Senators press Jeff Bezos on Amazon’s coronavirus workplace safety measures

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Employees sort and move packages at an Amazon fulfillment center in Grapevine, Texas, on December 5, 2018.

Employees sort and move packages at an Amazon fulfillment center in Grapevine, Texas, on December 5, 2018. (Shaban Athuman/Dallas Morning News/TNS)

Four U.S. Senators pressed Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Friday for details on how the company is keeping its workers safe, after one of its U.S. warehouse employees tested positive for COVID-19 in New York.

Amazon employees across the country, rushing to fulfill a surge in online orders as the novel coronavirus pandemic spreads, have called out shortcomings in the company’s response, including a lack of recommended symptom screening and social distancing measures for Seattle-area workers – some of whom reported seeing changes made during shifts Thursday.

Employees are also demanding paid sick leave, childcare subsidies, hazard pay and relief from production quotas to provide time for sanitation.

An Amazon spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on symptom screening – recommended March 11 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at all workplaces in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties – or on a host of other questions raised in the letter from Democratic U.S. Sens. Corey Booker and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent.

“Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” the senators wrote to Bezos, citing research showing that traces of the virus could be detected 24 hours after it was sprayed on cardboard and for three days on plastic.

Amazon said “there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through packages,” citing guidance from the CDC, World Health Organization and U.S. Surgeon General, in a statement Thursday confirming the illness in its New York employee.

The senators’ questions echo demands made in an online petition to Bezos circulating since Monday by Amazonians United, a group organizing the company’s warehouse workers.

While Amazon requires any worker feeling ill to stay home and has changed its policy to allow unlimited unpaid time off through March, it has offered paid sick leave only to employees who test positive for the virus or are placed in quarantine. The workers’ petition calls on the company to offer paid leave regardless of the diagnosis, citing the difficulty in obtaining a COVID-19 test and suggesting the current policy “encourages us to work when doing so is unsafe for ourselves and our communities.”

The senators asked Bezos whether Amazon will cover the cost of COVID-19 testing and extend paid leave to its employees. They also asked that the company pledge to immediately shut down any facility, temporarily, where a worker tests positive, and provide two weeks of paid sick leave for employees there to self-isolate.

When it temporarily closed the Queens distribution station where the COVID-positive employee worked, the company said all workers were sent home with pay.

The senators also asked whether the company would provide “time and a half hazard pay during this period of heightened risk.” The company on Monday, announcing plans to hire 100,000 full- and part-time workers, said it was raising wages for hourly employees, which start at $15, by $2, “depending on the region,” through April. It promised similar increases in Canada, the U.K. and parts of Europe.

Amazon is reminding employees to wash their hands frequently and requiring them to clean and sanitize their workstations and vehicles at the beginning and end of each shift. But so far, the company has not relaxed its stringent and closely-monitored productivity requirements to allow workers time to do that without penalty.

The senators asked Bezos if Amazon would suspend “rate-based write-ups” – penalties that can lead to termination if employees fall short of productivity targets – until “the threat of COVID-19 is mitigated.”

A company spokesperson said previously that a series of new social distancing measures were implemented on Monday.

One Kent fulfillment center employee who described the shortcomings to The Seattle Times earlier in the week said a flurry of changes were evident there on Thursday afternoon.

“We had a few stumbling blocks implementing some of the new procedures but we’ll get them worked out in short order,” he said. “The most common comments I heard this afternoon was ‘it is about time.'”

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