Prime Day, peak season and the pandemic: Amazon warehouse workers brace for the months ahead

Amazon is gearing up for one of its largest shopping events of the year, which is set to begin Tuesday.

Posted: Oct 12, 2020 9:30 AM
Updated: Oct 12, 2020 11:25 AM

Amazon is gearing up for one of its largest shopping events of the year, which is set to begin Tuesday.

When layered on top of the ongoing pandemic and followed closely by the start of the holiday shopping season, some workers are worried about risks to their health and their jobs.

CNN Business spoke to ten Amazon warehouse employees about pandemic-related conditions and what it has been like to work past Prime Days and holiday seasons. Some spoke on the record, while others spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Attitudes about pandemic-related policies varied depending on which warehouse, and which department, workers were in.

At one warehouse, workers expressed concerns about the ability to follow social distancing guidelines and being reprimanded if unable to do so. In others, workers were stressed in anticipation of the extra work.

Under normal circumstances, Amazon warehouses are teeming with activity and workers, but demand spurred by the pandemic sent that into overdrive. Beginning in March, Amazon hired 175,000 temporary employees to keep up with the surge in orders, later stating it would keep 70% of them permanently. In September, the company announced plans to hire an additional 100,000 employees across its operations, telling Reuters it was still evaluating demand for seasonal employment. Last year it announced it would bring on 200,000 workers for seasonal needs.

Following basic Covid-19 virus precautions, such as maintaining six feet of social distancing, can prove increasingly difficult in certain parts of Amazon's facilities as more workers are on-site and as the volume of packages increases, six of the workers told CNN Business. So too can being conscientious about sanitizing work areas while keeping up with the pace.

Mandatory overtime is enacted during busy periods including around Prime Day, according to the workers who spoke to CNN Business, with employees at three locations saying overtime is scheduled for this week at their facilities. That means workers will be putting in more hours and spending more time inside the warehouses, making conditions evermore important. When asked whether the mandatory overtime was policy across all its facilities, Amazon did not respond.

During the pandemic, Gabby, an associate at an Amazon facility in Hawthorne, California who asked that only her first name be used and who has participated in a walkout over working conditions, said she has at times sacrificed speed in order to maintain social distancing or sanitize, and has received verbal warnings for not keeping up her productivity rate, something Amazon is known to track closely among its workers. Navigating this balance could become even more difficult as things pick up for workers during Prime Day and the holiday season.

Some workers told CNN Business that Amazon does emphasize social distancing in certain areas of facilities, like near entrances where cameras detect and display on a screen visible to workers whether they are six feet apart using red and green rings, as well as in break and lunch rooms. However, other areas of the facility aren't monitored as closely, workers said. One worker told CNN Business he felt the company didn't promote social distancing in areas where workers cluster together to interact with specific machinery.

Amazon said it has made over 150 process updates to date to ensure the health and safety of its employees, and has committed over $1 billion to new investments in operations safety measures this year, which include technology investments and enhanced cleaning measures. Workers are required to wear masks, which Amazon makes available, as well as have their temperatures checked upon entering facilities. According to Amazon, it has social distancing ambassadors, as well as other measures like signage and taped markings on the floor to guide workers in facilities.

Amazon's business has seen soaring demand for its products and services during the pandemic even as the broader economy has been mired in a pandemic-induced recession. But, Amazon has also become a subject of scrutiny as warehouse workers and critics express concerns about the spread of coronavirus inside its facilities.

For months, Amazon refused to disclose the number of cases among its workforce. Earlier this month, after pressure from workers and more than a dozen attorneys general, Amazon revealed that nearly 20,000 of its front-line US employees at Amazon and Whole Foods have tested positive or been presumed positive for the coronavirus. In a blog post, the company said it did a "thorough analysis of data on all 1,372,000 Amazon and Whole Foods Market front-line employees across the US employed at any time from March 1 to September 19, 2020." It broke out the data state-by-state, something the attorneys general asked for in a May letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey.

CNN Business requested a further breakdown of cases between Wholes Foods and Amazon workers to understand how those rates compare with the general population. Amazon declined.

Terrell Worm, an Amazon associate at JFK8 in Staten Island who has also participated in a walkout, told CNN Business that knowing the aggregate number "doesn't really help" workers like him. "I'm worried about my area -- that's what I want to know, how many cases in my building?"

While Amazon notifies workers about confirmed cases where they work, an Amazon spokesperson confirmed to CNN Business in May that it changed an earlier approach and stopped including numbers when confirming cases to workers.

"If Amazon wanted to illuminate the actual risk of Covid-19 and their success in controlling virus transmission, it would provide that actual number and rate of cases from each fulfillment center and Whole Food store," said David Michaels, former head of OSHA under the Obama administration and a professor at George Washington University.

Behind the scenes, Amazon has been closely tracking the spread of the virus inside at least one warehouse -- MSP1 in Shakopee, Minnesota. As CNN Business covered in June and as first reported on by Bloomberg, the company was breaking down the departments, shifts and counties of residence for workers confirmed to have coronavirus at the facility according to an internal memo.

"Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams. We have redeployed a large number of our data scientists, technologists, and operations employees to focus on Covid-19 and ensure the safety of our workforce, including thousands of individuals on our health and safety teams," Amazon spokesperson Kelly Cheeseman said in a statement at the time.

The Minnesota Department of Health told CNN Business that they had 219 cases among employees at the Amazon Shakopee warehouse as of September 29, more than double the amount of confirmed cases from late June.

With their health on the line, worker activism has increased at a number of Amazon facilities during the pandemic -- and with it, claims by workers that Amazon is retaliating, allegations the company has denied.

The latest example was a walkout at the Shakopee, Minnesota, facility earlier this month over the firing of Farhiyo Warsame, who said she was fired at the end of September for allegedly spending too much "time off task." She alleged to CNN Business that she was retaliated against after raising concerns about a lack of adequate safety protections. It is the second time workers at this facility have walked out since the start of the pandemic over alleged retaliation against colleagues who raised concerns about safety. Warsame is at least the third worker who said they were fired at this facility after being vocal about safety.

Amazon has said it has "zero tolerance for retaliation against employees who raise concerns and respect the rights of employees to protest and recognize their legal right to do so."

Regarding Warsame, Amazon spokesperson Jen Crowcroft said in a statement to CNN Business last week: "Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every team member. While we cannot discuss individual performance I can say, associate performance is measured and evaluated over time. We support associates who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve. If their performance does not improve, corrective action is taken up and to termination."

(Warsame said she did not receive coaching; she said she plans to appeal her firing.)

As more than half of US states report an uptick in new coronavirus cases, the threat of catching the virus remains a real concern for many who now have fewer financial protections in place from their employer than earlier on in the pandemic. At the end of May, Amazon ended some of its Covid-19-related benefits instated in March, including $2 extra "hazard pay" per hour and double overtime pay. Its policy that allowed warehouse workers to stay home for an unlimited number of days without pay was discontinued in May.

In June, Amazon gave out a one-time "Thank You bonus" to frontline workers. The company continues to provide up to two weeks of paid time off for employees diagnosed with the coronavirus. It also set up a relief fund for seasonal employees, and partners such as delivery drivers, facing financial hardship.

Worm, the Staten Island worker, told CNN Business that he has "worries for the future." "Once the holiday season comes up, there's usually a lot more people in the building at once, I don't know how they're going to figure that one out."

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