NEW YORK, United States — In the breakroom at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Hazle Township, Pennsylvania, a PowerPoint presentation playing on repeat shows people in hazmat suits making their way through the giant facility, spraying disinfectant. The video is followed by an explanation in English and Spanish. Nearby, televisions broadcast messages of thanks from employees and customers.
So goes the new normal at the world’s largest online retailer. A vital lifeline for Americans sheltering at home during the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon is trying to limit the disease’s spread within its workforce. At the same time, the company is waging a public-relations campaign to reassure the employees picking, packing and shipping products that it’s safe to show up even as some of their colleagues continue to get sick and others complain about working conditions.
A test of Amazon’s progress arrives on Friday, when the company ends a pandemic perk of sorts that offered employees unlimited, unpaid time off—no questions asked. Amazon last week told employees who had stayed home that they would have to start reporting for work or seek a formal leave of absence beginning May 1. In a sense, Amazon’s efforts echo what’s happening at the state level, where some governors are trying to get people back to work without worsening the pandemic.
Amazon hasn’t said how many of its workers took unpaid time off. But in interviews, dozens of employees at warehouses around the country suggest a significant portion of their colleagues have stopped coming or dropped shifts. Those workers, many of whom rely on Amazon for health benefits, now face the choice of applying for an extended unpaid leave or testing Amazon’s new safety procedures firsthand. Employees who feel they can’t return because they’re looking after school-age children or have health problems, worry that they could be replaced by the tens of thousands of new people Amazon has hired in recent weeks.
One worker at the Pennsylvania warehouse where the disinfecting team video plays on a loop said she stopped going to work briefly after an outbreak of Covid-19 cases there began late last month. She’s since returned. “I would have stayed home again if they didn’t make the changes they have,” she said. Still, the worker said that some of her colleagues remain sceptical and afraid.
Amazon is “providing flexibility with leave-of-absence options, including expanding the policy to cover Covid-19 circumstances, such as high-risk individuals or school closures,” a spokeswoman said in an email. “We continue to see heavy demand during this difficult time and the team is doing incredible work for our customers and the community.” The company said it doesn’t plan to cut people once the unlimited leave expires.
The coronavirus first struck Amazon’s facilities in northern Italy in February. When cases began to spread across the US in the following weeks, Amazon announced the offer of unpaid time off, as well as a temporary $2-an-hour raise. While these measures were welcomed by many workers, they said the virus’s spread and a sometimes haphazard rollout of social-distancing measures amplified a prevailing distrust of management in many warehouses.
When cases were reported at a returns facility in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, last month, one employee said she expressed concerns to human resources that the company’s cleaning measures were inadequate. The on-site manager referred questions to a corporate call centre, where an employee read a script back to her about enhanced cleaning. A follow-up note to the building’s top manager wasn’t returned. The woman, who said she was then bringing her own hand sanitiser to work, started taking unpaid time off. She has applied for Covid-19 leave to care for young children and hasn’t heard back. Kentucky, which hasn’t set a date for reopening schools or day-care centres, had one of its worst days for new Covid-19 cases on Friday, the same day Amazon announced the end of the unpaid time-off policy.
Amazon has unquestionably made its warehouses safer, according to workers around the country. Metal detectors set up to deter theft have been turned off, since employees tend to bunch up waiting to go through. Cleaning supplies are more abundant; in places where it’s still hard to find these products in local stores, bottles of disinfectant and hand sanitiser are tied to breakroom tables. Packaging stations have been spread out. When unloading trailers or lifting heavy items, two-person teams have been split up. And in hundreds of facilities, the company has hired contractors to spray the same disinfecting fog used by hospitals and airlines. Since March, employees have been able to bring cell phones onto the floor—ostensibly for emergency calls.
Some workers once bristled when admonished for bringing soft drinks to their workstations or clocking in a minute late after breaks; now they said they’re being lectured about proper face mask technique or passing someone too closely in a hallway.
Despite the new safety measures, many workers have chosen to cut shifts short or take a spontaneous half-day, complicating Amazon’s effort to ensure there are enough people to meet demand. As absenteeism reached 50 percent in some warehouses, according to people briefed on attendance data, Amazon went on a hiring binge. On April 13, the company reached its goal of recruiting 100,000 people and said it was looking for an additional 75,000. Workers said those reinforcements are largely responsible for keeping operations going amid the pandemic. Amazon said the new hires have been brought on to meet increased demand.
Employees at warehouses in South Carolina and Michigan estimated temps and new hires outnumber veterans by 10 to 1 on some teams. “We have full shifts in all departments, but it’s seasonal workers,” said Jaylen Camp, who works at a facility in Romulus, Michigan, and earlier this month participated in a walkout calling for the warehouse to be closed for cleaning. “It’s all new people surrounding me daily,” said another worker at a nearby facility, who, like most people who spoke for this story, requested anonymity to avoid retaliation from their employer.
Sporadic protests continue at Amazon warehouses. The company has fired employees involved in walkouts or organizing in New York and Minnesota for what it says are violations of corporate policy. Several politicians have accused Amazon of retribution, and this week New York’s attorney general announced an investigation into the firing of a Staten Island worker. The company has countered internal and external critics with employee testimonials and a PR campaign. Workers who took unpaid time off have received emails listing cleaning practices and inviting them to return to work. Social-media sites have been blanketed with Amazon advertisements thanking workers for their bravery and showing them wearing protective gear. Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, wearing a mask and trailed by a camera, swung through a Dallas-area warehouse.
Some employees wonder how Amazon will safely accommodate returnees in buildings rearranged to separate workstations and keep people from congregating. Others said they will have a hard time returning because they have kids at home. The company said both full-time and part-time employees are eligible for Covid-19-related leave, either to care for children home from school, or because of health issue they or household members face. Those who want to avoid a penalty for missing shifts had to apply by Wednesday, Amazon told workers. (Amazon has promised two weeks of sick pay for employees who actually catch the disease).
The rollout of the new leave policy has had some challenges. One part-time employee, who applied to take May off to avoid exposing elderly parents, was quickly denied by human resources, which told the person, incorrectly, that part-time employees weren’t eligible. An Amazon spokeswoman later said the decision had been reversed.
Other employees plan to return to work. One worker at a warehouse in Connecticut, who decided to work part-time as cases spread nearby, said she can’t afford to lose the paycheck. “Everyone thinks it’s just about sick people staying home, but it’s more than that,” she said. “My kids aren’t in school. The unpaid time basically meant that I've had a flexible schedule which has allowed me to do what I need to for my girls.”