Following news that a worker at a facility in Queens tested positive for covid-19, four U.S. senators are questioning the e-commerce giant about disturbing reports on worker safety at its facilities amid the global pandemic.
The letter, signed by Senators Cory Booker, Robert Menendez, Bernie Sanders, and Sherrod Brown, specifically cited claims by workers that some warehouses are not adequately meeting or enforcing the basic protocols provided by health authorities for mitigating the spread of the virus, thereby endangering not only workers but others outside the company as well. The letter stated that the senators were concerned that Amazon warehouses continue to hold meetings “that result in dozens of staff crowded together in rooms for 10 or 15 minutes at a time,” despite social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommend maintaining at least six feet of distance among people to mitigate spread.
They further raised concerns about a shortage of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes available to warehouse workers, as well as a report that Amazon is not providing warehouse workers enough time to practice basic sanitary habits.
“While Amazon has issued guidance to its warehouse employees to frequently wash their hands, they are not providing enough time for them to do so—for example, it is our understanding that if a warehouse employee coughs or sneezes, they can either take the time to wash their hands and risk being written up for falling short of their shipping expectations, or meet their shipping expectations and put themselves and their colleagues at risk,” they wrote.
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BuzzFeed last week reported on worker conditions that defied the necessary precautions given by health authorities, citing multiple workers as stating that hand sanitizer and wipes were difficult to find. And the company told Gizmodo last week that it had moved chairs and spread out tables in break rooms and was encouraging employees to maintain three feet of space between each other, citing a guidance from the World Health Organization—advice that’s contradicted by the CDC’s six-foot directive.
The senators also cited a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes covid-19) could survive for several hours on cardboard. (The study found that cardboard was less hospitable to the virus, however, than plastic and stainless steel.)
“Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk. The virus that causes covid-19 can live for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel,” they wrote. “That means that Americans who are taking every precaution, staying home and practicing social distancing, might risk getting infected with covid-19 because of Amazon’s decision to prioritize efficiency and profits over the safety and well-being of its workforce.”
In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson called the accusations about worker safety “simply unfounded” and characterized its workers as “heroes,” as opposed to people off of whose labor it is—as the senators noted—profiting during the pandemic.
“Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it is not easy as supplies are limited, but we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable,” the company said. “We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances.”
The company also claims it’s nixed stand-up meetings during shifts. As for the hand-washing, Amazon says that workers are “allotted” time to do things like refill their water or use the restroom, adding that they can log out of their system to wash their hands whenever they wish to. They can also, the company said, take unpaid time off from work if they’re feeling sick—but this doesn’t address the fact that many people cannot simply choose not to work and go without income for things like food or bills. Amazon does provide paid time off for employees placed in quarantine or diagnosed with covid-19 by a health authority, but that requires them to receive a test—access to which is limited right now.
The senators have asked the company to address the preventative measures to protect its employees, including by agreeing to cover the cost of testing, suspending rate-based write-ups, providing sick leave regardless of a diagnosis, and offering time-and-a-half pay rather than the measly $2 per hour bonus Amazon is currently paying.
Additionally, they asked Amazon to pledge to temporarily shut down a facility where a worker tests positive and offer two weeks of pay to employees of that facility so they can self-isolate, rather than continue on, business as usual, like the company did last week in Queens after only a brief disinfecting period.
The senators have asked Amazon for a reply by no later than March 26. Hopefully they receive a response more substantial and reassuring than something to the effect of “we’re trying,” because there are additional measures Amazon could be taking to better protect its own community of workers, and it’s decisively not.