William Stolz sat on the blue line commuter train at 6:15 on a Wednesday evening. Normally at that time, right on the edge of rush hour, the train is full. But on this particular night, there were 10-12 people in his car. And maybe it was because of the rainy sky, or maybe it was because every day he walked outside the Amazon warehouse after work, he knew the news had grown a little bleaker. He felt particularly uneasy that night.
More COVID-19 cases. More restrictions in place. More people are unemployed. And, for Stolz and his colleagues, a ballooning chance that by reporting to work at Amazon, one of them would catch it, and spread it.
“Every day feels like the scariest day,” Stolz said.
Stolz is a 25-year-old Minneapolis man who started working at Amazon in Shakopee more than two years ago to pay off his college tuition. He’s healthy with no underlying conditions. He’s not necessarily worried about getting sick with COVID-19 himself, but he is worried about the people he works with who are more at-risk.
In the last week, 11 positive COVID-19 cases have been reported at Amazon warehouses across the country, according to media reports. At press time, no cases have been reported at Shakopee’s warehouse.
But advocates across the country, including a recently-formed worker’s group called Athena, are advocating for a public plan for how Amazon will safeguard worker’s health during the pandemic.
Amazon has said safety is its No. 1 priority and claims it does have a plan in place, including offering double overtime pay and unlimited, unpaid sick leave to its workers who don’t feel comfortable reporting to work.
Stolz has long been outspoken about concerns regarding Amazon’s workplace safety measures. Stolz has never been injured at Amazon. But the pandemic is different. Workers are touching plastic and cardboard and that means they could be exposing family members and loved ones to the disease.
According to a recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine, COVID-19 lives on cardboard for up to 16 hours and plastic for up to 21 hours. Amazon said it’s doing significantly more cleaning at all its facilities to help kill the germ before it would infect workers. But some workers say if the disease hasn’t hit their warehouse yet, it will soon.
More than 2,500 employees work in the Shakopee fulfillment center, many of them Somalis who are transported by bus from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, which the locals call Little Mogadishu.
And because they work so closely together, and touch so many of the same items, Stolz said if one of them gets the virus, “we’re all getting it.”
Shakopee’s Amazon distribution center has attracted national attention in recent months, partly due to workers’ involvement with the Awood Center, a nonprofit that helps “build East African worker power” in the Twin Cities.
Amazon said the practices it's put into place comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and employees are required to socially distance themselves.
"Many of us work very close together, especially those of us who pack and shift with multiple orders.”
'Busy as Christmas'
Amazon said it’s changing its process to prioritize stocking and delivering high-priority items to its customers. It’s also looking to fill more than 100,000 positions across the country to provide those high-priority items to “people everywhere, especially to those, like the elderly, who are most vulnerable.”
Stolz said because of the influx of essential supplies, plus the normal amount of regular orders Amazon gets on a daily basis, it’s “as busy as Christmas” at the Shakopee facility.
Amazon is considered an “essential” business because, like a grocery store, it ships essential items to people during a time when many people are quarantined in their homes. And Amazon is shipping those materials, which workers say are necessary. But other Amazon workers say they are also handling items that are non-essential, like toys and clothing.
“We’re shipping the normal stuff that we always ship all day long,” Stolz said. “I have noticed more toilet paper and wipes and soap and stuff that we’re shipping.”
Stolz said some of the items he handled on March 25 included games, electronics and phone cases.
“If we were just shipping out food and essential supplies… if it was just that, and Amazon was letting the most at-risk people stay home with pay... plus regular screenings, plus greater hazard pay, I’d probably feel differently about this,” he said. “It’s not just putting warehouse people at risk. It’s increasing the risks for everybody. And that affects us. It affects our families. It affects people we come into contact with.”
Amazon said the measures it’s putting in place are safeguarding its workers against the disease. Some of those measures, which were sent to the Valley News by an Amazon spokesperson, include increasing the frequency and intensity of cleaning at the warehouses, practicing social distancing in break rooms and other common spaces, conducting video-based interviews for new candidates and enabling temporary cell phone access for those who need to be in contact with family or daycare providers.
Amazon also said “everyone must wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing their nose, coughing, or sneezing,” and if soap was not readily available, the workers are to use hand sanitizer. Stolz said he has noticed more hand sanitizing stations posted around the warehouse.
If an employee needs to wash their hands, they “can, when they want, log out of their system and go wash their hands whenever they choose — this is in addition to break times and this will have no impact on performance,” according to Amazon’s statement.
Amazon is also requiring all its employees to stay home and seek medical attention if they are feeling sick, offering up to two weeks of time off for anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in quarantine “to ensure they can get healthy without worrying about lost pay.”
Amazon also said it established an Amazon Relief Fund with a $25 million initial contribution to focus on supporting its independent contractors, like drivers.
“We will be offering all of these groups the ability to apply for grants approximately equal to up to two weeks of pay if diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine by the government or Amazon,” its statement said.
Employees who feel sick but haven’t been tested for COVID-19 will be able to take unpaid time off without being penalized through the end of March. Amazon did not respond when asked if that policy will be extended into April.
More measures needed?
Athena, the worker's group, said at a March 25 virtual press conference that it wants Amazon to offer paid sick leave to all its employees, since access to COVID-19 tests are scarce in the U.S.
"The question is not are the surfaces clean, it’s primarily, are they doing enough to safeguard person to person transmission?" Dania Rajendra, the Director for Athena, said.
Stolz agreed, saying he thinks Amazon is getting away with the nation's shortage of COVID-19 tests. He said the pay incentives he’s receiving for going to work are nice, but Amazon has put him and many others between a rock and a hard place.
“It’s either get sick, or don’t get paid,” he said.
Next week, Stolz will work 60 hours. That means he’ll earn 20 hours of double-pay. He said he’s saving up in case he or a loved one gets sick and can’t work.
“I just can’t afford to not work,” he said, adding that many of his coworkers are in the same position, but are more at-risk, with asthma or other underlying conditions.
Stolz said at the very least, Amazon should screen employees as they walk in, taking their temperatures.
“And they should send home anybody who is 50 or older, or who has an underlying health condition… they should send them home with pay immediately.”