9 Amazon workers describe the daily risks they face in the pandemic
As the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, an otherwise marginalized class of workers is suddenly in the spotlight. Often undervalued and poorly paid, they are grocery store clerks, sanitation workers, medical professionals, and other employees who can’t stay home—even when the nation is on lockdown. In the United States, hundreds of thousandsof these so-called essential workers are employed by or contract for Amazon, whose delivery network has emerged as a vital service for millions of Americans stuck inside their homes.
Wired spoke with nine people working for Amazon during the Covid-19 crisis over the past two weeks and is publishing their accounts of being on the job, in their own words. They work in Amazon fulfillment centers, deliver packages and groceries, and stock food in Amazon cafeterias. Some are employed by Amazon directly, while others are contractors. Each of them say they are terrified for their health and that of their families, and many believe Amazon isn’t doing enough to ensure their safety. While the company has often framed its frontline workers as heroes, the people WIRED spoke with say they didn’t sign up for this level of risk.
Covid-19 has now spread to at least 50 Amazon facilities in the US, out of a total of more than 500, according to The New York Times. The outbreaks have led to employee protests in Detroit, New York City, and Chicago, where workers said Amazon was slow to notify them about infections and failed to conduct adequate cleaning. At Amazon-owned Whole Foods, staff staged a nationwide demonstration citing similar safety concerns and calling for free coronavirus testing for all employees. And more than 5,000 Amazon workers have signed a petition asking for additional benefits given the health crisis, including hazard pay and for the company to shut down any facility where a worker tests positive so it can be properly cleaned.
Amazon’s practices have attracted the attention of lawmakers including senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Robert Menendez, and Sherrod Brown, who sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos last month demanding answers about the company’s workplace safety measures. “Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” they wrote. On Wednesday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced it was investigating an Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania after workers there said their health wasn’t being protected. Workers at a warehouse in California filed similar complaints with state and county regulators the same day.
“Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis. Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “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.”
Amazon says it has made over 150 changes to help protect its workforce, including distributing face masks to all staff, instituting social-distancing protocols, staggering shift start times, and adding more space between workstations. The company is also checking whether employees have a fever when they show up for their shifts, though the practice won’t detect the significant number of Covid-19 cases that are asymptomatic. The Amazon spokesperson said it’s just “one of the many preventative measures Amazon is taking to support the health and safety of our customers and employees.”
In recent weeks, Amazon has raised wages for hourly workers and said it would let anyone concerned about coming into work to take unpaid time off through the end of April. After receiving criticism from lawmakers, it will also now allow anyone suspected of having Covid-19 or placed into quarantine to take two weeks of emergency paid sick leave. Prior to March 27, the company required that workers obtain a positive test result to use the benefit, but a nationwide testing shortage made that extremely difficult.
The following interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Warehouse worker, early forties, Texas
My partner and I have both been working at Amazon for a few years. We’re awesome at what we do. I love the job itself, but I don’t like how the company handles people—almost like they’re disposable.
Since the virus came, for the last couple of weeks, we’ve taken advantage of the unpaid—not paid—time off. This next upcoming paycheck, I think I will be paid for six hours of work. I’m staying home because my mom, she had a pacemaker put in not too long ago, and she lives with me. We don’t want to go without money. In fact, I don’t know how we’re going to pay our bills this month. I’m down to about $200, and this stimulus check is probably not going to come for another month.
Amazon releases their own little news alerts, and one of them told us that we need to make sure we’re cleaning our scanners. They told us to do it—the people who are also working on the floor, who are also responsible for getting a certain number of packages out every shift. This is what kills me: When we walk through the main front doors, we hit these turnstiles to enter. Everyone has to touch them, and I have never, not one time in my life, seen anybody clean those things. I know that in my fulfillment center, we’ve got over 900 people who work there, and we have three entrances to choose from. All it’s going to take is one infected person.
You’ve got people that are working for $15 an hour, that now have to be excited that they’re making $17 an hour, going out there and basically putting their family at risk. If you’re saying our job is so damn important, and that everybody else should stay home, yet we have to show up like soldiers, why not protect us?
The day this interview was conducted, Amazon notified the worker about a confirmed case of Covid-19 at their workplace.