As thousands of businesses across the country close their doors to help slow the spread of the coronavirus across the country, Amazon, deemed an “essential business,” is one of a few major multinational corporations that have continued to operate.
While the company’s operations have largely carried on business as usual, the fear of catching the coronavirus at Amazon warehouses is now palpable, employees told Business Insider. A quiet cough or small sneeze would usually pass without much notice — but now they boom across the facility, flaring anxieties and prompting some employees to walk out in the middle of a shift.
While some Amazon workers can afford not to go to work, others feel that they are forced to choose between their health and their livelihood.
Business Insider spoke with eight Amazon workers in Pennsylvania, Texas, Kentucky, Arizona, and California who say they’re afraid to go to work — and they claim that Amazon is not doing enough to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading within their own facilities and to the larger communities they serve.
Kristen Kish, a spokesperson for Amazon told Business Insider told that the company is monitoring the situation in its facilities and are taking “proactive measures to protect employees and associates who have been in contact with anyone who has been diagnosed or becomes ill.”
“Like most global companies, we’ve had employees affected by this, and we’re doing all that we can to protect our employees and take the proper precautions as stated in WHO guidelines,” Kish told Business Insider.
With hundreds or even thousands of workers packed into a warehouse at a time — rendering social distancing measures “impossible” — and a scarce supply of hand sanitizers and cleaning products, employees called Amazon facilities a “breeding ground” for coronavirus infection.
And, despite having confirmed COVID-19 cases at several warehouses, they claim that management refused to temporarily close down their locations to clean the entire facility despite employee requests.
“It’s leaving us to choose our health or our finances,” one Amazon worker from Houston who wished to remain anonymous told Business Insider. “Everybody looks scared, but we can’t afford not to go to work.”
“It’s leaving us to choose our health or our families.”
At an Amazon location in Houston, Texas, one warehouse employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation told Business Insider that there are at least five employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus where she works.
“This disease is killing people on a daily basis,” she said. “As people are testing positive for it where I work, they still expect for us to come there.”
With two kids at home full-time due to school closures, she said she can’t risk bringing home the virus to her children. The single mom has been forced to take off work so she can take care of her kids — but that also means less money to support the family.
“I can’t afford to risk my health — my health is more important than a paycheck,” she said, noting that she is afraid she will come in contact with the virus while at work.
“But, I’m also afraid that I’m not going to have the money that I need to take care of my bills when it’s all over,” she said.
After the Houston location confirmed that employees had tested positive for coronavirus, the warehouse associate claimed that the company refused to shut down the facility for deep cleaning and has barely increased their normal cleaning schedules.
Although management claimed to be following CDC mandates, she said that hand sanitizer is scarce and cleaning supplies to disinfect their working areas are often in short supply.
For warehouse associates, she added that social distancing was “impossible.”
“There’s no way to forcefully make somebody stay six feet from one another, especially with the type of work that we do,” she said, pointing to warehouse assembly lines where workers constantly come into close contact with each other.
According to Amazon, that “this is simply not true,” Kish said, adding that the company “adjusted practices to ensure social distancing within our buildings, including no stand-up meetings, moving chairs and tables in breakdowns and adjusting shift start and end times.”
However, Business Insider previously reported that an Amazon fulfillment center in Indiana appeared to show a lack of social distancing — the facility later confirmed that an employee tested positive for the novel virus.
By failing to take enough precautionary measures to protect their workers, she felt that Amazon was forcing its workers to choose between their health and their livelihood.
“I choose my life, but in their opinion, it’s the bottom dollar.”
For Amazon employees who are at risk of falling seriously ill if they are infected with the coronavirus, going into work could be a matter of life and death. For an Amazon worker in Lexington, Kentucky, who is immunocompromised, the decision not to go to work she said protects her from contracting the “potentially life-threatening” disease.
“I choose my life but, basically, in their opinion, it’s the bottom dollar,” the employee who works in vendor returns told Business Insider, adding that there are no provisions for the elderly or those who can’t prove their underlying health conditions. “I’m not receiving pay during this time and it’s creating a dire situation for me.”
Every three months, the Kentucky employee receives a steroid shot to control her psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. The shot suppresses her immune system, which makes her susceptible to getting infected and falling extremely ill.
She claimed her facility and most Amazon facilities are a “natural breeding ground” for infection with “people packed into tight quarters” while high contact surfaces “aren’t regularly cleaned.” She claimed many daytime and nighttime workers share equipment like carts or computers, which she claimed are often dusty, dirty, and difficult to keep clean at the Kentucky facility.
“There’s this revolving door of germs [that’s] happening from the day shift, night shift using the same items over and over,” she said, adding that her vendor returns department, which is not an essential service, shouldn’t still be operating in the first place.
Kish disputed the Kentucky employee’s claims and told Business Insider that Amazon had “increased the frequency and intensity of cleaning at all sites including regular sanitation of all door handles, stairway handrails, turnstiles, elevator buttons, lockers, and touch screens, to name a few.”
Due to her condition and Amazon’s failure to provide face maks or protective gear, she has not gone into work since early March. Although going to work poses a threat to her health, she said she may be forced to go back to work to make ends meet.
“I’m basically stuck where I can’t collect unemployment. I don’t feel safe going to work,” the 50-year-old told Business Insider. “I’m concerned about my income, I might be forced to go back. I don’t want to go back anytime soon.”
“I just want my family to be safe…I can’t bring poison into their home.”
After an Amazon worker in Phoenix, Arizona confirmed he had been infected by the coronavirus, many employees simply walked off the site, the Arizona Republic reported. One Phoenix, Arizona associate who wished to keep their identity a secret, said his anxieties over transmitting the coronavirus from his facility to his family has made it almost impossible for him to work.
“Every day, I’m walking out within an hour of work,” the associate told Business Insider. “So, when I can’t take it mentally, I just go home.”
For the unidentified Phoenix employee, bringing the virus home from work could deal a devastating blow to his family. He told Business Insider that his family was at high risk of falling seriously ill if infected by the coronavirus — his brother suffers from extreme asthma while both his parents are over the age of 60.
“I just want my family to be safe… I can’t bring poison into their home,” he said.
In addition to leaving the job early, the employee and several of his colleagues have started to refuse freight coming from the warehouse with positive COVID-19 employees. Although his facility has started to implement social distancing measures more seriously since discovering employees had contracted the virus, he said it’s far from enough.
“We need a stable and sterile supply chain for the customers and the workers,” the 37-year-old said. “[Amazon is] putting a lot of people at risk because these things move at an exponential pace. And that means that it can hurt a lot of people in little to no time.”
He even began to organize with fellow employees, writing the governor and other public officials to demand that the Amazon warehouses be closed and completely disinfected before resuming work. Until then, he said he will continue to fight until Amazon protects its workers from the virus.
“This company is not doing enough and this fight is bigger than our pay,” he said.
In regards to closing down Amazon facilities with confirmed cases of COVID-19, Kish said Amazon is currently consulting with local and federal health authorities and medical experts on how to handle building closures for deep cleaning.
“Our process evaluates where the employee was in the building, for how long, how much time has passed since they were onsite, and who they interacted with, among other items, in determining how to appropriately handle the situation,” Kish told Business Insider.
“Going to work is risky… it’s a scary calculation I make every day.”
At the Amazon facilities in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, there are as many as 18 confirmed coronavirus cases — and Dominica Mercuri told Business Insider that she may be one of them.
The 29-year-old outbound associate who picks, packs and ships customer orders began experiencing symptoms associated with coronavirus including a dry cough, extreme fatigue, and a fever on March 27 — the same day her facility announced that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19. According to Andrea Houtsch, another associate at the same Pennsylvania facility, there are now as many as 18 confirmed cases in their buildings.
However, due to her age and lack of pre-existing conditions, Mercuri’s local hospital refused to administer a test. Without enough proof that she could have the novel virus, she has been forced to take off work without any pay.
“No pay is hard to live with,” she told Business Insider. “I need to get in that building so I can get paid. They’re not paying me to stay home since I don’t have a diagnosis.”
Having already used up most of her paid time off in the week she took to recover, Mercuri said she needs to work just five more days this week to pay her rent and bills.
“Going to work is risky,” Mercuri said, adding that her mother who lives with her is at risk of falling seriously ill if she contracted Covid-19. “It’s a scary calculation I make every day.”
After announcing that there were confirmed cases at the Pennsylvania warehouses, she said the facility was “back to business as usual.” Although she claims that her facility is making some attempts to improve conditions for workers amid the outbreak in the facilities, she claimed their “half measures aren’t good enough.” The facility tried to implement social distancing measures and provide sanitary wipes for employees, but she said they were never available when she needed them.
Kish, however, claimed that “disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer are already standard across our network, and the procurement teams have worked tirelessly to create new sources of supply to keep these critical items flowing.”
“Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic,” she added, “it is not easy as supplies are limited, but we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable.”
While Mercuri’s Amazon facility has successfully revamped their break rooms so that employees can stay six feet apart, their work stations are still so close people have accidentally coughed and sneezed on her.
“When push comes to shove and our stocks are only rising like right now, we need to get those numbers out the door,” Mercuri told Business Insider. “Editing our stations enough to keep us safe and actually keep us six feet away would take away from production. So it’s not gonna happen unless there’s some kind of outside intervention.”
“I’m worried that I have infected 1000 people in the last three days.”
Kathy Knight, a driver lead for Amazon, told Business Insider that she wasn’t afraid that she could contract the virus — she was afraid that she was helping spread it.
“I have now visited 190 homes in my community. If that virus is on the box or if I’m carrying the virus and I sneezed or coughed on your package, it’s now sitting on your front porch,” Knight told Business Insider. “The person that answers the door to pick that package up could get that virus off that box or bag.”
As a driver for Amazon, in Pennsylvania, Knight told Business Insider that she makes anywhere from 150 to 196 stops each day, delivering as many as 300 packages. Each of those packages had been touched by countless Amazon employees and drivers, some of whom could be carrying the virus.
Both she and her 22-year-old son, who also works as an Amazon driver, were both tested for COVID-19 last week after he began showing symptoms associated with the disease. Knight believed that her son may have caught the virus while delivering to Jefferson Hospital where there have been COVID-19 cases.
Citing studies that show the novel coronavirus can live on cardboard or plastic anywhere from one to three days, Knight said she stopped working on March 30 out of fear that she was infecting her customers.
“I told my boss, ‘I just don’t know if I can do this. I’m too worried that I have infected 1000 people in the last three days,'” Knight told Business Insider. “If it came back to me that I had made somebody sick or possibly died from me delivering a package — I don’t know how I would get all the rest of my life with that.”