters

As the coronavirus outbreak has worsened, many Americans have hunkered down in their homes and are turning to online marketplaces like Amazon to get essentials like toilet paper, food and hand sanitizer delivered to their door. 

While physical stores run out of stock and cities are on lockdown, Amazon’s warehouse workers, delivery drivers and contract employees have been praised for their fearlessness in continuing to go to work during a crisis. Amazon has called its employees “heroes fighting for their communities” and CEO Jeff Bezos said workers’ efforts were “being noticed at the highest levels of government.”

Warehouse workers and other Amazon employees don’t view their jobs with the same rose-colored optimism. A dozen Amazon workers told CNBC that they’re terrified to go to work during the pandemic, while others have expressed frustration over how their employer has responded to the threat of the coronavirus at their workplaces. Many of the workers asked to remain anonymous so as not to upset their employer.

In private Facebook groups, warehouse workers from across the country debated the merits of missing shifts because they don’t feel comfortable coming to work. Others question whether Amazon is doing enough to keep workers safe, which often garners responses from workers who say they should feel lucky enough to have a job during a time of economic uncertainty. (Jobless claims hit 3.28 million on Thursday, shattering previous records.) Some employees who continue to report to their jobs have added a badge to their Facebook profile picture that reads: “I can’t stay home, I work at Amazon.” 

Amazon employees who feel it’s unsafe to come into work are given a limited set of options. They can take as much unpaid time off as they want through the month of April, but it means they won’t get a paycheck while they’re at home. Amazon has also offered two weeks of paid sick leave, but only for those who test positive for the coronavirus or if they’re in quarantine. As a result, many employees continue to come in to work. 

Facilities remain crowded and run at full speed. At some warehouses, sanitation supplies are scarce or nowhere to be found, while some employees come to work sick, workers told CNBC.

Above all, Amazon employees said there’s an overwhelming sense that they’re responsible for their own safety at work.

“It’s made me so furious to see all of these managers say we’re doing the best we can, but you look at anything from the outside world and so many people are working from home,” said William Stolz, a picker at a warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, known as MSP1, and an organizer with the Awood Center, a nonprofit that advocates for East African workers in the state and a frequent critic of Amazon.

“I have a lot of co-workers with older parents they’re taking care of or co-workers who live in multigenerational households with young children. It’s just so maddening to see that they really don’t care about us.”

Concern for Amazon workers’ safety has continued to build in recent weeks. Workers have circulated petitions calling for the company to do more. Employee group Amazonians United NYC has also launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Amazon employees who are staying home without pay. Their calls have been taken up by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as well as a group of senators who urged Bezos to give workers paid time off.

An Amazon spokesperson referred CNBC to a recent blog post about steps the company is taking to protect workers’ health and safety. Amazon has previously said it’s gone to “great lengths” to keep facilities clean and make sure employees are following necessary safety precautions, such as washing their hands, using hand sanitizer, practicing social distancing and other measures.

Amazon has also announced several benefits changes in recent weeks, including raising pay for warehouse workers and delivery drivers by $2 per hour through the month of April, doubling overtime pay and allowing for unlimited unpaid time off. On Monday, Amazon said it would offer paid time off for part-time warehouse workers

Still, Amazon employees argue that these efforts aren’t enough to keep them safe. They remain anxious as more and more warehouses across the country report cases of the coronavirus. There are at least 10 facilities in the U.S. that have workers who have tested positive for the virus, and they all remain open. An Amazon warehouse in Queens, New York, temporarily closed last week after a worker tested positive. Amazon has indefinitely closed a facility in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, known as SDF9, after there was a confirmed case of the coronavirus.

Working ‘shoulder to shoulder’

Some Amazon fulfillment centers are the size of several football fields and employ thousands of workers. At least 300 employees might be reporting into work during each shift and facilities are usually bustling with activity, as workers pick and pack a flurry of items that are sent out to customers’ doorsteps.

Despite their sprawling size, employees say they’re often working close to their colleagues, whether that’s reaching across a conveyor belt to hand off a package or standing side by side at a workstation, packing boxes. 

A worker at a facility in Michigan said that what concerns her most are the employees who have to work “shoulder to shoulder or elbow to elbow.” For these employees, it’s impossible for them to keep 6 feet apart, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.

Amazon says it has made social distancing a priority at its facilities and that work stations are several feet apart in warehouses. The company has canceled stand-up meetings, which are held before the beginning of each shift and gather hundreds of workers in one room. To prevent crowding, shifts and breaks have have been staggered, while chairs in break rooms are no longer side by side. Amazon has also canceled security screenings, where employees gather in long lines to have their belongings inspected before leaving for the day.

Amazon has tried to limit contact in break rooms at its warehouses by spacing out chairs.

But these efforts don’t address the crowding that occurs on the warehouse floor, where employees sweat, move packages with their hands, and share work stations with touch screens and other common surfaces. 

“They want to talk about social distancing as far as the break room and stand up [meetings] goes, but work conditions are still bad,” the worker in Michigan said. “Social distancing is not being practiced in the sort area and packing. People are still working very close to one another.”

Hibaq Mohamed, who also works out of MSP1 in Minnesota, said there continues to be crowding in the break room at her facility. Employees are using the same microwaves to heat up their lunch and hand sanitizer remains in short supply. 

“The workplace is overcrowded,” Mohamed said. “I am afraid, but I cannot stop working without pay.”

An Amazon employee who works in a facility in Kentucky said his location has implemented some safety measures like sending out cleaning crews to wipe down the break rooms and work stations after every shift. But he’s worried that Amazon’s move to hire an additional 100,000 workers will make it even harder to police whether employees are keeping their stations clean.  

“[The facilities] do feel unsafe,” the worker in Kentucky said. “Our building typically has 400 [people] or so per night shift. That’s a lot of people in a single building.” 

Rationed supplies and no time to wash hands

Despite Amazon’s efforts to make cleaning supplies available at facilities, five Amazon employees told CNBC that hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes were either in short supply or completely absent from their workplaces. 

Some employees say they’ve brought in their own supplies, including face masks, to compensate for the shortage. A driver in Atlanta who works for a delivery service provider contracted by Amazon said employees were told they had to bring their own supplies, such as gloves and disinfectant spray. He said he noticed several colleagues who were delivering packages to shoppers’ homes without wearing any kind of protective gear. An Amazon spokesperson pointed CNBC to the company’s blog post that said delivery drivers have been instructed to sanitize their vehicles and avoid contact with customers.

The driver is now afraid he’ll contract the virus from a co-worker who isn’t taking proper precautions or by coming into contact with members of the public while he’s on his delivery route. This fear has only become more intense after a close friend died from the coronavirus this week, he said.

Amazon recently issued a letter for drivers to show to police officers if they get pulled over for being on the road. The letter, dated March 23 and viewed by CNBC, says that the driver is “an employee of a supplier that provides vital services for Amazon, an essential business” and is “allowing members of the community to remain at home and reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure and transmission, including the elderly and vulnerable persons.” 

While average Americans are being told to stay home, the driver said his employer has only encouraged them to work more. His employer has offered an extra $2 per hour through the end of March, and employees are eligible to receive an additional $2 per hour if they finish a certain number of deliveries per shift. The pace of work has been akin to Prime Day, the driver said, with him making 130 stops in a single day. 

“I have high blood pressure and asthma issues. I have three children. I’m really not willing to risk my life for two extra dollars,” he said.

At fulfillment centers, the pressure to hit certain metrics also remains intense. Employees are also working more than usual, as a result of the surge in online shopping. 

Workers said their facilities were operating at full capacity like they do during peak periods such as Prime Day. Several workers said their facilities have ordered workers to come in for mandatory extra time (MET) due to the increase in demand. In those cases, each full-time employee has one extra day where they’re required to come in and work a 10-hour to 12-hour shift. 

Three warehouse workers said the pressure to make rate, or unpack and pack a required number of items per hour, means they have fewer opportunities to step away and wash their hands, which in some cases is their only choice if there’s no sanitizer available. It can take several minutes to walk across the facility to a restroom, at which point they risk logging too many “time off task” (TOT) points, which is grounds for termination.

“Amazon keeps us in the same fast pace as always,” said an employee who works out of a facility in Orlando, Florida. “There’s not enough time to go to the restrooms and wash our hands as needed to keep safe.” 

The Amazon spokesperson said employees can wash their hands whenever they choose and it won’t be counted against them.

An Amazon warehouse in Michigan shows a notice informing employees of staggered shift times.

The worker added that her work station remains dirty and employees are only allowed to take two pairs of gloves per week from the facility, despite the CDC recommending that users throw away gloves after they’re worn once. 

Another worker at an Amazon facility in Maryland said she decided to stay home after her location ran out of supplies. The worker said her facility restricted employees to using one sanitizing wipe to clean their station as supplies began to run low. She said social distancing has been practically impossible for her while she coaches and trains associates, and as workers continue to crowd around time clocks and during the start and end of shifts.

“I don’t want to carry COVID-19 home to my family,” the worker said. “My last straw was when my building ran out of hand sanitizer and I couldn’t find wipes to clean my shared laptop and radio.” 

A pharmacist at Amazon’s online pharmacy company PillPack, who works out of an Amazon fulfillment center in Phoenix, said there are restrictions on supplies at her facility. There are no gloves or masks available at her facility and sanitizer is being rationed to “one dime-sized portion,” and they can only use it if their job requires it. Additionally, there are only two bathrooms on the floor, one for each gender, for hundreds of employees. The other bathroom is upstairs in the facility, which is too far away, she added.

“You’re not going to walk to the bathroom a mile away,” the pharmacist said. “The time that you’re upstairs and downstairs, that’s measured too.”

Tough decisions

Warehouse workers and delivery drivers have been met with a serious dilemma: Go to work and risk getting sick or stay home and find themselves unable to pay their bills. 

One worker at a facility in Oregon said he’s been grappling with that decision since his wife went to the emergency room last week “gasping for air” and running a fever. His wife couldn’t get tested for the coronavirus, but the doctor told him to treat her as if she did have it. Since then, the situation has only gotten worse, as his 4-year-old son has developed a severe cough, bad enough that the worker said he was afraid his son would need to go to the hospital, too.

He’s been taking unpaid time off to care for his family, but isn’t sure how long he can survive without getting a paycheck.

“I’m put in a position where I have to pay rent and go to work at Amazon, or stay home and risk our rent payment,” the worker added. 

The worker in Michigan echoed those concerns. The father of her children is showing symptoms of the coronavirus and she suspects she picked it up from the facility she works at. She decided to quarantine herself to make sure she doesn’t transmit the virus, which means she isn’t going to work and isn’t getting paid. But even if she wasn’t in quarantine, she said she wouldn’t feel safe going to work. 

“[Amazon] has offered to give us double for overtime pay, but honestly, at what cost?” she said. “Especially in Michigan, nothing is dying down and the cases seem to be rising more.”

Employees may risk coming to work sick because taking unpaid time off would mean not paying their bills. In order to get paid time off, employees either have to be in quarantine after coming into contact with someone who tested positive, or to have tested positive for COVID-19 themselves. Even if workers show symptoms of the virus, it’s hard to get tested, since tests are still in limited supply.

The uneven safety precautions at facilities across the country have sown feelings of distrust between workers and their managers. Despite reassurances from Bezos that he intends to make masks available for workers on the front lines, workers say they don’t trust him either. 

Workers say they’ve become paranoid that managers aren’t being honest about whether employees are sick with the virus, so that they can keep the facilities open and the goods flowing to shoppers around the country who need them. 

“If they could say we’re testing everybody every two days, I’d feel a lot better, but they can’t do that,” said Stolz, the worker in Minnesota. “In the meantime, they’re just smiling and putting us all at risk.”

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