Amazon Workers Say Warehouse Health Precautions Are Insufficient

A recent survey of hundreds of Amazon warehouse employees gives new insight into the conditions that are prompting worker revolt.

Alex Press
April 28, 2020
An Amazon employee sorts packages at an Amazon warehouse facility in Goodyear, Arizona, December 2019. Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

OVER THE WEEKEND, workers at MSP1—an Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota—walked off the job just after midnight to protest the upcoming end of Amazon’s unlimited unpaid time off (UPT) policy and the firing of a worker who had stayed home with her children. The UPT benefit, which was implemented in early March in response to Covid-19, and which allows workers to stay home without pay if they feel sick, is set to expire at the end of April. Though the threat posed by the pandemic has not abated, Amazon has made no moves to extend the policy. The Shakopee walkout is just one of many recent actions by Amazon workers around the country who feel the company is not sufficiently concerned with protecting their lives during a global pandemic, even as CEO Jeff Bezos has seen his wealth increase by $25 billion since the beginning of 2020.

“We’re not slaves, we’re not numbers, we’re people with families: babies, parents,” says a worker at fulfillment center ONT2 in San Bernardino, California, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation from Amazon. “I live with a [child], my girlfriend, and my mom and dad. Let’s say Amazon lets someone in [to work] because he has no hours left of UPT. I’m going to go in and contract the virus. Say I’m asymptomatic and I infect my whole house, and nearly kill half my damn family. Just because Bezos cares more about his fucking money than his employees.”  

Now, the results of a recent survey of hundreds of Amazon warehouse workers give new insight into the conditions that are prompting worker revolt, with all but a handful of respondents saying they believe the company’s health precautions in warehouses have been insufficient; the potential loss of unlimited UPT is just the tip of the iceberg. The survey was conducted by IE Amazonians Unite—a group of workers based in California’s Inland Empire region, where Amazon has several fulfillment centers—and was circulated largely through email blasts to local IE Amazonians Unite petition signers. Created on April 5th, the survey had garnered 373 worker responses, mostly from workers in the Inland Empire, about the company’s response to Covid-19 as of April 23rd; IE Amazonians Unite allowed me to review the responses. Of the survey’s respondents, only 11 say they believe the company is doing its best to look after employees’ safety. In general, workers describe an environment in which sanitization supplies are insufficiently available, the required pace of work makes it hard to take health precautions, and warehouse conditions make social distancing difficult. 

Amazon workers can be subject to disciplinary measures and even firing if they fail to keep up with the hectic pace of work—known as “rate”—and the first survey question asks how trying to keep up with rate affects workers’ health. In response, 317 of the 373 respondents say keeping up with rate impacts their ability to wash their hands and otherwise sanitize their workstations. This rate, stressful even in the best of times, is one of workers’ most common complaints about life during the pandemic. Of the three possible responses to “If you are contaminated by coughing or sneezing are you able to stop work and sanitize your work area and yourself?”—yes, always; yes, sometimes; and no—187 respondents chose “no.” Only 54 responded “yes, always.”

“People don’t care about social distancing because they’re more worried about making rate,” says the San Bernardino worker. Only 52 survey respondents say there has been an end to disciplinary action for failing to keep up with quotas and rates. A recent Amazonians United petition, signed by 5,210 workers, includes an end to rate-based write-ups as one of its demands.

As for what personal protective equipment (PPE) is being provided by the company, answers vary widely. While the San Bernardino worker (who participated in the survey) told me that face masks are being provided, and social distancing measures and temperature checks have been implemented at their warehouse, one respondent based at DTW1—a warehouse in Romulus, Michigan—states that as recently as April 15th, no PPE of any kind was being provided. Fifty-one of the survey’s respondents report only being given face masks—meaning they have not been provided with hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, disposable gloves, goggles, face shields, or physical barrier between workstations. A second San Bernardino ONT2 worker I spoke with yesterday says they are still not providing gloves in the facility, even though the company informed him and his coworkers of two more positive Covid-19 cases in their warehouse on Sunday.

Nearly half of workers surveyed report that “there is never enough” hand sanitizer or face masks. While some workers report rarely running out of sanitizer and masks, other write-in answers include: “haven’t had disinfectant wipes in a couple of weeks”; “haven’t seen any since middle of March”; “we don’t get to use them”; “since I started there has never been none”; “only seen hand sanitizer in one bathroom, and never hand wipes”; and “hand sanitizer is always empty.”

Forty-eight of the workers without face masks say they have not been told when Amazon will fulfill its promise to provide masks at facilities, a plan the company touted in an April 5th blog post in response to protests and walkouts from workers at warehouses across the country.

Among those who say their warehouses have not provided information on when masks will be available, 16 are workers in LGB3 in Eastvale, California, and nine are workers at LGB7 in Rialto, California. These Inland Empire workers live and work in one of the most polluted regions in the United States. Overall, 245 of the survey’s respondents say they or a family member suffer from asthma, bronchitis, or another lung-related illness—underlying conditions that increase vulnerability to Covid-19. 

All but three of the 373 respondents say that there are instances in which they see employees less than six feet away from each other, suggesting that it is not possible to follow social distancing guidelines inside Amazon facilities. Workers mention break rooms, the line to clock in, bathrooms, workstations that are too close to each other, walking through the building, lines for temperature checks, and training sessions as locations and situations in which distancing regulations are violated. Several workers I spoke to mention frustration with managers who enforce social distancing among the workforce only to violate it themselves. 

The overwhelming majority of survey respondents say they are worried that they won’t be able to afford to self-isolate if they become sick or are exposed to a sick person because they need a paycheck. While the remedy for this dilemma would be sufficient paid time off, the loss of unlimited UPT will also exacerbate it, because workers may risk losing their jobs if they stay home. Amazon has instituted two weeks of paid time off for workers who test positive for the virus or who have to quarantine, but workers have reported that trying to secure the benefit is confusing and difficult, especially if they are unable to obtain an official Covid-19 test. 

When asked what Amazon should do when there is a confirmed case of Covid-19 in a warehouse, 342 workers say the company should close the location for two weeks to clean, sanitize, and make safety improvements, and that the company should give workers two weeks of paid self-isolation time. So far, Amazon has refused to do this

In response to the results of the survey, a spokesperson for Amazon wrote in an email yesterday that the company has “aggressively worked to ensure the safety of our teams” and has “implemented more than 150 significant process changes to support our teams including increasing rates of pay, adjusting time off and providing temperature checks, masks, gloves and other safety measures at our sites. We urge others to compare the safety, pay and benefits measures we have taken for employees against others.”

Thus far, Amazon workers who publicly criticize the company have faced disciplinary measures. For example, Christian Smalls, until recently an employee at JFK8, a Staten Island Amazon warehouse, was fired after organizing a walkout in response to the company’s allegedly inadequate coronavirus precautions. But while the company may continue retaliating, workers are still organizing. As the IE Amazonians Unite survey shows, there are more than enough problems to motivate them to take on Bezos, one of the most powerful people in the world. 

“I cough a lot in [the warehouse]; it’s not a dry cough, but I haven’t had a chance to go to a doctor because I haven’t used a lot of UPT, because I need the money,” says the second ONT2 worker in San Bernardino. “I’m risking my life, and I have diabetes.”

“They make millions upon billions and always let us know how much we’re appreciated,” adds the first worker. “Well, show us that appreciation. Tell your fucking customers to fuck off for once and protect the labor force that makes your fucking money.”

Alex Press is a staff writer at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, and n+1, among other places.