But the company has come under fire for the way it treats those workers on the front lines of delivery. In his latest earnings' report, a week and a half ago, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos committed an additional $4 billion, at least, for COVID-19 expenses, including more protections for his employees.
Figuring out how to make this happen falls in great part on the shoulders of Amazon's head of operations, Dave Clark. Dave Clark Dave Clark: I could not disagree more strongly with the premise that we're late to this party.
As head of operations at Amazon, Dave Clark is in charge of over a million people, 1000 buildings, and shipping your packages. All while keeping Amazon's workforce safe, whether its employees filling orders at the warehouse, or drivers showing up at your front door.
But since March, some of those workers have started staging protests, walkouts, and sick-outs in New York, Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago. We talked with him remotely as he took us on a tour of a warehouse near Seattle, showing us where some $800 million the company says it has spent on worker protections thus far has gone.
For example, they have installed thermal cameras in many of their locations, to take employees temperatures. Amazon is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a way for employees to self-administer a coronavirus test, using saliva or a nasal swab.
A cleaner spray disinfectant inside an Amazon warehouses is the main work floor where items are sorted and boxed. We saw people in hazmat suits spraying surfaces with a misting disinfectant.
Amazon says it is now trying to enforce social distancing by videotaping all its employees and using artificial intelligence to study their movements. Clark says the company's extensive camera system is also being used for contact tracing in order to identify workers who came in contact with a sick colleague and send them into quarantine.
In the future: A robot is being built to emit UV light to kill viruses on surfaces. Amazon also shared video of something they are working on for the future: a robot that emits a certain type of UV light to kill the virus on surfaces.
Lesley Stahl: So here's a question of great interest to an awful lot of us. Dave Clark: We see COVID-19 cases popping up at roughly a rate generally just under what the actual community infection rates are, because our employees live and are part of those communities.
Lesley Stahl: So you're saying that if these new cases keep popping up that it's not bc they're getting it or spreading it in your facilities? But employees have complained they're in jeopardy at the warehouses, because social distancing isn't always enforced.
Throughout March and April, workers shared through texts and social media images of crowding, the work-floor, and break-room. Dave Clark: The actual-- sort of total number of cases isn't particularly useful because it's relative to the size of the building and then the overall community infection rate.
ROBOCALL: We want to let you know we have 11 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 at AVP1 in the Hazleton region. Hazleton, Pennsylvania, is where we found the largest cluster of COVID-19 in the Amazon network.
Workers there tell us they've counted well over 70 cases in their warehouse, but they're petrified to complain about fear of losing their jobs. The whole community of Hazleton, a small town with a large working class Hispanic population, has seen a spike of infections, partly due to the local Cargill meatpacking plant that had to close down for two weeks for sanitizing.
If I-- is I believed that shutting down the plant was the answer to keeping our people safe, we would do it. The CDC recommends that when a plant has a case it should close down that worker's area and try to wait for 24 hours before disinfecting.
Calls for closing Amazon facilities for deep cleaning are being heard all around the country. Chris Smalls, an assistant manager in Staten Island, New York, was the first to organize a walkout in the United States.
Lesley Stahl: Are you the only Amazon employee who spoke up, protested, who's been fired? Lesley Stahl: We have encountered some fear among people at Amazon because they have seen that protest leaders have been fired just for complaining.
Dave Clark: Well, I can tell you we have a zero tolerance policy for retaliating against people or for any number of issues. Protesters outside an Amazon facility Dave Clark says Chris Smalls was fired because he violated the company's quarantine policy.
And on Wednesday, nine senators called on Amazon to clarify these terminations. Lesley Stahl: Well, I think there's been some commentary that you are beginning to build a labor movement.
Chris Smalls and others are calling on Amazon to extend benefits during the pandemic, like more generous sick leave, and extra pay. Dave Clark: There's no decision to be made at this point whether to end May 16th or continue.
He says that every day there're big decisions like this he has to make, as head of operations, to keep the packages coming and address the criticism. Dave Clark: If anybody walked into this with a perfect playbook for how to execute-- continuing to-- to send essential goods to people in the middle of a pandemic, I'd love to see it.
In the United States, hundreds of thousands of these so-called essential workers are employed by or contract for Amazon, whose delivery network has emerged as a vital service for millions of Americans stuck inside their homes. WIRED spoke with nine people working for Amazon during the Covid-19 crisis over the past two weeks and is publishing their accounts of being on the job, in their own words.
Each of them say they are terrified for their health and that of their families, and many believe Amazon isn’t doing enough to ensure their safety. While the company has often framed its frontline workers as heroes, the people WIRED spoke with say they didn’t sign up for this level of risk.
Amazon says it has 110 fulfillment centers and 150 delivery stations in North America. The outbreaks have led to employee protests in Detroit, New York City, and Chicago, where workers said Amazon was slow to notify them about infections and failed to conduct adequate cleaning.
At Amazon -owned Whole Foods, staff staged a nationwide demonstration citing similar safety concerns and calling for free coronavirus testing for all employees. And more than 5,000 Amazon workers have signed a petition asking for additional benefits given the health crisis, including hazard pay and for the company to shut down any facility where a worker tests positive so it can be properly cleaned.
Amazon ’s practices have attracted the attention of lawmakers including senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Robert Menéndez, and Sherwood Brown, who sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos last month demanding answers about the company’s workplace safety measures. Workers at a warehouse in California filed similar complaints with state and county regulators the same day.
“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 Covid-19 pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement.
“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.” Amazon says it has made over 150 changes to help protect its workforce, including distributing face masks to all staff, instituting social-distancing protocols, staggering shift start times, and adding more space between workstations.
The company is also checking whether employees have a fever when they show up for their shifts, though the practice won’t detect the significant number of Covid-19 cases that are asymptomatic. In recent weeks, Amazon has raised wages for hourly workers and said it would let anyone concerned about coming into work to take unpaid time off through the end of April.
After receiving criticism from lawmakers, it will also now allow anyone suspected of having Covid-19 or placed into quarantine to take two weeks of emergency paid sick leave. Prior to March 27, the company required that workers obtain a positive test result to use the benefit, but a nationwide testing shortage made that extremely difficult.
This is what kills me: When we walk through the main front doors, we hit these turnstiles to enter. I know that in my fulfillment center, we’ve got over 900 people who work there, and we have three entrances to choose from.
If you’re saying our job is so damn important, and that everybody else should stay home, yet we have to show up like soldiers, why not protect us? The day this interview was conducted, Amazon notified the worker about a confirmed case of Covid-19 at their workplace.
We run open air markets within the warehouse, where employees can go and purchase things for lunch, your typical chips, soda. We have a couple of different sandwiches and stuff in coolers, that sort of thing.
But it’s starting to be more like that now, as Amazon is hiring more and more people to keep up with demand for essential items. It’s kind of impossible to socially distance with our jobs, because our storage room is so small.
They had us take out at least 70 percent of the microwaves, in the hopes that things would be more spaced out in the break rooms. An employee asked today if we had any milk crates, because there’s not enough chairs.
I’m scared of bringing something home to him with his diabetes, because I know that’s a much higher risk factor. I tell him, “Hey man, I would, but I’m such a high-risk person to be around right now working at Amazon.” It makes it rough for everybody.
Things started shutting down around here, and I was like, Why the hell can’t I stay at home? After this interview was conducted, multiple confirmed cases of Covid-19 were reported at their workplace.
A couple of weeks ago, they started doing superficial stuff for the coronavirus. But then they hired more people, which made the crowding worse in some areas.
When you pull up in front of a little kid’s house and give him a box, and he smiles and says thank you, it makes you feel like you’re doing something. Today, after someone already contracted the virus, was the first time I’ve seen wipes and gloves available.
I’m trying to do my part in staying 6 feet away from people, but you still have customers coming out to the van, expecting us to give them their packages in hand. I’m a writer, and I started writing about the automotive industry about a decade ago.
A few years back, I became fascinated with the potential for local delivery to help reduce carbon emissions. In 2018, I started doing delivery work for Roadie first, and then Whole Foods, to learn more about the industry from the inside.
When one of my primary writing gigs evaporated, I was like Oh my god, I have to pay the bills. When you pull up in front of a little kid’s house and give him a box, and he smiles and says thank you, it makes you feel like you’re doing something.
This first mask is duct taped together and it’s made from an old Nike golf shirt. After this interview was conducted, the driver reported that Whole Foods has instituted more protections for workers, including social distancing measures, temperature screenings, and providing gloves.
When I first started there, it was a great job, because it’s only part-time, it’s fairly flexible, and it gave me the opportunity to look for other things. I have been going to work through the pandemic, but I am starting to contemplate staying home because of some issues at Amazon.
My son’s dad stopped working too, so it’s not like I’m getting child support. I was thinking ahead, planning for quarantine and stuff, buying food.
If you’re saying our job is so damn important, and that everybody else should stay home, yet we have to show up like soldiers, why not protect us? While they are taking basic precautions, the fact of the matter is there are over 200, maybe 300 people that come in and out of this warehouse every day.
Amazon has these big puffy bodysuits that you put on over your whole body, including your mouth, which you need to keep you insulated. You find one that fits you, you do your time in the freezer, then you come out and you take it off, and some other poor bastard uses it.