Less than two weeks ago, workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York City were packed together in the company’s cafeteria as the coronavirus epidemic intensified, videos obtained by HuffPost reveal.
One video, taken on March 18, shows workers sitting together at tables crowded in close, even though the company had sent a text to employees two days before stating that it would implement new social distancing measures.
“Everybody’s close to each other, look,” says one woman in another video from the 18th. “We’re gonna die. So pray for me.” She laughs a sort of panicky laugh.
Activists at Athena shared the videos with HuffPost and provided the dates for the clips, two of which have March 18 timestamps.
Things have changed since those videos were taken, Amazon told HuffPost. Social distancing of 3 feet in the break room began on March 18, according to Amazon, and now distancing is at 6 feet.
But the prior failure to keep workers at a safe distance from each other wasn’t due to lack of knowledge. By March 18, politicians, employers and the public were well aware of the severity of the crisis. There were at least 8,525 cases of the coronavirus and 145 deaths reported in the U.S. President Donald Trump signed a coronavirus aid bill that day. New York City was already considering a shelter-in-place order.
And two days earlier Amazon had implemented policies meant to “maintain social distancing,” such as barring coats, bags and backpacks from going past security, according to a text message viewed by HuffPost.
Amazon workers say that the massive corporation was then, and still is, failing to do enough to protect them. In response, Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, plan to go on strike Monday afternoon to protest conditions in their facility, called JFK8. And workers at Whole Foods, which is also owned by Amazon, are planning a strike for Tuesday.
They want Amazon to take further action to protect workers as the coronavirus spreads. Derrick Palmer, an employee at JFK8 who took the videos, said he did it to show that the facility was not following social distancing guidelines. Only since March 20 have they set tables farther apart in the cafeteria, he said. And in other areas of the facility, workers are still close together.
In the department where workers put goods into boxes, “you’re literally packed on top of each other,” he said. Same with the shipping department. “Everyone’s next to each other. There’s no social distancing at all in those areas.”
Masks and gloves are also not available, Palmer added.
“I go to the supermarket ― they’re doing social distancing. I come to work and it’s the same thing ― just people crowded together,” he said.
Amazon workers are also dismayed at the lack of information about whether fellow employees could be passing along the virus.
While Amazon has confirmed that one worker in the Staten Island facility has tested positive for COVID-19, activists and employees say at least five workers are sick there.
“At JFK8, the individual cases are not linked to one another and the diagnosed associates had no contact with one another,” Amazon told HuffPost by email.
A spokesperson for the company said it has put in place many safety measures to keep workers protected, including recently implementing temperature checks at the Staten Island facility. “We alert any associate who had close contact with the diagnosed associates at our building and ask them to not return to the site and to self-quarantine for 14 days, and we pay them for their time at home. We make employees at the site aware of confirmed cases.”
More generally, the spokesperson said, “Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis. Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable. We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances. The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day.”
Around the country, Amazon has confirmed that 11 individuals out of its workforce of over 800,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus. But workers themselves believe that far more are infected. The company isn’t making individual cases of COVID-19 public. Instead, workers have been releasing details to the media.
Amazon has said that when a warehouse worker tests positive, it tells everyone in the facility about the incident. But some workers say that’s simply not true.
Palmer said that some managers are telling some employees about cases at the Staten Island facility, but there hasn’t been any warehouse-wide communication. “They’re not sending out mass texts, they’re not sending emails,” he said, adding that the facility typically does that when the building is shut down for various reasons or they otherwise need to communicate to all workers at once.
Palmer has had contact with at least one worker who he’s been told was exposed to COVID-19 ― his manager ― but he hasn’t been told to stay home.
His manager, however, was given two weeks paid time off, he said.
Palmer has chosen not to work recently. Instead, his focus has been on getting Amazon management to take action.
Amazon workers around the country have said they’re feeling scared and unsafe as the epidemic spreads. The company has raised workers’ pay $2 an hour and said that anyone feeling uncomfortable coming in can stay home. But it isn’t paying people who stay home unless they’re officially diagnosed with the coronavirus or have come in contact with someone who was.
That has the perverse effect of incentivizing people to come to work unless their circumstances are pretty dire.
“You’re either getting a lot of money or you’re sitting at home worried about the bills,” said Jana Jumpp, a United for Respect member who works in an Amazon fulfillment center in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and who spoke on a call organized by labor activists last week. “The only choice we have is to take time off without pay or be exposed to this virus.”
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