As More Amazon Employees Contract The Coronavirus, Workers Are Walking Off The Job

Amazon workers in Chicago followed colleagues in New York in walking off the job to protest what they say is the high risk of contracting COVID-19.

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Dozens of Amazon employees walked out of their overnight shift at a Chicago delivery station Monday night in protest of Amazon’s refusal to shut down their building for disinfection after a worker there tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“We want to work — this is not about Amazonians being lazy,” said one of the Amazon employees during a picket line outside the Chicago building. “We want to work! We want to work in a clean facility! We want to work where we're going to be safe, our kids are going to be safe, our families are going to be safe. How can we be essential workers, but our lives are not essential?”

"How can we be essential workers, but our lives are not essential?”

The Chicago employees said Amazon should temporarily close their facility, and want an explanation of what the company’s so-called enhanced cleaning actually entails — demands that are being echoed by employees at other Amazon facilities in New York, New Jersey, and beyond.

The Chicago employees, members of a group called DCH1 Amazonians United, allege that Amazon management didn’t inform workers about the infected worker until multiple shifts had cycled through the building, which they said in a petition “put many of us at risk of infection without our knowledge or consent.”

Ted Miin, a worker with the group, told BuzzFeed News that more than half of the night shift staff refused to work last night in protest.

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said, “these accusations are simply unfounded.”

“Of the over 600 employees at our Chicago delivery station, a small group participated in today’s demonstration,” the spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

Amazon management made similar claims about an employee walkout at one of its New York facilities Monday. While organizers who were there said more than 50 employees walked out in protest of unsafe working conditions in Staten Island, Amazon Senior Vice President Dave Clark claimed that only 15 employees participated in the demonstration, saying on Twitter, “Today's ‘strike’ headlines are dramatically exaggerated.”

Video of the event shot by members of Amazonians United New York City showed dozens of people in the facility’s parking lot, although it was unclear how many of those pictured were participating in the walkout.

“Of the more 5,000 employees at our Staten Island site, 15 people — less than half a percent of associates — participated in today’s demonstration," an Amazon spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day.”

Following the Staten Island walkout, Amazon fired an employee who participated named Chris Smalls. The company said Smalls was repeatedly warned not to violate quarantine procedure by reporting to the warehouse, but did so anyway.

“Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite today, March 30, further putting the teams at risk,” the company said in a statement. “This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues.”

Smalls said Amazon violated his rights by retaliating against him for his efforts to improve working conditions. “I stood with my co-workers because conditions at JFK8 are legitimately dangerous for workers and the public,” he said in an emailed statement. “We won’t stop until Amazon provides real protections for our health and safety and clarity for everybody about what it is doing to keep people safe in the middle of the worst pandemic of our lifetimes.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said the city’s Commission on Human Rights will investigate Smalls' firing, and Smalls said he plans to file a charge with the National Labor Relations Board. New York state Attorney General Letitia James is encouraging the agency to investigate.

“It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues,” James said in a statement. “In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited. At a time when so many New Yorkers are struggling and are deeply concerned about their safety, this action was also immoral and inhumane.”

"They just set up fever stations last night, a few weeks late if you ask me."

Amazon employees in Chicago and New York have been organizing around workplace issues for months, and the coronavirus pandemic has employees at other facilities watching their activity closely. On March 18, Amazon employees at a warehouse in Queens refused to work their shift after learning an employee had tested positive for the coronavirus. Almost two weeks later, employees throughout Amazon’s massive logistics network are making similar complaints.

BuzzFeed News reported the first COVID-19 infection at an Amazon fulfillment center in Edison, New Jersey, on March 25. On Monday, an employee at that facility who requested anonymity to protect his job said he’d heard from supervisors that additional workers had tested positive, but that Amazon had not informed staff. So far, he said that at least 16 employees in Edison had been asked by management to quarantine at home, but Amazon has not closed the facility for cleaning. He also said the cleaning Amazon is doing seems inadequate.

“No one is cleaning the workstations,” he told BuzzFeed News. “We have elevators where employees send the totes and empty pallets … No one is cleaning the elevators or the buttons on the elevators.”

“The responsible thing for them to do would be to close the plant for a couple days and sanitize the workstations,” he continued.

A different anonymous worker from Robbinsville, New Jersey, who reached out to BuzzFeed News said his facility had at least two confirmed cases of COVID-19. Employees there also wondered why Amazon wouldn't close their workplace for cleaning.

“The facilities [are] not really as sanitized as they should be. You’re still around a bunch of people you can catch the virus from,” this employee told BuzzFeed News. “Me and other coworkers feel like they should at least shut down the building for a few days while they sanitize the place."

Greg Krisher, an employee at a facility near Detroit, said he first heard about infected employees at his warehouse from social media and the news. "I feel they tried to sweep it under the rug," Krisher told BuzzFeed News. He said coworkers were considering organizing a walkout, but news of the firing in Staten Island stalled those plans. They've also circulated petitions about coronavirus protections, and filed a complaint with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, he said.

“They just set up fever stations last night, a few weeks late if you ask me,” said Krisher. “They do not supply any [personal protective equipment], just some cloth gloves. One wipe of Lysol to clean your station. Then to show how serious they are, they are doing [write] ups for violating social distancing. [If] you have [ever] been in the back part of amazon, you will see that is not really [an] option.”

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Amazon said it's rolling out temperature checks at facilities starting in Seattle and New York. Last Wednesday, the company said it is "following guidelines from local officials and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site" in Edison. The company didn’t immediately respond to questions about the Robbinsville or Michigan facilities.

The concerns of workers in New Jersey and Michigan are echoed in complaints from workers in Chicago, who said in their petition that Amazon’s claims of “enhanced cleaning” weren't reflected in what they saw at work.

“We have seen cleaners using nonapproved cleaning products, the same rags over and over, and only wiping down basic surfaces at the warehouse,” the workers wrote. “Most areas in the warehouse are not disinfected, like in the cells, the belts, dock areas, and of course all of the packages.”

Many of Amazon’s buildings operate 24 hours a day, which employees said make them impossible to fully disinfect.

“No amount of ‘enhanced cleaning’ is effective while associates are still working throughout the warehouse transferring around possible contamination,” the petition said, which is why they’re demanding Amazon “shut down the warehouse immediately, with pay, for thorough disinfection of the entire facility.”

An Amazon spokesperson said it is "auditing daily the processes we put into place to protect our teams and have deployed an additional 450,000+ canisters of disinfectant wipes (45 million additional wipes), 50K+ hand sanitizers and 20K+ wall mounted sanitizer refill containers to our sites in addition to other cleaning materials that were on-hand." The spokesperson also said it now has three times the usual number of janitorial workers in its facilities. Amazon employs more than 800,000 people worldwide.

Earlier this month, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Sherrod Brown wrote a public letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking for details on how the company planned to protect and compensate the thousands of employees it has repeatedly referred to as heroes. On March 22, Amazon Vice President Brian Huseman responded by saying that the company was keeping facilities open, but “tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, and changing policies and processes to ensure that those in our buildings are keeping safe distances.”

On Friday, Brown noted that Amazon’s letter didn’t address why some facilities where employees had tested positive have been closed — like the one in Kentucky — while others remain operational. Brown told BuzzFeed news that the company “needs to be willing to take whatever measures are needed to prevent the spread of coronavirus in its facilities — including the options of temporarily closing them to sanitize them.”

"We are demoralized by the fact that our managers aren't next to us, and the company doesn’t appear to care about protecting us."

As the number of Amazon employees with COVID-19 increases and fear spreads along with the disease, more employees are staying home from work, disrupting Amazon’s systems. The company is no longer fulfilling shipments for sellers of nonessential items, and customers are seeing delivery dates months in the future for items that would normally ship within a week. To keep packages moving, Amazon is scrambling to hire 100,000 new employees.

The anonymous employee in Edison said his building typically moved 270,000 packages a day, but was now averaging closer to 125,000. On Saturday, when a single shift would normally have between 8 and 10 managers, he said just one manager was on duty. And he said, because of staffing issues, management asked him to move between multiple workstations, which “increases exposure.”

During a recent shift, he said he was moved to a new task and had already started working when workers nearby told him that the previous person assigned there had been sent home sick. After he confronted his supervisor about it, he was provided with wipes to clean the station.

“Why couldn’t they just tell me, and let me clean the station?” he said. “Why would you shut up about something like that?”

He said while he doesn’t want to hurt the company, he felt its approach to the pandemic has been “deceptive.”

“We have good morale in terms of wanting to help people, but we are demoralized by the fact that our managers aren't next to us, and the company doesn’t appear to care about protecting us,” he said. “Health care workers have protections in place for them, police have protections in place to protect them. We have nothing.”

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