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As home delivery firms from Amazon to the US Postal Service to Instacart scramble to handle surging demand because of the coronavirus outbreak, each company is setting its own, sometimes contradictory, safety rules. Workers across the industry worry it is not nearly enough.
The US Postal Service has expanded paid time off, including to some part-time mail carriers. It's also offering paid childcare due to school closures. But it doesn’t have masks, hand sanitizer, or, in some cases, gloves available for mail carriers.
Instacart, a grocery delivery startup, said employees who work inside grocery stores can use paid sick time without proof of infection. But it’s still requiring its independently contracted delivery drivers to prove they’ve either tested positive for the coronavirus or have been ordered to quarantine by a medical professional in order to get sick leave. Without it, many drivers feel they have no choice but to work.
“No one seems to care about [what] we say because we are ‘easily replaced.’”
“We all feel unsafe and at risk of contracting coronavirus,” said an Ohio-based driver for an Amazon delivery contractor who requested anonymity to protect his employment. “But no one seems to care about [what] we say because we are ‘easily replaced.’” Workers said worries were growing as deliverers have begun to test positive for the virus.
In response to the crisis, Amazon has delayed deliveries of nonessential orders and temporarily increased wages for warehouse workers. But contracted delivery drivers — the ones bringing packages to people’s homes — say they’ve received no sick leave. Some say they’re given just one sanitary wipe per day to sanitize their trucks.
In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said the company has “taken extreme measures that include tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances.”
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“We continue to make adjustments and have implemented a series of preventative health measures for employees, delivery and transportation partners at our sites around the world,” the statement continued. “We appreciate everything our delivery partners are doing to help serve customers during this time.”
A spokesperson for the US Postal Service said it has expanded paid sick leave for employees and exempted them from asking customers to sign for packages. “We are proud of the work our employees play in processing, transporting and delivering mail and packages for the American public,” the agency said in a statement. “The Postal Service is […] a vital part of the nation’s infrastructure.”
But in absence of nationwide protections, workers across the industry say they feel increasingly vulnerable as package volumes soar, the virus spreads, and management scrambles to react.
“I could bet money that we are contributing to the spread of coronavirus.”
“I could bet money that we are contributing to the spread of coronavirus,” said the Amazon delivery driver in Ohio who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “I’ve [been] watching my coworkers sit there coughing their lungs out and then hop in a van and get to work. The worst part is: We get one bottle of hand sanitizer, and once it runs out, that’s it. At the end of the night, we have to clean our vans out, and we get one Clorox wipe to wipe down the whole van because we are unable to get more,” he said.
A second Amazon delivery driver also said they were given just a single wipe. A third, who is currently training to deliver Amazon packages in New York, said the company canceled ride-alongs with experienced drivers but is still sending new drivers out without that training as delivery contractors rush to meet Amazon’s package load.
As the virus’s toll mounts, workers across the country are trying to fight for more protections.
A group of delivery drivers in Ohio have been discussing a potential work stoppage over the risk of coronavirus infection, according to one worker. That worker also said his manager was told by the public health department there was little the agency could do about Amazon’s failure to comply with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s recommendation, issued last week, to screen workers' temperatures.
Postal Service employees are pushing for hazard pay and greater protections. More than 77,000 people have signed an online petition. A similar petition for Canada Post employees has more than 8,800 signatures.
Sen. Cory Booker took their side on Wednesday, citing the petition in a letter to the postmaster general. Booker asked about the lack of protective equipment for postal workers, as well as reports that management was requiring employees to present doctors' notes or positive test results to take advantage of paid leave.
“Any failure of the USPS to keep its workers safe not only puts their employees at risk, but also threatens each of the communities they serve. It has been reported that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be transmitted through mail delivery through person-to-person, or can live for up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel,” Booker’s letter reads. “This means that Americans who are taking every precaution, staying home and practicing social distancing, might risk getting infected with COVID-19 because of USPS’s failure to support its staff or protect our communities.”
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Debbie Berkowitz, program director at the National Employment Law Project, said delivery workers are at a high risk during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Delivery workers already face many traditional safety hazards, and the exposure to the virus is on top of that,” Berkowitz said. “They need to limit contact with the customers, drop things at the door or lobby. They need to be provided with those disinfectant wipes for their hands and any doorknobs they need to touch — and to wipe down their steering wheels.”
The Families First Coronavirus Relief Act passed by Congress last week doesn’t apply to most delivery workers, who are either contractors or work for large corporations exempted by the bill. Berkowitz said she hopes “the next bill that passes Congress has paid leave for these folks.” But as new legislation is hung up in DC, delivery firms are responding to the emergency individually in the meantime.
UPS said it’s “in the process of replenishing our supplies including gloves and cleaning materials.”
UPS signed a deal with the Teamsters union promising to pay quarantined employees, dropped the signature requirement to help prevent infection, and said it’s “in the process of replenishing our supplies including gloves and cleaning materials.” FedEx, which has already confirmed at least one infected worker in Michigan, said it's following public health guidelines and recommending that its contractor-based workforce “take any signs of illness seriously and seek medical attention as needed.”
Tim Davis is the CEO of the UPS Store, a franchise-based UPS subsidiary offering package delivery and mailbox services. Last week, he sent a rousing video message to employees and franchisees comparing the current pandemic to the Blitz of London by the Nazis during the early years of World War II.
“The slogan they adopted was 'Keep calm and carry on.' It’s that spirit and attitude that we need to adapt now,” Davis said in a video seen by BuzzFeed News. “Our foes are not human; they are virus, hysteria, and inflexibility. If we can follow the advice of the medical professionals, if we can keep our cool and proceed with good judgment, and if we can adapt to the conditions necessary to keep our businesses going, we can outlast and overcome this challenge.”
But a Montana-based UPS Store employee who receives no health benefits or paid time off said precautions at her branch location were insufficient. “[We] work dangerously close to the public,” the employee said. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with customers, helping them make copies, notarize their documents, tape their packages, fill out fax work. We don’t have the luxury of distancing ourselves from customers, and cleaning supplies are nearly unavailable despite what the little signs [UPS Store management] want us to post on our doors say. We are prime candidates for contracting the virus.”
A spokesperson for the UPS Store said individual franchises make independent decisions about benefits for employees but added that it’s encouraging franchisees to “provide curbside service when possible, practice social distancing, and limit the number of customers in the store, and to use good hygiene.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has been pushing for an expansion of that bill that would provide permanent paid leave for workers, said employees in the delivery industry need to be included in any relief package.
"I've called on employers like Amazon and Walmart to provide paid sick leave immediately to all of their workers, including part time workers, contractors, and subcontractors — which is critical to helping prevent further spread of the virus and keeping workers and their families safe," Warren said in a statement. "This must also include delivery workers, who are front and center helping people get the food and supplies they need, and who must be able to stay home if they are sick, taking care of a family member, or have been exposed to the virus."
But despite promises to provide financial support to delivery workers during the pandemic, companies including Instacart and Uber Eats are still mandating that delivery workers provide proof of either a positive test or an order from a medical professional to self-quarantine.
A Texas-based driver named Jonathan Perales who delivers food for both Uber Eats and Postmates was for days unable to secure payment from Uber despite experiencing fever and shortness of breath because the doctor who told him to self-quarantine didn’t provide a written note.
“I only went to a hospital because I believed the companies when they said they would take care of us when we were sick,” Perales wrote in a blog post. “But because of the very high barrier companies have around qualifications to receive aid, I can’t qualify for any of it. I can’t get a test — and because I can’t get a test, I can’t get any aid to take time off.”
Uber gave Perales paid time off after being contacted by BuzzFeed News. But it still requires proof of infection or written quarantine orders for drivers.
“For those who are eligible for the support, we require documentation,” a spokesperson for Uber said.
Working Washington, a labor group that works with gig economy drivers for companies including Instacart, Postmates, DoorDash, and Grubhub, is circulating a petition asking for two weeks' paid leave for all workers, an extra $5 per gig hazard pay, and protective gear like gloves, sanitizer, and disinfectant.
“We [...] need immediate action to get us through the crisis,” the petition states. “By continuing to send us to work without basic protections, gig companies could further the spread of the coronavirus — and it’s a danger to workers, to public health, and to our communities.”