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Amazon's warehouse workers sound alarms about coronavirus spread

Mar 18. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Jay Greene, Elizabeth Dwoskin · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, WORLD, EUROPE

As Amazon sales surge from shoppers stocking up on consumer staples, the e-commerce giant's warehouse workers are raising alarms that the company is not doing enough to protect them from the novel coronavirus.

Warehouse workers in Spain and Italy have tested positive for the virus, while workers in New York and Chicago told The Washington Post that Amazon isn't taking enough precautions as orders mount. Some said workers were sent home only after they had coughs, and signs were posted advising workers to wash their hands.

But in interviews, warehouse workers in the United States and Europe say they worry their workplaces are not safe enough and could contribute to the spread of the virus. More than 1,500 workers from around the world have signed a petition that calls on the company to take additional steps to ensure the safety in their workplace.

A worker at one of the facilities in Spain, where some colleagues have been quarantined with coronavirus-like symptoms and two others have tested positive for the coronavirus-causing disease covid-19, told The Post that he fears the warehouse may be a hot spot and wants it shut down.

"It's an atmosphere of fear - huge fear right now," said Luismi Ruiz, who has worked there since November 2012 and is a union representative. Amazon is spraying disinfectant throughout the warehouse and staggering employee breaks so fewer people congregate together, to try to reduce contagion.

"These measures are totally insufficient," Ruiz added.

Amazon says it's taking appropriate precautions to protect workers. The company says it's following guidance from health officials regarding the operation of its facilities. And it provides workers time to use the restrooms to wash their hands.

"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," Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman said. "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."

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Any disruption to Amazon's ability to deliver goods could affect countless customers, who have turned to the company in recent days to bring canned food, cleaning supplies and more to their homes so they do not need to venture out to physical retailers and potentially spread the virus. Shoppers have turned to Amazon so frequently since the outbreak of the virus that the company has acknowledged that it's out of stock of some household staples and that its deliveries are taking longer than usual.

It may not just be workers' safety at stake. Research shows that the coronavirus can potentially remain viable - capable of infecting a person - for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel, though it has primarily spread through direct person-to-person contact.

Amazon has long had a contentious relationship with some warehouse workers, who have helped fuel its rapid growth. For years, the company, which has nearly 800,000 employees worldwide, most of whom work in its warehouses, has been criticized for what some employees describe as poor working conditions, insufficient bathroom breaks and tough goals. They've also complained of the company's efforts to quash unionization. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has denounced the company for paying subsistence wages to its warehouse staff.

Amid criticism, the company raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2018 and has implemented other changes to improve working conditions.

Now, workers are calling on the company to better protect them from a virus that's raced through the country and led several major retailers, including Apple, Patagonia and Nike, to temporarily shut their physical stores to contain the coronavirus.

At a New York delivery center, Jonathan Bailey, a sorting associate, said pressure from Amazon to meet the rate at which it wants workers to fulfill orders could lead workers to ignore safe sanitary practices. If Bailey and his colleagues don't "make rate," managers can write that up, a blemish on their record that can make it difficult to advance at the company and can lead to firings, Bailey said.

Although Amazon is encouraging workers to wash their hands, it's not giving them enough time to do so, Bailey said. The nearest bathroom is a two- to three-minute walk in each direction, reducing the amount of time he and his colleagues have to meet company shipping expectations, he said.

"If a worker is to cough or sneeze, there is no way for them to practice good sanitary habits" and run to a restroom to wash hands, said Bailey, who has worked for Amazon since last summer. "It's going to affect your stow rate."

That's one reason the worker petition calls for eliminating rate-based write-ups. The petition also demands the company provide paid sick leave even if workers don't have a covid-19 diagnosis because testing remains difficult to get. And it seeks to make sure warehouses are shut if a worker tests positive for covid-19 and not reopened until it's been thoroughly cleaned.

To alleviate that strain, Amazon announced plans Monday to hire 100,000 new warehouse workers in the United States. And the company intends to raise pay by $2 an hour in the U.S., 2 pounds an hour in the UK, and about 2 euro an hour in parts of the European Union, a move it expects will cost $350 million.

Amazon made a specific pitch to workers who have been furloughed by current employers who have suspended operations.

"We want those people to know we welcome them on our teams until things return to normal and their past employer is able to bring them back," Dave Clark, senior vice president of worldwide operations, wrote in a blog post.

The additional jobs come amid growing concern about low-wage workers not having job protections to stay at home or get health coverage if they come down with the disease.

The spread of the virus is particularly acute in Europe, as is the concern among Amazon warehouse workers there. The company has added workers in Italy recently to meet increased demand, according to Matteo Rossi, who works for Transnational Social Strike, which is trying to organize Amazon workers. He worries that could impede social distancing, a practice crucial to helping stop the spread of the disease.

"Amazon warehouses are more crowded than before," Rossi said.

Amazon confirmed that three workers at warehouses outside Madrid and Barcelona tested positive for covid-19, according to a report from the Spanish news site La Información.

A worker at an Italian warehouse in Torrazza also tested positive for the disease, and workers there are concerned about returning to the facility, according a report from the Italian news site La Stampa. Workers declared a strike Monday at a warehouse in Piacenza over concerns about containing the spread of the virus, La Stampa reported.

Christian Kraehling worries about meetings at the start of every shift, where his colleagues at a warehouse in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, are reminded of safety precautions such as using handrails when going down stairs. Those meetings include scores of workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

"It's a very bad situation with the coronavirus," said Kraehling, who has worked for Amazon for 10 years.

 

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