Enlarge /. A van and driver of the Amazon Prime brand.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, an otherwise marginalized class of workers is suddenly in the spotlight. Often undervalued and poorly paid, they are grocery, sanitary, medical, and other employees who cannot stay at home – even when the nation is locked. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of these so-called essential workers are employed or contracted for Amazon, whose delivery network has proven to be an important service for millions of Americans who are stuck in their homes.
Wired spoke to nine Amazon employees during the Covid 19 crisis in the past two weeks and published their reports on the work in their own words. They work in Amazon fulfillment centers, deliver packages and groceries, and store groceries in Amazon cafeterias. Some are directly employed by Amazon, others are contractors. Each of them says they are worried about their health and that of their families, and many believe that Amazon is not doing enough to ensure their safety. While the company often referred to its frontline employees as heroes, the people WIRED spoke to said they didn't sign up for this risk.
According to the New York Times, Covid-19 has now expanded to at least 50 Amazon sites in the U.S. from a total of more than 500. The outbreaks have led to protests by employees in Detroit, New York City, and Chicago, where workers said Amazon was slow to inform them about infections and underperformed. At Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, employees conducted a nationwide demonstration that raised similar safety concerns and called for free corona virus testing for all employees. And more than 5,000 Amazon employees have signed a petition asking for additional benefits in the face of the health crisis, including hazard payments, and the closure of facilities where an employee does positive tests so that the company can be properly cleaned .
Amazon's practices have caught the attention of lawmakers, including Senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Robert Menendez, and Sherrod Brown, who sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos last month responding to security measures of the company in the workplace. "Any failure by Amazon to protect its employees endangers not only its employees, but the entire country," they write. On Wednesday, the safety and health agency announced that it was investigating an Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania after workers there said their health was not protected. Workers in a warehouse in California submitted similar complaints to state and regional regulators on the same day.
“Our employees are heroes who fight for their communities and help people get important things they need in this crisis. Like all companies dealing with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we are working hard to ensure employee safety while serving communities and the most vulnerable, ”an Amazon spokesman said in a statement. "We have taken extreme measures to ensure people's safety, triple deep cleaning, procure available safety stocks, and change processes to ensure that people in our buildings stay safe."
According to Amazon, over 150 changes have been made to protect the workforce. This includes distributing face masks to all employees, setting up protocols for social distance, staggering shift start times and adding more space between workstations. The company also checks to see if employees have a fever when they appear on their shifts, although practice doesn't recognize the significant number of asymptomatic Covid-19 cases. The Amazon spokesman said this was just "one of the many preventive measures Amazon is taking to support the health and safety of our customers and employees."
Over the past few weeks, Amazon has raised hourly wages, declaring that anyone who has concerns about getting to work can take unpaid free time until the end of April. After criticism from lawmakers, anyone suspected of having Covid-19 or quarantined can now take two weeks of paid emergency leave. Before March 27, the company requested that employees get a positive test result in order to take advantage. A nationwide lack of testing made this extremely difficult.
The following interviews have been summarized and edited for reasons of clarity.
Warehouse worker, early forties, Texas
My partner and I have both been with Amazon for several years. We are great at what we do. I love the job itself, but I don't like how the company treats people – almost as if they were available.
Since the virus appeared in the past few weeks, we have used unpaid – not paid – free time. I think I'll be paid for six hours of work on this next paycheck. I stay at home because my mother used a pacemaker not long ago and she lives with me. We don't want to get by without money. In fact, I don't know how we're going to pay our bills this month. I have only about $ 200 left and this stimulus check is likely to take another month.
Amazon publishes its own small message notifications. One of them told us that we have to make sure we clean our scanners. They told us to do it – the people who also work on the ground and who are responsible for ensuring that each shift brings out a certain number of packages. That kills me: When we go through the main doors, we hit these turnstiles to enter. Everyone has to touch them, and I've never seen anyone in my life who cleaned these things up. I know that my fulfillment center has over 900 employees and we have three entrances to choose from. All it takes is an infected person.
There are people who work for $ 15 an hour and now have to be excited that they make $ 17 an hour going out there and basically putting their family at risk. If you say that our job is so damn important and everyone else should stay at home but we have to show ourselves like soldiers, why don't you protect us?
On the day of this interview, Amazon informed the employee of a confirmed case of Covid-19 in his workplace.