COVID-19 spread 4X faster in one Amazon warehouse than local area


A uniformed woman lifts a small parcel.
Enlarge / An Amazon worker in a fulfillment center in the Orlando area, April 2019.

After eliminating temporary “hazard” pay raises, Amazon is saying “thank you” to its hourly workers with a one-time bonus of $500, while at least one Amazon warehouse has been found to have a COVID-19 rate four times higher than the general population nearby.

Amazon yesterday announced its one-time bonuses for “front-line” employees. Full-time workers in warehouses and Whole Foods stores, as well as full-time delivery drivers, will receive $500. Part-time workers in those roles will get $250, and Amazon Flex drivers who worked 10 hours or more will get $150. Managers on-site in distribution centers or Whole Foods stores will get $1,000, and owners of the third-party firms that handle delivery for Amazon will get $3,000.

The company saw a massive spike in consumer demand as in-person retail shuttered around the nation and the world this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amazon hired an additional 175,000 employees in its warehouses, logistics, and grocery businesses since early March to meet increased demand. The company also increased wages by $2 in warehouses, to a minimum of $17 per hour, to get new workers in the door.

But that increase was not guaranteed to be permanent, and it did indeed evaporate after May 30. The $500 that employees who worked full-time for the month of June will receive is equivalent to more than the $2 per hour would have been; for part-time workers, the math is more variable.

Hazard bonus

No employee from any company ever objects to extra cash in hand, but Amazon workers and employee advocates say the money is not enough in the face of the threat from COVID-19, which has hit some warehouses particularly hard.

One Amazon warehouse in Minnesota had an infection rate more than four times higher than the surrounding community, according to an internal memo obtained by Bloomberg. In mid-May, the MSP1 facility outside Minneapolis had a 1.7 percent infection rate, according to the memo, but Hennepin County, which includes the city of Minneapolis, was at the time reporting a rate of 0.4 percent.

While Amazon has not said publicly how many employees have contracted the novel coronavirus disease, Bloomberg found the memo detailed “a sophisticated tracking regime” hidden from the public—unsurprising for Amazon, since it collects and uses mountains of data on everything it does.

Since March, front-line Amazon workers and contractors have complained that Amazon did not move quickly enough to stem the spread of disease in its facilities. The first Amazon warehouse employee known to have COVID-19 was diagnosed in March; one week later, cases were identified in at least nine warehouses.

Several Amazon employees, based both in warehouse locations and the company’s Seattle tech hub, were fired from their jobs in April after speaking out about unsafe conditions in the fulfillment centers. In early June, a group of employees at the company’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island filed a lawsuit alleging Amazon “relied on purposeful miscommunication with workers, sloppy contact tracing, and the culture of workplace fear it has instilled at JFK to ensure it can maintain productivity while reducing costs, even if that means workers come to work sick and cannot engage in proper hygiene, sanitizing, or social distancing while at work in order to stay healthy.”

That has not abated, according to Recode, which yesterday published a report citing interviews with “dozens” of current and former employees. While those employees said safety conditions have improved in the warehouses since March, many added, “they have such limited work options that they keep showing up to sort, pack, and deliver shipments for Amazon even as they fear the company isn’t doing enough to keep them safe during a global health crisis.”

Amazon told Bloomberg in an emailed statement about the memo that “nothing is more important than the safety of our teams,” adding, “We utilize a variety of data to closely monitor the safety of our buildings, and there is strong evidence that our employees are not proliferating the virus at work. What we see generally is that the overall rate of infection and increase or decrease of total cases is highly correlated to the overall community rate of infection.”

The spokesperson did not provide an explanation for the infection rate inside MSP1, Bloomberg noted.

The MSP1 outbreak is Minnesota’s 13th largest by case count, a state public health official told Bloomberg, saying that worse outbreaks were largely at meat-packing plants, which continue to face extreme challenges from COVID-19. Nor are the challenges confined to the US: Amazon was required to close all its warehouses in France temporarily in April, due to a court ruling that it was failing to protect workers from COVID-19. Next door in Germany, Amazon workers went on strike yesterday in six locations. Union leader Orhan Akman said in a statement about the strike that “Amazon has so far shown no insight and is endangering the health of employees in favor of corporate profit,” according to CNBC.



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