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As he's done all year, William Stolz last week went to work at his Amazon warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, to prepare customers' packages. Around him were new signs telling him to wash his hands and more stations dispensing hand sanitizer.
But Stolz worries the e-commerce giant still isn't doing nearly enough to prevent the spread of coronavirus in its warehouses as it rushes to respond to a torrent of customer orders during the crisis.
This past Sunday, Minnesota's governor ordered all the state's K-12 public schools to close for eight school days.
"If it's too much of a risk to have the schools open, it's definitely too much of a risk to have the warehouses open," Stolz said in an interview, calling on Amazon to start testing all US warehouse employees for the virus and offer more paid time off. He has three paid days off and considers himself one of the lucky ones, since workers leave warehouse jobs frequently so don't accrue time off.
Stolz, a worker organizer in Shakopee who's publicly criticized safety issues at his warehouse before, is part of a growing chorus of Amazon workers and their supporters who are voicing serious concerns that the company will fail to protect its hundreds of thousands of employees and delivery workers during the coronavirus outbreak.
Their fears were realized in part a few days ago, when Amazon confirmed that its first US warehouse employee contracted coronavirus and that the company had to temporarily shut down the employee's delivery center in Queens, New York.
"Amazon can and should implement much more aggressive measures for cleaning, sanitizing, keeping us healthy," Stolz insisted, mentioning how the company is now seeing a spike in business because of the virus.
This issue is something customers will need to worry about, too, since shoppers now rely even more on e-commerce companies like Amazon to deliver food, toiletries and other staples while they're asked to stay home. If warehouses have to close due to outbreaks, it could reduce or slow down shipments. Also, recent studies have shown that the coronavirus can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours, so Amazon and other shippers will need to avoid spreading the pathogen through their packages.
An Amazon spokesperson called health and safety of employees and contractors its "top priority." The e-commerce giant worked with medical experts and health authorities to create a bevy of new protocols to protect workers' and customers' health. That work includes increased cleaning and sanitizing all facilities, staggered shift start times and break times to create social distancing, and requiring Amazon workers to sanitize their work stations and vehicles at the start and end of each shift. The company already recommends its office staff work from home.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos weighed in Saturday, writing an open letter to employees thanking them for their work. "We are meeting every day, working to identify additional ways to improve on these measures," Bezos said, later adding "I want you to know Amazon will continue to do its part, and we won't stop looking for new opportunities to help."
He emphasized that Amazon is providing a "vital service," especially to elderly people, who are especially vulnerable to the virus. "People are depending on us," he said.
A brewing confrontation in the warehouses
Amazon was already grappling with growing and more vocal worker discontent well before the outbreak. The company for years has faced negative news stories about poor working conditions and overworked employees. More and more of those US employees, who are not unionized, are now coming together and speaking out, forming local groups like the one Stolz is part of. The coronavirus crisis has ratcheted up many of these workers' concerns that they aren't properly supported by Amazon and are being forced to work faster even during an ongoing health emergency.
The company now has to find a way to achieve the difficult task of fulfilling a surge in customer orders, keeping its warehouse workers healthy and rebuilding trust with many of these employees in the heart of an unplanned crisis. Ultimately, both customers and employees will suffer if Amazon's leadership doesn't succeed.
"If disease finds its way into any of these warehouses … that's going to put quite an extra curveball into this optimization problem," said James Thomson, a former Amazon executive and consultant at Buy Box Experts. "Fortunately they have a lot of warehouses."
Amazon is far from the only retailer struggling with these challenges, as Walmart, Target, Walgreens, Costco and major grocers work to keep their doors open for customers. In the last week, Walmart — the biggest private employer in the US — announced plans to hire 150,000 temporary workers in the US and to pay hourly employees bonuses of up to $300. Similarly, online delivery companies like DoorDash, Uber and FreshDirect are trying to find ways to keep their services going for shoppers.
Stolz and two other people who work for Amazon told CNET they're upset about the company's work so far to maintain sanitary work spaces during the pandemic.
"If it's too much of a risk to have the schools open, it's definitely too much of a risk to have the warehouses open." William Stolz, Amazon warehouse worker in Minnesota
These concerns were bolstered by a petition circulated online by Amazonians United New York City, a group of local employees, that calls for better protective measures and more paid sick leave. The petition has already gained over 1,600 signatures, the group said. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the UNI Global union and Athena activist group — all frequent Amazon critics — within the last week have also pressured the company to do more for workers.
Sanders on Friday joined three other left-leaning senators to call on Bezos "to prioritize the health, safety, and well-being of your employees."
An Amazon Flex contract worker who delivers Whole Foods orders for customers in New Jersey said Amazon hasn't consistently enforced sanitary protocols at the locations he works. He saw that a person was added to clean and sanitize the pickup areas at stores he works in, and gloves are provided for drivers. But he said that some drivers use the gloves while others don't. Little guidance in protecting against the virus is offered to these drivers, who are gig economy workers and aren't employed by the company, he added.
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"These folks should be somebody's employees and should have health benefits," said the driver, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid losing his job with Amazon. "The company should back us up and the company should do the right thing, and they haven't so far."
Jake, an Amazon worker at a delivery center in Queens, New York, called on Amazon to offer more paid sick leave, as well as hazard pay of time and a half for workers during the crisis, which would reach $22.50 an hour for employees who usually net $15. Plus, simple changes were needed, like giving employees more time to leave their stations to wash their hands if they cough or sneeze.
"If we just have a cough, a little thing that we can live through, Amazon is designed to let us come in," said Jake, who is part of Amazonians United New York City and asked that his last name not be published.
The company says it requires employees to stay home and seek medical attention if they feel unwell, and it modified its attendance policies to support this mandate.
Coronavirus: Scenes from an eerily empty San Francisco42 Photos
Amazon has worked to respond to many of these concerns. For instance, Amazon last week raised wages for hourly employees by $2 in the US through April, and made similar moves in Europe and Canada, costing it an additional $350 million. On Saturday, Amazon said it raised overtime pay to double, from 1.5-times regular pay, Reuters reported. To manage the increased demand, Amazon plans to hire 100,000 more US hourly workers.
This month, it expanded its sick leave policy to offer up to two weeks of pay for any Amazon employee diagnosed with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, or placed in quarantine. Jake said this bar was set too high, since tests to confirm the illness are still hard to come by. Amazon also offered unlimited unpaid leave for all hourly employees through this month, though Stolz and others said unpaid leave wasn't feasible for folks living paycheck to paycheck.
The company also created the Amazon Relief Fund with a $25 million starting contribution to help independent delivery businesses, gig workers who pick up work through Amazon Flex and seasonal employees.
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In warehouses, Amazon is stopping standup meetings, and has set up training in small groups or through devices to avoid gathering large crowds. Exit screenings were suspended to move people more easily through warehouses. More frequent and more intense cleaning of all sites now include sanitizing all door handles, stairway handrails, elevator buttons, lockers and touch screens, the company says.
Stolz, from the Minnesota facility, argued that many of these changes are insufficient.
"Amazon's got more money than anybody," he said. "If anybody can send us home early with pay, it's them."