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Warehouse workers are forcing Amazon to take COVID-19 seriously

On Tuesday, March 24, Barbara Chandler drove from her home in Queens to the Staten Island Amazon warehouse where she had worked for three years. The streets were more empty than usual. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had ordered all non-essential companies to shut down two days earlier, and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state was just over 20,000. But the warehouse, called JFK8, was busier than ever and flooded with orders from a closed people.

Chandler’s colleagues at JFK8 had been sick for weeks, but as far as she knew none of them with COVID-19. Yet it was unnerving. The day before, she sent one of her team members home after vomiting at their station, visiting Amcare’s internal medical facility, and trying to continue working. A week earlier, she sent several sick employees to Amcare, including one who said her fiancé had COVID-19 and Chandler never saw again.

Chandler, 40, started to feel unwell over the weekend, but she had checked her temperature and wasn’t feverish. In case she did a coronavirus test the day before after work. She felt she had to keep working while waiting for the result. Amazon would give her two weeks of paid leave if she tested positive for COVID-19. But if she was sick with anything else, she would have to take time off without paying. She had three children to support and she was starting to feel better.

A week later, JFK8 would become the first multiple Amazon facilities to allow workers to walk away in protest calling for the warehouse to be closed and cleaned after workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Amazon’s subsequent dismissal from the organizer strengthened the national spotlight and caused condemnation of unions, promises of a state investigation and letters from legislators. As the largest Amazon facility in the most serious COVID-19 hotspot in the US, the collision at JFK8 serves as a foretaste of the tensions rising across the entire Amazon network. On the one hand, there is a company that sees itself as an essential service to millions of American Americans and is determined to continue to operate in the midst of the crisis. On the other hand, there are workers who feel increasingly unsafe in their jobs and, while Amazon is struggling to staff its warehouses to meet unprecedented demand, have recently been empowered to make changes.

Amazon has already made a number of policy changes in response to the pandemic, many of which have long been desired by workers. Mid March is the day announced that employees could take unlimited time off without a salary (previously they were fired for more than a certain amount), and they would receive up to two weeks of paid leave if they tested positive for COVID-19 or were quarantined. The company came later increased salary at $ 2 an hour, overtime doubled and gave up part time workers paid time off. As the virus spread, Amazon moved the tables from warehouses to warehouses, dispersed services, canceled stand-up meetings, and made other adjustments to increase the distance between employees.

But interviews with 12 JFK8 employees, as well as employees in other warehouses, show that the implementation of security measures was uneven. Often changes are only made after workers have applied pressure. After criticism, Amazon has started to warn employees when someone in their institution tests positive for COVID-19, but documents obtained by The edge show that reports are still days behind. While Amazon gives quarantined workers two weeks of paid time off, some workers who come in contact with diagnosed individuals are not notified. While Amazon says it fired the JFK8 organizer for quarantining a breach, it never contacted other employees with greater exposure.

After the JFK8 strike, Amazon began checking the temperature at the warehouse entrance, enforcing social distance rules, and testing mist sanitizer. But workers have been sounding the alarm for weeks and are now concerned that it is too late to prevent a major outbreak.

Amazon declined to say how many workers at how many facilities had tested positive for COVID-19, but Jana Jumpp, a warehouse worker in Indiana, has collected alerts to workers and employed 314 workers in 111 facilities who were diagnosed. virus. JFK8 seems to be a hot spot. At least 14 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed, according to warnings reviewed by The edge. Employees believe the actual number is closer to 30.

Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

March 24 would prove to be a turning point on JFK8. Chandler started working as usual, but two hours after her shift, another assistant manager, Christian Smalls, came by and told her she looked sick – exhausted, bloodshot – and told to go home. Other colleagues had also noticed her appearance, but they attributed it to overtime. However, Smalls had been concerned about the spreading virus for weeks and was very alert.

Smalls, 31 years old and a father of three, has worked at JFK8 since opening in 2018, and before that there were Amazon warehouses in New Jersey and Connecticut. It’s a good job, he says, with good benefits and no complaints. But in early March, he was concerned about what would happen if the virus reached the warehouse with its 5,000 employees. After a few managers flew back from Seattle, the largest hotspot in the U.S. at the time, and took one sick leave, Smalls became alarmed enough to stay away, use his vacation time, and eventually tap his 401k. But now he had returned and urged management to close the building for cleaning and introduce other security measures. The week before, Smalls and other employees concerned about the increasing illness in the facility repeatedly went to the manager’s office and told the building to be closed and cleaned.

Instead, Amazon has made incremental changes and encouraged employees to maintain social distance, even though their jobs often made that impossible. (A video from the March 19 break room shows a busy cafeteria with workers eating and walking within a few feet of each other.) “They would say, ‘We have no confirmed cases, we are following CDC guidelines,'” says Smalls. “They kept giving me that excuse and I said, ‘Yes, but people are getting sick around me.'”

“People just looked sick and on top of that we hear about the pandemic on TV, it’s almost as if the pandemic didn’t exist in the warehouse,” said Derrick Palmer, an employee who also expressed concern about management. “There was no social distance, there was nothing.”

After Smalls sent Chandler home, he attended a supervisor meeting where he learned that an employee had tested positive for the virus, someone who had last been on the building on March 11. Again he called for the building to be closed and again he encountered resistance. More disturbing to Smalls, managers refused to inform all JFK8 employees that someone had tested positive, instead opting to step on the floor and inform selected people. As a result, most of the company’s employees learned when someone posted the news on Facebook later today Vice reported the infection that night. Frustrated, Smalls left the building and went home.

“That was the last time Amazon got my services,” said Smalls. “Then I came back to the building every day at seven in the morning to express concern, and I spent eight hours a day in that building, trying to spread the word and tell the truth to the people. Since management wanted to keep it a secret, I felt it was my duty. I couldn’t just sit at home and watch people get sick. ”

The next morning, Smalls returned to JFK8 and went straight to the pause area without checking in. New York had confirmed more than 30,000 cases of coronavirus that morning, but little had changed at the facility. (A video taken the next day, March 26, shows that the tables were separated and lines were glued to the floor, but workers were still around.) On the warehouse floor, Smalls and others said workers that workers often worked shoulder to shoulder shoulder and shared equipment. For a few hours, Smalls told colleagues about the COVID-19 case and gathered a group to visit the general manager’s office, interrupting the morning meeting.

Video of the visit shows a tense exchange, with workers and managers shouting at each other.

“You can pass it on to your grandmother, to your kids, what’s the point? For some money?” Said one worker. Another demanded to know how many cases there had been in the facility. “Time is of the essence now” another employee added.

“We don’t make that decision at the site level, whether we close it or not,” said a manager. “We are also following the CDC’s directions. We are finished with this conversation. ”

For the rest of the week, Smalls and other employees went back to the manager’s office every morning, and despite the difficult exchange on Wednesday, he says the JFK8 leadership was generally supportive and told him when would be a good time for employees for their concerns and thanked him for keeping people calm. In any case, leadership would promise to bring their concerns in the chain to regional management, and nothing would happen.

Meanwhile, Chandler was at home awaiting her test results. On Thursday morning she called the emergency room and got: she had the virus. She sent her diagnosis to three supervisors who asked her how she felt and said they would escalate her case to human resources and global security. Later Chandler received a call from HR. “HR just told me to keep it quiet,” Chandler says. “That’s all they told me.”

It would take four days for workers to receive a warning about the second case at JFK8, but another worker learned of Chandler’s diagnosis and posted it on Facebook. Loaded with questions, Chandler posted the news himself and texted Smalls, who brought the news to the manager’s office and said that the dozens of employees Chandler had come in contact with should be quarantined. “They were like, ‘Oh no, we’ll notify you by phone or email,'” Smalls recalls.

Two days later, on Saturday, Smalls was in the break room talking to employees about the virus when a senior manager took him aside and told him that he had contacted someone who tested positive last Tuesday. They said that Smalls should be quarantined and left the building, said Smalls and two other workers present.

An Amazon spokesperson says the company does not tell employees whom they have come into contact with out of respect for employee privacy, and it was first noted that the employee contacted Smalls on March 27 to test positive. The spokesman said Amazon immediately notified the workers and verbally told Smalls on December 28 to leave the building and quarantine. But because the supervisor told Smalls that he was exposed on Tuesday, the 24th – when Chandler, the second known case in the facility, was the last in the building – Smalls, Chandler, and other workers suspected that the exposure in question was the moment was where Smalls sent Chandler home.

Chandler and Smalls both say this exchange was short-lived, about five minutes, and from two feet away. Chandler says she had been in closer contact with about 40 people that day and the day before. But as far as she knows, no one has been quarantined. Palmer, who worked with Chandler, was not quarantined and knows no one on their team who was. “Are you going to tell me that none of these 40 employees had contact with her? That’s impossible, ”he says. (Amazon declined to say how many other workers were quarantined next to Smalls.)

An employee who was in close contact with Chandler for 24 hours was never quarantined. The employee, who asked to remain anonymous, only found out that Chandler had tested positive until the Friday after Chandler got her results when she checked Facebook. When she saw Chandler’s post, she contacted her supervisor asking if she should be quarantined and was told that HR would be calling people soon, according to screenshots viewed by The edge. She never received a call. On Saturday, she sent another message to her supervisor and was informed that someone would talk to workers during her shift the next day. But on Sunday, when the employee returned to JFK8, the duty supervisor seemed to know nothing about the incident and later told her that the security team had analyzed video and quarantined everyone who had been in close contact with Chandler for more than 15 minutes.

“Chris was quarantined only because he started barking,” said the worker. “I had more contact with Barbara, Chris had about five minutes with her, I had almost a whole morning. And they didn’t tell me anything until I spoke [a supervisor] and said, “are we going to call this? What is going on?'”

“It was retribution,” says Smalls. “It was an attempt to silence me.”

After being ejected from the building, Smalls decided to organize the strike. He reached out to other employees he had spoken to in the break room and formed an Instagram group chat. They posted on Facebook and printed flyers, which the workers left in toilets at JFK8 the next day. “We had 24 hours to do it,” says Smalls. “I ran to CVS. I spent $ 100 on signs and posters. I was on the way. I didn’t sleep that night. “

On Monday morning, JFK8 employees received a text message: a new COVID-19 case at the facility was confirmed, the last one in the building on March 24. This, Chandler said, was her. Four days had passed since she told supervisors that she tested positive.

The workers walked away around noon. Organizers say 60 workers protested, while Amazon put the number at 15. Many wore home-made masks or bandanas over their faces and carried plates calling for the building to close and clean. Smalls returned to the facility for the first time since his expulsion and stood with protesters in the parking lot and addressed reporters.

When he got home, Smalls received a call from the same supervisor who quarantined him saying he had violated the guideline by returning to JFK8 and was fired. In a statement, Amazon later said it did not fire Smalls for organizing the protest, but because it “endangers the health and safety of others” by returning to the facility after being quarantined.

The firing brought Smalls to a much larger audience than the strike would have ever had. Unions and elected officials issued explanations crying for his recovery. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the Human Rights Commission to investigate his resignation. Smalls gave interview after interview and appeared on MSNBC the next night. Minutes after the segment ended, JFK8 workers received a warning: three new cases at the facility.

During the furore, Amazon struck a fair tone claiming that Smalls was the real threat to worker safety, and his resignation shows just how seriously the company is taking the virus. “I’m confused. Did you think you wanted us to protect our workers?” Amazon Car Relations head Jay Carney tweeted at Senator Bernie Sanders on Wednesday. “Mr. Smalls has intentionally repeatedly violated social distance rules and was put on 14-day quarantine due to exposure to COVID. 3/30 he returned to the site. Our team’s conscious risk is unacceptable.”

This turned out to be a strategy developed at the highest level of the company. Vice later obtained notes from a meeting attended by Jeff Bezos in which Amazon general adviser David Zapolsky called Smalls “not smart or articulate” and discussed plans to make him “the face of the whole union / organizing movement.” (Employees started one union effort at JFK8 shortly after it opened, although Smalls says he was not involved.) “We need to vigorously explain the first part of our response why the organizer’s behavior was immoral, unacceptable and demonstrably illegal, in detail and only follow than our usual talking points about worker safety, ”Zapolsky wrote.

After the memo leaked, Smalls gave another interview round. “They’re trying to silence me from the start,” says Smalls. “I was just trying to help people in my building, but somehow my life changed in 24 hours, so I’m still trying to deal with it.” It has been flooded with messages from Amazon employees around the world. “I’ve got the weight of the world on my shoulders as far as retail is concerned. I have everyone from Amazon from all over the world calling and texting me. They are supportive and I feel good knowing that I am giving them a voice, but at the same time we need to take action. Everyone contacts me, I’m like, yeah, you know what you’re doing, you fucking walk out your buildings. ”

But the firing of Smalls also had a dampening effect on the activism of the workers. Several employees of JFK8 and other Amazon facilities say they share his concerns and would support a strike, but are fearful of risking their jobs after his discharge. Concerned about their health, but reluctant to protest, they decided to stay home without paying and hoped the pandemic would soon subside. When the JFK8 workers ran away for the second time this Monday, only ten or so protested. Others posted support messages online from the safety of their home.

Amazon workers at Staten Island Warehouse strike above coronavirus protection

Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Since the first strike, JFK8 employees have received almost daily alerts about new cases of coronavirus. The reports do not specify a number, but only say that “multiple” or “additional” new cases have been confirmed. Amazon declined to give a total. Assuming each warning represents only two cases, there have been at least 14 cases, and workers estimate this to be twice as many.

Amazon has publicly rejected the actions of employees at JFK8 and elsewhere, calling their claims “simply unfounded” and saying that it has taken “extreme measures” to ensure worker safety. But in the wake of the protests, the company quickly took new security measures. Days after the strike at JFK8 and similar protests in Chicago and Detroit, Amazon announced it would install temperature readers in its warehouses and send everyone home with fever above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Employees hailed it as a positive move, although it wouldn’t have caught someone like Chandler who never had a fever. After criticizing sending feverish but undiagnosed workers home without a salary, Amazon started offering partial payment. On JFK8 and elsewhere, workers now receive masks at the start of their shift. The company also told employees that it would establish “ mandatory social waiver, ” which could lay off workers who “ intentionally break the guidelines. ” (An employee who was notified to JFK8 said that her work still had to be nearby and was concerned that she would be fired for inevitable violations.) This week, Amazon began testing “disinfectant atomization” at JFK8 and announced plans to start producing its own diagnostic tests for workers.

In a statement, Amazon said it has implemented and will continue to implement new security measures in recent weeks. “The health and safety of our employees is our top priority,” said an Amazon spokesperson. “Since the beginning of this situation, we have worked closely with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and local health authorities to respond proactively to ensure we continue to serve customers while caring for our employees and teams. ”

“Were they slow? Yes, certainly, ”says Palmer. “The only reason they do this stuff is because we blasted them in the media.”

But workers fear that measures have arrived too late to prevent a major outbreak, and five out of twelve workers The edge spoke with had decided to stay home without a salary, for fear of infecting vulnerable family members or for their own safety. “I need the salary, I have to pay bills,” said a worker. But she has asthma and lives with her grandmother, and one day in the break room she was overwhelmed with anxiety and never came back. Another employee was shocked by the repeated reports of new cases and did not come in again. “I can’t afford not to be there, but I can’t afford to catch the virus either,” she said.

Chandler is still recovering and has developed a cough. She hopes to get back to work soon. She has exhausted her two weeks of coronavirus leave and now receives only 60 percent of her salary. (Amazon says employees who have exhausted their COVID-19 sick leave are eligible short-term disability, who pays 60 percent of their salary.)

She thinks she got the virus in the warehouse. She goes out alone to drive to work and back, and she interacts with her colleagues so often. Chandler wishes Amazon had acted before and thinks it’s now too late to safely operate the warehouse without shutting it down and testing everyone before reopening. “They should have informed everyone with the first case,” she says. “And they should have closed the building for a thorough cleaning.”