- Business Insider spoke with 11 Amazon workers about the measures the company is taking to keep them safe during the coronavirus outbreak.
- Amazon has implemented policies including two weeks’ paid sick leave and unlimited unpaid time off in an effort to stop contagious or vulnerable employees from coming in.
- Amazon workers told Business Insider that the guidelines for claiming sick leave were hazy. Some said that to claim it you need an official doctor’s note or diagnosis, which can be difficult to obtain.
- One worker who quarantined themselves after coming into contact with a person who had the coronavirus was told they did not qualify for paid time off.
- Other workers said that unlimited unpaid time off was not financially possible, and one said they were served a “job abandonment notice” while taking it.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
As the coronavirus pandemic has spread across the globe and forced millions of people into lockdown, Amazon has faced a huge surge in demand.
It’s having to juggle that spike with the health of its warehouse workers, who now find themselves on the front lines, packing supplies for a global population largely stuck indoors.
Amazon’s demand for the first three months of 2020 is similar to its demand during peak holiday season. An employee tally from one delivery centre estimated that it was processing 10% to 40% more packages than usual for the time of year, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. One analyst forecast an overall sales increase of 23% for the first quarter of 2020.
To cope with the surging demand, Amazon last month announced a hiring spree, soliciting 100,000 new workers.
There is a tension between Amazon’s rushing to pack its warehouses with employees and keep them working and it’s implementing adequate protection to keep them safe from the virus.
That has led the firm to implement policies that had been unthinkable.
The first is that workers can now take an unlimited amount of unpaid time off.
The second is that anyone diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, or who was quarantined will receive up to two weeks of paid leave.
Both policies are an extraordinary shift by Amazon’s standards.
Workers have previously told Business Insider that using more than the allotted unpaid time off can result in instant dismissal. They have said they normally get 20 hours of unpaid time off every three months – a maximum of 80 hours in a year.
Though the new policies are designed to offer breathing room, workers say they’re struggling to take advantage of them.
Business Insider spoke with 11 Amazon employees across the US about applying for the new two-week paid-sick-leave allowance.
The workers spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from the company. One cited the case of Christian Smalls, a warehouse worker from Staten Island, New York, who was fired after organising a protest of the warehouse’s response to finding employees with COVID-19.
Many of the workers we spoke with did not know what the process of applying for the paid sick leave actually involved, and some said it was difficult to find out from human-resources departments.
One worker said she emailed HR and had been promised an answer but got no response.
Another said the information was on the company’s employee portal, called “A to Z”, but was later removed.
“They had it posted in the ‘A to Z’ app, but it’s gone now along with any COVID-19 news,” the person said.
Amazon’s sick-pay policy requires a doctor’s note, but coronavirus tests are scarce
Business Insider viewed a piece of official Amazon guidance on how to claim money for sick leave. It said employees needed to follow three steps if they are diagnosed with COVID-19 or quarantined:
- Stay home and do not come to work.
- Report all absences via “A to Z” if available, or contact your manager or HR.
- Call disability-leave services (which Amazon describes as a team in its operations dedicated to supporting its “rapidly growing employee population as they navigate various life events”).
Others said that to qualify you need official documentation like a doctor’s note or quarantine order.
“I have heard from other employees that it can be difficult,” one employee said. This person recounted how a colleague was quarantined after a family member was diagnosed but said that because their name wasn’t on the official order their claim was initially denied. Business Insider has not directly verified this incident.
In a statement to Business Insider, Amazon confirmed that employees who were not quarantined by the company itself needed documentation to back up their application for sick leave.
These documents can take the form of medical certification, positive test results, or communication from the employee’s medical provider. (Amazon said it needed the employee’s consent for the last option.)
Other employees noted that it can be difficult to get an official diagnosis of COVID-19. Tests are still scarce, and in many cases people will self-quarantine rather than visit the doctor for a diagnosis and risk infecting other people.
One employee who self-quarantined after discovering they had come into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus told Business Insider they were unable to claim the two weeks of paid sick leave.
HR “said we had to actually be diagnosed with the coronavirus and have a written letter from our doctor to receive our pay,” they said. “After multiple emails to HR asking why I could not get my sick pay, I finally received one back. They told me to apply for the Amazon Relief Fund.”
Amazon announced the relief fund in March, providing an initial $US25 million investment and opening it up to outside donations. It said the fund would be “focused on supporting our independent delivery service partners and their drivers, Amazon Flex participants, and seasonal employees under financial distress during this challenging time.”
The worker – a full-time Amazon warehouse employee, not a contracted seasonal worker – said the fund was far from accessible.
“My loan officer at my bank asked for less information when I bought my house!” they said. “It’s supposed to be a relief fund for anyone affected by the pandemic, but they want your life story and written statements from every bill you have, including your landlord.”
An FAQ page on the Amazon Relief Fund website said: “For a COVID-19 event, you will need a note from your healthcare provider, a government health official, or directly from Amazon stating that you are unable to work for five or more consecutive days due to a COVID-19 diagnosis or exposure. Grants cannot be made without the required documentation.”
One worker said that when they tried to take unlimited unpaid time off they were served a ‘job abandonment notice’
Amazon’s implementation of its policy of unlimited unpaid time off also appears to be patchy.
One employee showed Business Insider emails they received from HR after taking a week of unpaid time off serving her a “job abandonment notice.”
The worker said they had a call with HR. They said they “reminded them Amazon has a new policy of unlimited unpaid time off,” but HR “insisted I need to show up to work” at least “twice a week.”
An Amazon spokeswoman said this was not in line with company policy.
“All Amazon employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine by Amazon, a doctor or a government agency, receive two weeks of full pay,” she said. “We moved quickly to make paid time off possible for our more than 750,000 employees globally, and will work on a case-by-case basis with anyone who needs it.”
In the future, the company may consider self-reporting if employees are unable to get their hands on medical certification.
‘I don’t want to be there, but I need the income’
Many Amazon workers cannot afford to take unlimited unpaid time off. The minimum wage for Amazon employees is $US15 per hour, or about $US2,400 a month for someone working 40-hour weeks.
To incentivise people to work, Amazon introduced a wage increase of $US2 per hour during April. This does not apply for workers taking paid sick leave, an Amazon spokeswoman confirmed to Business Insider.
The company also announced in late March that it would increase overtime pay for employees who work more than 40 hours a week to double their usual rate so there is more incentive to come in.
It’s a substantial financial boost. Now if a worker put in a 60-hour week, they would earn $US1,360, compared with the $US600 they would make working a 40-hour week at $US15 an hour.
For some, the money doesn’t counteract the increased risk.
“I was grateful at first for the unlimited UPT and $US2 increase, but as things got worse and the virus was spreading more and more, it didn’t matter. I don’t want to be there, but I need the income,” said one worker who cares for an elderly relative. “The stress of bringing it home to him makes me physically ill.”
Another worker who has a medical condition putting them at a higher risk is taking unpaid time off but holding out hope that Amazon will introduce a policy to give employees money while they stay home to prevent the risk of infection, rather than paying out once workers get sick.
“I can’t continue to put people that I love at risk,” they said, adding, “I am feeling like I’m forced to make a decision whether I have to go to work or pay my bills.”
They said they were “hoping that somehow, because this has never happened before, that they come up with some kind of solution.”
While Amazon has sent texts to many warehouse workers alerting them about confirmed coronavirus cases in the facilities where they work, this employee said they had received no such correspondence while taking time off, even though their warehouse has multiple confirmed cases.
They added that the only way workers taking time off found out was by keeping up to date with the warehouse’s unofficial Facebook page, where their coworkers share news.
Amazon’s spokeswoman denied this, saying that once a site has a confirmed coronavirus case it communicates with all of its staff members.
The worker contacted HR to ask about the confirmed cases, wanting to know when the people had been working and where. They said they were met with a boilerplate response that didn’t answer their questions.
Amazon has started taking temperatures and handing out masks
Alongside new policies on time off, Amazon has introduced rules that affect daily life at the warehouses.
Business Insider previously reported that the company had gotten rid of security checks at the gates, distributed antibacterial products, and implemented a 3-foot distancing rule inside its warehouses.
The company has gradually implemented further measures. Last week, Amazon announced it would start checking temperatures and distributing masks to its employees. Business Insider obtained a leaked copy of a memo sent to warehouse workers advising them to wear masks:
“We recommend everyone wears a facemask of some kind covering their nose and mouth from arrival through departure of your shift. We will be handing out masks for everyone or you may bring your own, including fabric masks. If you need to obtain a mask at the site, please ask a manager or designated ‘Hand-out POC’ at the start of your shift. The mask should be used by one person for the shift and not be shared. You must also know how to use it and dispose of it safely. Details will be posted around the site.”
One employee shared a text from their warehouse, received on Wednesday, confirming a case of COVID-19 among its staff.
The text said that if anyone is found to have been in close contact with the person, Amazon “will proactively reach out to them individually to advise them of their possible exposure to COVID-19.”
It’s not clear from the text how the company ascertains this, but one employee said that workers were supposed to receive two weeks’ paid sick leave if they are shown on CCTV footage within 6 feet of an infected colleague for 15 or more minutes.
The text added: “We have taken a number of measures to keep us all safe and healthy, including MANDATORY social distancing of 6ft with daily audits, NEW thermal temperature checks for ANYONE entering the building, staggered shifts, and extended breaks.”
Multiple workers told Business Insider that social distancing is functionally impossible inside their warehouses and that antibacterial wipes and gel are frequently missing, sometimes stolen.
“We understand that you may be nervous about coming to work,” the text went on. “Individuals will not be penalised for any absences. And, if you feel sick, please STAY home.”
One worker said the CCTV-monitoring system wasn’t an effective way of tracking COVID-19 cases and contacts inside warehouses. This person said that there were 20 confirmed cases in their facility and that after the eighth confirmed case the texts employees received simply said there were “additional” cases.
This person added that they had contact with one of the confirmed cases in their department and that Amazon didn’t alert them to this until 12 days after the fact.
“This person was stocking supplies at everyone’s workstation, possibly infecting them,” they said.
The worker added that only two other workers in their department had been quarantined. “To look through two weeks of video and only quarantine two people seems unrealistic,” they said.
Amazon faces a reckoning from its workers, who are striking in protest
As the coronavirus crisis drags on, Amazon is likely to see increasing unrest among its workers.
Meanwhile, the company released a promotional video of its CEO, Jeff Bezos, visiting a warehouse near Dallas, Texas, having his temperature checked, and thanking the workers.
Today's visits by our founder and CEO @JeffBezos to say thank you to Amazon fulfillment center and Whole Foods employees. We're all incredibly proud of the thousands of our colleagues working on the front lines to get critical goods to people everywhere during this crisis. pic.twitter.com/dygb345wDM
— Amazon News (@amazonnews) April 9, 2020
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