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Amazon Warehouse Workers Knew Someone Would Get Sick

Workers in Queens tried to warn their bosses about taking steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Then someone tested positive.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

It was fall of last year when Jake, who asked that I not use his last name, first started working at an Amazon fulfillment center in Queens. It was a second job—he took it on because he needed some extra income—and he’d been picking up steady shifts since then. But on Tuesday, after developing a cough, Jake stopped going into work. The city was in the middle of a pandemic, and, even though he knew he wouldn’t get paid, it just didn’t seem worth the risk of getting other people sick.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Amazon has offered its workers unlimited unpaid time off through the end of March—meaning that for the next two weeks, they won’t fire people for missing shifts but also won’t pay them if they’re self-isolating as a safety measure, either. (It has also launched what it’s calling an emergency relief fund that allows workers to apply for hardship grants.) For those seeking paid time off, the current company policy requires a quarantine or coronavirus diagnosis, which requires a positive test. That’s an incredibly high bar, as most people in the city right now—and across the country—aren’t able to get one.

“It was stupid, but I walked to the hospital,” Jake told The New Republic during a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon. “They told me I can’t get tested because I’m young and they don’t have enough tests.” Still, the doctor told him to stay home from work out of an abundance of caution. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to be paid or not,” he said. “But I know I’m not going to be able to get tested.”

Jake then predicted, presciently, that the virus had likely already reached the warehouse, since it is staffed by “tons and tons of working-class people who ride the subway all the time, who have not been able to work from home.” Four hours after our phone call, he was proven right: The Atlantic reported that a co-worker had tested positive.

According to Jake, who is a member of a workers’ organizing group called Amazonians United, the news of the positive test first started to spread around 6:30 p.m., when workers on the day shift texted A.U. members with the news that they were being sent home. According to Jake, management told the workers that they were only shutting down temporarily in order to disinfect the warehouse before the night shift. A.U. then sent a mass text to all of the facility workers advising them against showing up for that shift and told workers already at the facility to go home as a safety precaution. It was just 20 minutes before the shift was meant to start that Amazon management finally conceded and canceled the shift, Jake said. (In an email to The Atlantic, Amazon said it notified all associates about the positive test, and that “workers were not expected to come in for their night shift.”)

At this point, Amazon’s treatment of its workers isn’t any kind of secret—it’s actually baked into the business model. And now, with a pandemic and accompanying health care crisis in full swing, the vast majority of its labor-intensive positions still lack health benefits and paid sick leave—leaving workers like Jake extremely vulnerable to not just the virus but the long-term financial consequences of the pandemic.

“I’m lucky because I have another job, so I’m going to keep getting a paycheck, but for a lot of the young people who work in the warehouse with me, Amazon’s policy is that you need a positive test for them to pay you,” Jake told me. “So a lot of young people who are passable, who maybe know that they got in contact with someone or have a little bit of a cough, it really encourages them to just buck up and go, because they’re not going to get a check otherwise.”

Before news of the positive case, A.U. had presented facility managers with a petition they would later publish online calling on the company to provide paid sick leave, hazard pay, and—in the event that a worker tests positive for the virus—a promise of a full facility shutdown. When reached for comment, Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski sent The New Republic a prepared statement detailing the temporary closure of the Queens warehouse; in responding to follow-up questions about Amazon’s time-off and hazard pay policies, Levandowski wrote, “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.”

The protections Jake and A.U. are currently fighting for are the same ones they had been demanding before the national pandemic: Jake relayed that the workers in his facility actually first began formulating a separate petition in late January, before the coronavirus was even on their radar. The decision to go public with this second petition and open it up to other Amazon workers—it has been translated into Polish and Spanish and has been signed by over 1,500 workers worldwide—was a result of the failure in response from the Queens facility’s manager to the earlier internal petition.

“Management told us that they don’t take petitions, that they can never take petitions,” Jake said. “We tried to deliver it three times, and they said, We have an open-door policy, but never talking in groups. You have to come to us one-on-one.

The second petition came about as the coronavirus spread in New York City. While millions of New Yorkers began working from home and avoiding public spaces, Jake and his fellow facility workers were processing more orders as people began relying on online retail to stock their pantries and prepare for possible quarantine. Demands for cases of water, food, and Clorox wipes flowed in, prompting Amazon to announce plans to hire 100,000 more workers worldwide. Where some might see this as additional work for the millions being laid off, Jake described it as a craven play by Amazon “to take advantage of more people losing their jobs and to make their workforce more interchangeable. That’s their response—to remind people that they’re replaceable.”

The warehouses like the one Jake operates in are massive spaces, but employees are often in contact with one another, crossing paths on their way to bag the items on their delivery lists at the speed Amazon demands. They also touch shared surfaces as they work their shifts. “If you cough or sneeze or something and need to physically disinfect, you don’t have time to do that because they are maintaining these really fast rates,” Jake said, referring to the common practice of rate-based write-ups for management.

The issues being taken up by A.U. are obviously not unique to Amazon. Grocery workers, delivery drivers, nurses—the laborers on the frontline response to the virus and social distancing—are all facing increased workloads with little change in pay or medical benefits. But in the case of Amazon, a company whose owner is the wealthiest man alive, there is no possible economic justification to deny basic benefits to workers. Bezos could do it—he just won’t.

“I’m talking to my mother, my grandmother, they both live in the city—we all have a responsibility to make this disease less crazy,” Jake said. He thought about his own health, still home with a cough, then about his colleagues who may be asked to return to work while sick or asymptomatic. There’s a whole chain of contact he’s worried about, he said: “It’s not worth sending someone else’s grandparent a package.”