As Americans retreat to their homes to weather the coronavirus pandemic, they are increasingly turning to Amazon to get basic necessities such as groceries, as well as medicines, cleaning supplies, and, of course, toilet paper.
This unexpected surge in demand has prompted the online retailer to make plans to hire 100,000 additional warehouse employees, while raising wages by $2 per hour through the end of April, according to a memo revealed Monday. But Amazon’s response has also, many workers say, created a potential internal public health crisis, even as it responds to the needs of untold numbers of customers who are now in self-quarantine to promote the greater public good.
Workers said they fear that the company isn’t doing enough to protect the spread of the virus within its hundreds of fulfillment centers, sortation centers, and delivery stations around the country. By Monday evening, more than 1,500 Amazon employees had signed a petition that began circulating last Monday demanding time-and-a-half hazard pay, paid sick leave regardless of diagnosis, paid childcare, reprieve from productivity-based performance penalties, and the closure of any facility where an employee is infected.
In an email statement sent after publication, a spokesperson for Amazon said “the vast majority of our employees around the world continue to come to work and serve the people in their communities in a way that very few can—delivering critical supplies directly to the doorsteps of people who need them.”
“We are going to great lengths to keep the buildings extremely clean and help employees practice important precautions such as social distancing and other measures,” the statement continued. “Those who don’t want to come to work are welcome to use paid and unpaid time off options and we support them in doing so.”
Although hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes are now available in facilities, some employees claim they are in short supply. Protective masks are hard to come by, some say, and warehouses are not receiving any additional cleaning. Others note that managers continue to insist on holding “stand-up” staff meetings before every shift at every facility, despite vocal concerns from workers that the practice of squeezing dozens of employees into a small area together for 10 or 15 minutes at a time is dangerous, given how contagious the virus is.
“Many of us feel like Amazon is being reckless with our health,” said a man who works as a picker in an Amazon fulfillment center in Gloucester County, New Jersey, and requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. “This is a trillion-dollar company and you’re struggling to give us stuff to clean with.”
The risks are not limited to US facilities. On Monday, Bloomberg reported that five warehouse workers in Amazon facilities in Spain and Italy have been diagnosed with COVID-19, prompting some unionized workers in Italy to call for a strike.
Some workers in Europe have also been staying home to avoid infection — something that warehouse workers in the US say is also happening here. Amazon last week said hourly workers in the US who feel sick could take unlimited unpaid time off, a change in policy that normally sharply limits time away from work. But many who are asymptomatic have begun taking advantage of that, staying home to avoid infection or to care for children whose schools have been closed.
The ensuing staffing shortages compounds the pressures on those who choose to remain at work, or can’t afford not to.
“There’s only so much blood you can squeeze from a stone,” said Marc Wulfraat, a transportation and logistics consultant. “These are the highest-populated warehouses in the US; it’s not unusual to have between 1,500 and 2,500 people in one building.”
According to Amazon workers, staffing in some locations is down as much as half. At the same time, demand has surged. According to Guru Hariharan, CEO of CommerceIQ, which helps brands sell on Amazon, in the first two weeks of March, sales of many packaged goods, including cereal, aspirin, and batteries, have more than doubled compared to a year ago. Sales for a specific 27-pack of 1,000-sheet toilet paper were up 944% over the same period in 2019, he added.
In recent days, Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods Market have experienced glitches in delivery, and consumers in some regions have complained that orders are taking longer to deliver than normal.
In the face of the spiking demand, Amazon late last week notified employees that they would be obligated to work an overtime shift this week. The company is also offering voluntary extra shifts to its employees.
Some are happy to get the extra money. One Amazon employee in New Jersey who requested anonymity to protect their employment said they need the money from their warehouse job even more now that their mom, who works in education, has been laid off without pay due to coronavirus concerns.
“I do understand the pandemic,” they said. “But I don’t think putting everyone out of work is the solution.”
To help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Amazon has been conducting what it calls enhanced cleaning of its facilities, providing some hand sanitizer, and encouraging employees to wash their hands frequently. In some regions, it has also suspended the use of metal detectors; employees of one Texas facility received a message saying that Amazon was “temporarily discontinuing security checks as people exit our building to help maintain the recommended social distancing of approximately three feet.”
Some facilities are also, for the first time, allowing employees to bring cellphones onto the warehouse floor with them in case family members need to contact them in an emergency.
Last week, Amazon announced that any employee who contracts or is quarantined due to the coronavirus will receive up to two weeks’ pay. It also announced a plan to grant awards of between $400 and $5,000 to employees and contractors who are financially impacted by the pandemic. Those individuals must apply for grants from the $25 million fund.
But two drivers who work for Amazon delivery contractors who reached out to BuzzFeed News said they’ve received no information about coronavirus precautions from their employers.
One driver who requested anonymity said their Georgia-based delivery company “has not disseminated employee communications even acknowledging the Coronavirus, no staff meetings have been held and no extra sanitary guidelines have been put in place.”
“In fact,” they continued, “the company sent out a notification … offering incentives for employees to work more.”