Rachel Belz, who helps stock shelves at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in West Deptford, New Jersey, has been on unpaid leave from her job since March 13. The 32-year-old mother made the difficult decision to stay at home during the crisis and forgo her paycheck to avoid catching COVID-19 and spreading it to her loved ones.
"I didn't feel like they were doing enough to clean and disinfect," Belz said. "I have a young son and immunocompromised family. I wasn't willing to risk the people I loved to stock DVDs and stock vibrators."
When the outbreak began to spread quickly in the U.S., Amazon allowed employees to take unpaid leave without the risk of losing their jobs. The retail giant is ending that policy on May 1, though, meaning Belz could be subject to termination if she doesn't report back to work. While the company says it will continue to allow employees with "COVID-19 circumstances" to stay at home, Belz and other Amazon workers say it's unclear who would qualify.
As more people obeying stay-at-home orders rely on online retailers, Amazon Fulfillment Center employees are making sure customers get their products. The company has said it will hire 175,000 workers to meet demand, leading analysts to believe the company's quarterly sales revenue will be exceptionally strong when it reports earnings on April 30.
But some Amazon workers, including Belz, are members of a nonprofit group focused on worker's rights called United For Respect, and they contend the $1.15 trillion company isn't doing enough to protect them from the coronavirus.
"They should be taking care of employees better, just all over," Belz said. "The CEO of our company made $6.3 billion[sic] dollars last month on the backs of employees."
In addition to asking for unpaid time off, some employees are also concerned that deteriorating conditions inside the warehouses are putting them in danger.
Allegra Brown, who works at the Woodbridge, New Jersey Amazon Fulfillment Center grabbing items off shelves for orders and sealing packages for shipping, is still going to work every day. Brown, who is also affiliated with United For Respect, claims Amazon does provide cleaning supplies but not enough of them.
"They have truckloads of it that they get that is sitting in non-inventory and locked up," she explained.
While the 22-year-old undergoes a temperature check when she enters the facility and is given a mask daily, she said employees have to re-use the same mask even if they leave the workplace on breaks. She also alleges that not enough gloves are available even though employees are told to wear them when handling products. The company has taken away the hand sanitizer from the breakroom, she said, and while additional dispensers were added throughout the warehouse, they are often empty. Meanwhile, the warehouse is adding more aisles to stock additional items and hiring new employees. With additional workers, Brown said it's hard to maintain six feet of distance as everyone rushes around to fill orders. Shifts haven't been adjusted to account for the new hires, she added. She estimates there are more than 300 people in her warehouse at the same time and about 100 people rummaging through the aisles to pick up items for shipping.
When employees are diagnosed with coronavirus, Brown claims Amazon takes over a week to notify other members of the staff. She also was told by managers that workers will only be personally notified if they were in contact with the infected individual for 15 minutes or more.
"They're only making these small changes to basically cover their ass," Brown said. "They're doing the bare minimum."
Amazon disputes the allegations, pointing out they have provided protective gear, implemented temperature checks, and disinfected factories throughout the world. It noted it has implemented an additional $2 an hour raise for U.S. and Canadian workers during the pandemic and double overtime pay to compensate employees, and the additional wages have been extended through May 16. The company also said that it broadened the circumstances that would make an employee eligible to take further unpaid time off, including "high-risk individuals or school closures."
"The union organizers' claims are also simply false – what's true is that masks, temperature checks, hand sanitizer, increased time off, increased pay, and more are standard across our network because we care deeply about the health and safety of our employees," Amazon spokesperson Timothy Carter told Cheddar. "We encourage anyone to compare the health and safety measures Amazon has taken, and the speed of their implementation, during this crisis with other retailers."
The office of New York Attorney General Letitia James is investigating similar allegations. In a letter to Amazon obtained by NPR, the state attorneys wrote that the company may have violated safety standards, broken whistleblower protection laws, and might be providing "inadequate" protections to warehouse workers. Officials are also investigating the firing of Christian Smalls, a Staten Island warehouse employee who helped organize a protest that called for the closure of the facility when several workers there tested positive. Smalls maintains he was fired because of his role in the rightful protest, while Amazon said he was let go for violating quarantine and safety regulations.
Still, Brown said people are already coming to work while ill because they are concerned about losing their jobs. She fears the situation could get worse if the company ends unlimited unpaid time off as scheduled Thursday.
"The minimum they should do is keep the unlimited time off until the coronavirus thing calms down," Brown said. "They should keep unlimited PPE (personal protective equipment). A lot of people who are sick, they are coming to work."