Bobbi Johnson, a worker at an Amazon warehouse south of Detroit, first saw the rumors on Facebook over the weekend. Kelly McIntosh-Butler, another worker at the facility, heard about them on Monday from her daughter, who works at another Amazon warehouse nearby. But it wasn’t until Tuesday, when Johnson and others confronted someone from human resources in the break room, that they received confirmation that someone at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19.
Six workers at the sortation center DTW5 say they only learned of the case from coworkers or after McIntosh-Butler, frustrated with the lack of transparency, tipped off Local Four News, which received confirmation from Amazon Tuesday. In the information vacuum, they are left wondering whether they’ve been exposed and whether it’s safe to continue working. Last week, Johnson’s son, who has asthma, began having trouble breathing. This week, her daughter developed a dry cough. She hasn’t been able to get either tested, and she worries she was an unknowing vector for COVID-19. She decided to stay home, without pay, to care for her children and avoid potentially spreading the virus.
“They should have closed that building down and sanitized that whole building before they let us come in,” Johnson tells The Verge. “And they should have given everyone a robocall, because you never know if you bumped into that person in the bathroom or anything, because not only are you putting your life at risk, you’re putting the people that you come in contact with’s lives at stake.”
Workers at DTW5 say that after they confronted management, they were told that five workers who had been in contact with the infected person had been informed. Workers feel that is far from sufficient. Their jobs often take them to different parts of the warehouse and they share break rooms, restrooms, and equipment, making it difficult to say precisely who may have been exposed. Many are balancing the need to receive a paycheck with potential risks to themselves and their loved ones, and without being notified of potential exposure, they fear they are making decisions in the dark.
“Here I am, a week after being exposed to it, and I’ve already been to work three other times, three other days breathing on people,” McIntosh-Butler says. “This is how this thing is getting out of control right now.”
Several workers at DTW5 say they hear hacking coughs, sneezes, and other potential symptoms in the facility, but no one is being screened upon arrival. Though the workers have been told cleaning has been ramped up, they say they’ve seen no evidence of it, and that sanitary wipes and other cleaning material is often in short supply or nonexistent. Yesterday, another worker at the facility said she was experiencing COVID-like symptoms, hasn’t been able to get tested, and has decided to self-quarantine, according to screenshots shared with The Verge.
Workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 at 10 Amazon warehouses in the US so far. At many of them, workers only confirmed the infection after confronting management or hearing news reports. In Jacksonville, Florida, workers learned of a coronavirus case at their warehouse from the local news. At a New York City sortation center last week, the first known case of an Amazon warehouse worker contracting COVID-19, Amazon sent day shift workers home while the company disinfected the facility, but workers on the following shift only learned of the case after getting a text from a workers’ group. When the night shift arrived, they refused to work, shutting down the facility. On Tuesday, an Amazon worker at a Staten Island fulfillment center tested positive, and again workers received no email, text, or call from Amazon.
At the MDW2 warehouse in Joliet, Illinois, Stephanie Haynes heard through coworkers that someone who works near her had tested positive. She approached someone from human resources, who confirmed it.
“Me and some other ladies went to human resources and confronted them about it, and we thought they’ll do something as far as shutting the building down or doing a lot of cleaning,” Haynes said during a call organized by Athena, a coalition of groups critical of Amazon. Instead, management claimed to have checked the cameras and found that the workers had not been close enough to the infected person to be in danger, Haynes says, and told the workers to continue coming in. The building wasn’t shut down — management told workers the facility would be cleaned as they worked.
Haynes, who has asthma and whose husband has diabetes, putting them at higher risk from COVID-19, decided to self-quarantine anyway. Though Amazon has said it will provide two weeks’ paid leave for any workers diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in quarantine, unless the company calls to recommend she should quarantine, her time away is unpaid. “Amazon needs to do a lot more to protect us,” she says. “We need to know how they’re going to handle things when somebody is in a warehouse and gets sick.”
Amazon has the capacity to quickly notify workers. The company frequently messages all workers at a given facility for things like schedule changes or mandatory overtime. When California shut down all non-essential businesses last week, Amazon workers received automated calls telling them they were essential and should continue coming to their warehouses. “You guys call us to tell us that we’re getting extra pay or that we can come in, but nobody was notified that there was a confirmed case?” says Johnson at DTW5.
Asked about the lack of notification for workers at DTW5 and elsewhere, Amazon said only that it had made employees aware of confirmed cases and asked anyone in close contact with diagnosed individuals to self-quarantine for 14 days with pay. “We are supporting the individuals, following guidelines from local officials, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of all the employees at our sites,” the company said in a statement.
Millions of Americans told to stay home have turned to Amazon as a means of getting basic necessities, and the company has embraced its role as an “essential service,” scaling up operations as governments order other businesses closed. But the situation puts Amazon workers in a difficult position, forced to choose between going without a paycheck or venturing into crowded warehouses where many feel inadequate safety precautions are being taken. On Facebook, workers have begun changing their profiles to read, “I can’t stay home, I work at Amazon.”
More than 1,500 workers have signed a petition calling on the company to improve safety measures, provide sick leave regardless of a COVID-19 diagnosis, and shut down facilities where workers test positive for cleaning. The company says it has implemented new cleaning procedures and taken steps to avoid people crowding together, but workers at DTW5 and elsewhere say cleaning supplies are often lacking, the pace of work doesn’t leave them time to use them, and their jobs still require them being in close proximity to each other. While Amazon shut down a returns-processing warehouse in Kentucky Wednesday after three workers tested positive, it has so far refused to close facilities more integral to its distribution network. In Italy and Spain, the company’s decision to keep warehouses running despite infections prompted protests and absenteeism.
Amazon, meanwhile, is struggling to staff up to meet surging demand. Last week, the company raised pay by $2 per hour, increased pay for overtime, and announced plans to hire 100,000 workers. Amazon also changed its policies to allow workers to take unlimited time off without pay (previously they would have been fired for taking more than a certain amount), and even before Amazon workers began getting infected, many were choosing to stay home or leave early, fearing an outbreak was inevitable. As orders flood in, delivery times for some items now stretch to a month or more.
“A lot of people are coming to work, working two or three hours, and leaving because they’re thinking overexposure is scary,” McIntosh-Butler says. “Management is mad, and if they tell anybody that we had a positive case, they’re thinking people aren’t even going to show up to work.”
But at DTW5, the fact that workers had to confront management over rumors to learn a coworker tested positive has only heightened their anxiety. One worker said that after HR confirmed the case on Tuesday, more than 100 workers walked out, and now she’s weighing whether to work her next shift. She needs to make rent, but she’s also in frequent contact with her father, who has cystic fibrosis, potentially making him more vulnerable to COVID-19. Another worker said that as a single mother of three, she can’t afford to go without a paycheck, but also fears getting the virus and infecting her kids. “It’s very scary,” she says.
McIntosh-Butler’s husband has seen work dry up during the pandemic, but she’s only going to work one more shift this week and then stay away. She’ll wear a bandana over her face, as many workers at the facility have begun doing, even though she knows it won’t do much.
“I’ll have my $200 check and they can have the rest,” McIntosh-Butler says. “I just think that it’s too dangerous right now, because I don’t know who I’m coming into contact with, and HR isn’t taking it seriously.”