Following several alarming reports about Amazon’s meager response to the covid-19 pandemic, U.S. lawmakers are demanding answers regarding how the richest corporation in the world plans to keep its employees safe.
In a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Friday, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar pressed for details about the e-commerce giant’s implementation of federal health guidelines for mitigating the virus’ spread. A dozen other House members signed onto the inquiry as well.
To date, at least 10 Amazon warehouses have reported cases of covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak, per a recent Washington Post report. That includes one in Queens where earlier this month Amazon resumed business as usual following a brief disinfection period after a worker there tested positive for the virus.
“Even prior to the dire global health crisis, these facilities have a proven record of high health and safety standard violations, and Amazon has failed to provide any substantive response or solutions to those violations,” lawmakers wrote. “Given that the company has announced plans to hire 100,000 new warehouse workers and institute mandatory overtime, we are growing more concerned that Amazon does not possess an adequate internal pandemic preparedness and response plan.”
Unsatisfied with the company’s “vague” responses to far, Sanders and Omar requested specifics about the company’s emergency response plan, how it’s enforcing social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and whether workers have the time and tools they need to exercise best practices for preserving their health, among other topics.
“We ask that you intensify your efforts to protect the health and safety of your warehouse workers. No employee, especially those who work for one of the wealthiest corporations in the world, should be forced to work in unsafe conditions,” lawmakers wrote.
It’s not the first time lawmakers have raised such concerns. Earlier this month, Sanders, along with Senators Cory Booker, Robert Menendez, and Sherrod Brown, sent a letter to Amazon citing claims from warehouse workers that they lacked access to hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes and were still expected to attend crowded staff meetings despite CDC guidance to remain at least six feet apart to curb the virus’ spread. Employees have also sounded the alarm about how they risk reprisal if they follow basic sanitary habits, as their work quotas are not adjusted to allot time for handwashing at the frequency recommended by the CDC.
Amazon has called these accusations regarding worker safety “simply unfounded,” though related complaints have spurred more than 1,500 Amazon workers to sign a petition demanding the company improve its emergency response plan.
In response to Friday’s letter shared with Gizmodo, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, issued a statement detailing the company’s updated sick leave policy and increased sanitary precautions.
“We have implemented a number of preventive health measures to keep our buildings extremely clean and help employees practice important precautions such as social distancing, frequent hand washing, and other measures,” Huseman wrote. This also includes increasing the frequency and intensity of warehouse cleanings as well as new employee requirements for handwashing and sanitizing their workstations, according to the statement.
Previously, Amazon’s emergency paid leave was solely available for employees who’d received a positive covid-19 diagnosis, a task that may be simple elsewhere but has been complicated by widespread testing shortages here in the U.S. In his response, Huseman implied that these requirements may be loosened moving forward.
“Amazon is working with employees to gather the information we need to approve extra time off with pay for quarantine and/or diagnosis of COVID-19 . . . going forward, this information may include self-report of patterns of symptoms and exposure, particularly when the employee cannot obtain medical certification at all,” he wrote.
Amazon’s hourly employees can now enjoy unlimited unpaid time off until the end of April, Huseman added, a bit of a tongue-in-cheek non-option for most folks who need an income to pay for food and bills.