Amazon says face masks available for staff, but workers deny it – CNET


Amazon employees hold a protest over conditions at the company's Staten Island, New York, fulfillment center last week.

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Amazon this week has continually promoted one of its latest coronavirus safety efforts, saying it's now made millions of face masks available to its employees and delivery partners throughout its logistics network.

But some of these workers said Thursday that only a potion of employees are given masks in their warehouses and inventory is already limited.

"You have to ask for a mask; they are really running low," said Jordan Flowers, an Amazon warehouse worker in Staten Island, New York. He spoke during a Thursday conference call with media that was organized by Athena, an advocacy group that has heavily criticized the e-commerce giant.

The three Amazon workers who were involved in the call also said temperature checks at warehouses -- another new health protocol added in the past week -- weren't strongly enforced and that in some cases employees were dodging the system. For instance, Mario Crippen, from a Romulus, Michigan, warehouse, said workers could easily walk past temperature check stations at the warehouse entrance, punch in their time cards and go to work. Jana Jumpp, from Jeffersonville, Indiana, said some workers were taking Tylenol to pass the checks.

"The millions of masks we ordered weeks ago have been distributed across our network," Timothy Carter, an Amazon spokesman, said Thursday night. "They are available to all Amazon associates, delivery service partners, Amazon Flex participants, seasonal employees and Whole Foods Market Store employees. And we are encouraging everyone to take and use them."

The company has staunchly defended its efforts to protect its employees during the crisis, saying it's already instituted 150 new health and safety protocols, including "tripling down on deep cleaning," staggering the starts of shifts and enforcing social distancing in warehouses. It's also said it provides paid time off for workers who are infected or quarantined, and that it's increased hourly pay by $2 and raised overtime pay.

These three employees are among a growing list of Amazon workers who've spoken out about health issues during the coronavirus crisis, with some organizing walkouts at their facilities last week. These workers have gotten more vocal as dozens of Amazon warehouses across the US have had confirmed coronavirus cases and a walkout organizer, Christian Smalls, was fired after he violated a company-mandated quarantine order.

These workers' statements on Thursday also point to the apparent difficulty Amazon faces in constantly adding new health measures to its over 500 logistics locations in the US. To ensure problems don't fall through the cracks, Amazon has said it's starting to institute safety audits at these facilities. That work adds to the complex problems its leaders have to deal with, as the company responds to a surge in customer demand for online orders while it works to keep its system running during the pandemic.

The workers on Thursday said they worry that if Amazon fails to keep its workers healthy and facilities clean, it could end up spreading the virus to customers. 

In addition to a handful of walkout demonstrations at Amazon warehouses, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating a Pennsylvania location for coronavirus safety issues, Bloomberg reported Wednesday. Also, many elected officials have called on Amazon to do more to protect its workers.

Amazon, the world's largest online retailer, is one of several major retailers facing a backlash from its workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this week, workers for Target's Shipt delivery service organized a walkout. That demonstration followed similar actions from workers for Instacart, Amazon warehouses and Amazon-owned Whole Foods. Also, there've been several confirmed cases among employees at Walmart and major grocers.

Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, the world's richest person, visited Amazon locations this week to thank employees for their efforts. Also, Amazon is working on several new concepts to improve worker safety, such as a disinfecting fog, which it said is often used in hospitals. Amazon on Thursday said it's also starting to work on developing its own coronavirus testing capabilities to be able to regularly test its employees to prevent further spread of the pathogen.

While there's been significant criticism of Amazon's efforts to protect its workers, the company has said the "vast majority" of its employees have continued to come to work and haven't been involved in the ongoing protests. For example, an Amazon spokeswoman said Monday that a demonstration in Staten Island that day brought out only 10 people, half of whom weren't Amazon employees.

One New Jersey warehouse employee, who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media, said he was impressed by Amazon's efforts.

"Every retail company has a warehouse operation and they are all going through this," he said. "There isn't something unique about Amazon."

Crippen, the warehouse worker from Michigan, didn't share that impression.

"If I go inside Amazon, I'm fearful for my life," he said, "because we are running low on face masks, we have no hand sanitizer and we cannot keep six feet apart, away from each other in certain areas of the building."

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Amazon warehouse workers plan another protest in Staten Island – CNET

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An Amazon warehouse worker at last week's Staten Island demonstration.

Courtesy of Make the Road NY

Workers at Amazon's warehouse in Staten Island, New York, are holding another demonstration Monday to protest their working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The protest is the second in as two weeks at this warehouse, called JFK8. The location gained national attention last week when strike organizer Christian Smalls was fired the same day as the previous demonstration. Amazon said he violated a company-mandated quarantine order when he attended last week's rally.

Amazon has been facing growing pressure over its handling of the coronavirus crisis, with elected officials, advocacy groups and Amazon employees calling for better protections. The Staten Island workers are among a handful of Amazon employee groups pressing the company for better pay, more paid time off and more health measures during the pandemic. 

Last week, Amazon worker demonstrations also took place in Chicago and Detroit, while Queens, New York, warehouse workers have been pushing for changes too. Workers at Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, staged their own "sickout" last week.

The situation has become more heated as a growing list of Amazon facility have had confirmed cases of coronavirus and more workers at the Staten Island facility have tested positive.

Amazon didn't immediately respond to a request for comment but has talked up its dozens of new health and safety protocols to protect its employees, including increased cleanings and staggered start times to encourage social distancing. On Thursday, Amazon said it will soon start temperature checks and provide face masks in US facilities.

Demonstrators are calling for a full shutdown of the Staten Island warehouse "for cleaning and sanitation for as long as necessary for professional sanitization, with 100% pay for all employees affected by the closure," according to an email from organizers sent out Monday morning.

Amazon said only 15 employees attended last week's demonstration in Staten Island, while organizers said the number was around 60. About 5,000 people work in the facility.

The series of demonstrations comes after workers at the Staten Island facility attempted to unionize in 2018. No Amazon employees in the US are unionized.

The second strike is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. local time, with Amazon employees joined by supporters from advocacy groups Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change and United for Respect.

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Amazon’s leaders send mixed messages on worker strikes – CNET


Amazon employees held a walkout at a Staten Island fulfillment center Monday.

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Amazon's leadership is having trouble getting its message straight.

On Thursday, Dave Clark, Amazon's senior vice president of worldwide operations, wrote a blog post defending the online retail giant's handling of the ongoing coronavirus crisis and praising the company's employees for their efforts. He also said Amazon respects employees' rights to demonstrate against the company.

Around the same time, Vice published parts of a leaked memo written by David Zapolsky, Amazon's top legal executive, that criticized a fired warehouse worker who organized a strike.

The conflicting messages underscore how difficult it has been for Amazon to navigate the turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has already killed tens of thousands of people worldwide. The pandemic reached a grim milestone on Tuesday as infections hit 1 million cases, including several Amazon employees. The world's largest e-commerce company has been scrutinized during the health emergency, facing criticism from its employees and elected officials over its ability to keep its warehouse and delivery workforce healthy during the crisis.

Added to that, Amazon has struggled to deliver items to millions of customers, who've been asked to stay home, as it faces a huge spike in demand.

Following a handful of worker strikes at Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores across the country this week, Clark said Thursday the company supports demonstrators' legal right to protest and understands employees' concerns about risking their safety coming into work. He added that 150 new safety protocols have already been added into Amazon's huge logistics operations.

He said that these strikes have occurred at "a very small number of sites and represent a few hundred employees out of hundreds of thousands."

Clark said these protesters aren't afforded "a blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, and potentially the lives, of colleagues." Though he didn't identify a specific individual, Clark was referencing Christian Smalls, a warehouse worker in Staten Island who was fired on Monday after breaking a company-mandated quarantine because he had been in close contact with another employee who tested positive for the virus. Smalls broke the quarantine to attend a rally he had helped organize at his warehouse.

Clark's blog post appeared as Vice reported that Zapolsky appeared to insult Smalls in a leaked internal memo, saying Smalls is "not smart, or articulate." Zapolsky offered a contrite statement to Vice about the memo, saying: "I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me."

Amazon leaders have stood by Smalls' firing Smalls but have faced a torrent of criticism for the move amid an already emotional and tense situation. Many employees are fearful and frustrated about Amazon's efforts to protect them while they're at work. Additionally, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Attorney General Letitia James have called for investigations into the firing.

On Wednesday, a group of New York lawmakers and union representatives demanded his reinstatement. Amazon's US workforce isn't unionized.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a frequent critic of Amazon, blasted Zapolsky's comments.

"Amazon's behavior is disgusting!" Appelbaum said. "Rather than focusing on trying to fix the serious COVID-19 safety issues which threaten their own employees, they choose instead to smear the courageous whistle-blower." 

Amazon defended the firing despite the criticism.

"When anyone on our team at any level purposely puts the health of others at risk, we will take swift, decisive action without concern about external reaction," Clark said. "We did not, and have not ever, terminated an associate for speaking out on their working conditions."

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Amazon restricts sale of some medical supplies to the public during coronavirus – CNET


At a medical facility in the Bay Area last month.

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Amazon has stopped selling some face masks, antibacterial wipes and other hard-to-find health care products to the general public, saying it will only sell these items to governments and health providers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Supplies of these items, especially sanitizers, gloves and masks, have been limited for weeks as health providers and millions of shoppers have stocked up on these products. Now, doctors and nurses have been sounding the alarm that they are running out of basic protective equipment as they serve a surge of new coronavirus patients.

Amazon this week added a note to many of these listings -- which include thermometers, face shields and surgical gowns -- saying: "Available only for hospitals and government agencies directly responding to COVID-19." On a webpage explaining the change, the company said it won't be making a profit on this service. 

On a page describing the change to merchants selling on Amazon, it said this list of restricted items includes "high-demand medical products like N95 masks, surgical masks, facial shields, surgical gowns, surgical gloves, and large-volume sanitizers."

On a search of Amazon's main website, this list included some listings of Clorox disinfecting wipes, but not listings of small bottles of hand sanitizer or disposable face masks.

Amazon has been making sweeping changes to its sprawling logistics network, as it's focused more on bringing into its warehouses and selling basic needs like baby formula and hand sanitizers during the health emergency. These changes have helped the company respond to a surge in customer orders, as millions of shoppers are told to stay home during the pandemic, though deliveries have been slower than usual and high-demand items, like toilet paper and paper towels, have gone out of stock.

Earlier Thursday, Amazon said it started a handful of new health and safety measures to protect its warehouse workers during the crisis to make sure they don't get sick and can continue shipping out orders to millions of customers. The company is now providing face masks to employees and instituting temperature checks. It said any N-95 masks it gets will be will either be donated to health care workers or sold at cost to health care or government customers through Amazon Business.

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Union leaders, NY lawmakers pressure Amazon to reinstate fired protester – CNET


Inside an Amazon fulfillment center in Massachusetts in 2018.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

A broad group of union leaders, New York lawmakers and an Amazon employee advocacy organization called on the e-commerce giant to do a better job of protecting its warehouse workers and drivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter released Wednesday night, this group said it was "shocked" Amazon wasn't putting in place needed protocols to ensure worker safety. It also called for Christian Smalls, an Amazon warehouse employee who was fired Monday, to be reinstated.

Smalls helped organize a strike at Amazon's Staten Island facility on Monday. Amazon said it fired him that day for violating a company order to stay home with pay for 14 days after he was in close contact with another employee who tested positive for coronavirus. Smalls instead attended Monday's strike and said Amazon was attempting to suppress his efforts to speak out against unsafe working conditions at the warehouse.

The group, which included representatives from the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), on Wednesday called for warehouses to be closed down until new protocols, like independent health and safety inspection and monitoring, are put in place. It also asked for covered childcare expenses for workers whose school districts have closed, among other demands. 

The group also included New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, along with several dozen other city and state elected officials. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a regular critic of Amazon, shared a copy of the letter with CNET and also signed it.

Amazon, whose US workforce isn't unionized, has repeatedly said it's instituted many new protocols to protect its employees from the pathogen, including increased social distancing in warehouses and increased cleanings. It also raised hourly and overtime pay for workers and is hiring 100,000 more US employees to handle the surge in new orders as millions of Americans are told to stay home to avoid spreading the virus.

"Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams," an Amazon spokesperson said Wednesday. "Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with health authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and teams."

On Smalls' firing, Dave Clark, senior vice president of operations, tweeted that Smalls repeatedly violated social distancing guidelines at his facility and came back to the warehouse two days after being told to quarantine. "Knowingly putting our team at risk is unacceptable," Clark wrote.

The letter adds to louder criticism of the company from Amazon's employees, lawmakers and advocacy groups. All these groups in recent years have raised concerns about the retailer's treatment of its warehouse workers and are now becoming more vocal amid the fear and frustration of the pandemic. This work could force the company to take further action, as a handful of positive coronavirus cases have been reported in Amazon warehouses across the US.

This criticism comes as the online retailer struggles to respond to a spike in customer demand while instituting new health and safety guidelines during the coronavirus emergency. It's still been able to get deliveries of food and basic necessities to its millions of customers, though more slowly than usual.

Workers for many other retailers and service providers are raising their own worries about their companies' ability to keep them healthy while maintaining their operations. Instacart contract workers held a strike Monday. BuzzFeed News also reported on health concerns at both Starbucks and Trader Joe's.

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, one of many employee advocacy groups within the online retailer, also signed onto Wednesday's letter. In a separate letter Tuesday night, the group called for better protections for warehouse workers.

The climate-focused group said that more than 500 tech workers are backing these logistics workers' demands for more robust paid sick leave during the crisis. They also support shutting down any warehouse with a confirmed coronavirus case and paying employees there to stay home "until Amazon can better ensure the safety of its workforce." 

"We have seen social media posts and heard stories directly from Amazon warehouse workers around the world that show that Amazon is not adequately protecting its hourly workers from COVID-19," Mark Hiew Sr., an Amazon marketing manager, said as part of the climate group's statement. "Amazon needs to place a higher value on the health and safety of our co-workers and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic."

As of Wednesday afternoon, the coronavirus has killed over 4,500 people in the US and over 45,000 worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.

On Monday, Staten Island warehouse workers staged a strike to call for better protections, and employees for Whole Foods, which Amazon owns, held a "sick out" on Tuesday. More demonstrations were planned in Chicago and Detroit.

Also, New York Attorney General Letitia James on Monday called Smalls' firing "immoral and inhumane." Her office is "considering all legal options" related to the firing and called the National Labor Relations Board to investigate.

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Amazon workers in Staten Island protest coronavirus working conditions – CNET

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An Amazon worker taking part in Monday's protest outside the company's Staten Island warehouse.

Courtesy of Make the Road NY

Workers at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse took part in a walkout on Monday afternoon to protest what they say are unsafe working conditions. The demonstration came after at least one worker at that facility has tested positive for the coronavirus.

In addition to Monday's strike, Whole Worker, a grassroots group of Whole Foods employees, is planning a "sick out" on Tuesday to protest conditions in the grocery stores. Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2017. Separately, workers for the Instacart delivery service put together their own national strike on Monday.

Amazon said later Monday that the protest brought out 15 employees, out of 5,000 workers at the facility. It also said Christian Smalls, who became a vocal organizer for the protest, was fired Monday for violating "multiple safety issues," including instructions from the company to stay home with pay for 14 days because he had been in close contact with an infected employee. He instead came to the warehouse Monday, the company said.

"Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe," Smalls said in an emailed statement released by protest organizers. "I am outraged and disappointed, but I'm not shocked. As usual, Amazon would rather sweep a problem under the rug than act to keep workers and working communities safe."

All these demonstrations point to increased frustration and fear from rank-and-file workers in service and logistics jobs who still need to work in public while millions of other Americans are asked to stay home during the health emergency. Amazon has so far been able to ship packages to its customers during the crisis, albeit with delays, but more strikes and more workers falling ill could seriously hamper that work.

Amazon has repeatedly said it's working hard to protect employees from the coronavirus, including increased cleanings and more physical distancing at warehouses. Amazon said Monday that the "vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day."

Employees and contractors have said Amazon isn't doing enough to protect them. One employee told CNET workers weren't given enough time to wash their hands if they cough or sneeze. Other workers have said efforts to keep workspaces and delivery vans clean aren't consistently followed.

As of Friday, more than a dozen Amazon warehouses in the US had at least one worker who had tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus.

In an emailed statement earlier Monday, an Amazon spokesperson called out Smalls, saying his claims are "simply unfounded."

"We have heard a number of incorrect comments from Christian Smalls, the hourly associate claiming to be the spokesperson on this topic," the spokesperson wrote. "Mr. Smalls is alleging many misleading things in his statements but we believe it's important to note that he is, in fact, on a 14-day self-quarantine requested by Amazon to stay home with full pay."

The spokesperson said Monday that Smalls had already been given multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines, which partly led to his firing.

The Staten Island facility is one of several around the country that has active and vocal workers who have been pushing Amazon for better working conditions, even before the coronavirus pandemic. Workers there held a demonstration in late November as well. Early last year, Rashad Long, another employee at the Staten Island facility who spoke out about working conditions there, was fired for safety violations. 

Monday's protesters were joined by supporters from Athena, New York Communities for Change and Make the Road NY, three advocacy organizations that have often criticized Amazon's treatment of its workers.

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US lawmakers press Amazon to do more to protect its workers – CNET

Amazon Fulfillment Center

At an Amazon warehouse in Thornton, Colorado, in March 2019.

Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

A group of 14 US lawmakers on Friday urged Amazon to boost its efforts to protect its employees during the coronavirus outbreak, adding to a long list of groups raising concerns about Amazon workers' health during the crisis.

"No employee, especially those who work for one of the wealthiest corporations in the world, should be forced to work in unsafe conditions," the lawmakers, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar, wrote in a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos. Both lawmakers have criticized Amazon in the past for their treatment of warehouse workers.

The letter, which asked Amazon to respond to a series of detailed questions about its efforts to keep workers healthy, comes a week after a similar letter was sent to the company by a group of four senators. In its responses to both letters, Amazon strongly defended its work to protect its employees and delivery drivers.

Also on Friday, Amazon confirmed employees in four more US warehouses tested positive for coronavirus, putting the number of US facilities with publicly known cases at 14. Amazon operates over 110 warehouses in North America. The four additional locations are in Houston; Edison, New Jersey; Romulus, Michigan; and Shelby Township, Michigan. 

Amazon has been in the spotlight, even more than usual, during the coronavirus pandemic, as it's worked to respond to a surge of orders from people asked to stay home while also trying to keep its hundreds of thousands of employees from getting sick. Along with these lawmakers, union groups and Amazon's own employees have called for better protections during the pandemic.

Over the past week, local and national news outlets have reported about a handful of Amazon warehouse workers across the country testing positive for the coronavirus, a problem that could disrupt the company's ability to complete its deliveries.

Some of those facilities were shut down for cleaning, and some employees who were in close contact with the infected employees have been quarantined. In Shepherdsville, Kentucky, a warehouse was closed until April 1, after several employees there tested positive.

In Amazon's letter to the four senators, which was provided by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker's office on Friday, Amazon detailed its many efforts to help its employees during the health crisis.

"Any accusations that we are not properly protecting our employees are simply unfounded," Brian Huseman, Amazon's vice president of public policy, wrote. "Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items that they need in this crisis."

Kristin Lynch, a spokeswoman for Booker, said Friday that the senator was "encouraged" by some of the quick reforms Amazon has taken following the initial letter to the company. She added that the senator was disappointed that Amazon still refuses to temporarily shut down warehouses where workers have tested positive for coronavirus. She added that Amazon didn't address whether it will pay for employees' coronavirus tests.

"The safety and well-being of Amazon's employees must be paramount, and given the nature and scope of Amazon's business, the safety and well-being of the millions of Americans who are Amazon customers are also at stake," she said in an emailed statement.

Last week's letter was sent by Booker and Sens. Sanders, Sherrod Brown and Bob Menendez.

In his letter, Huseman listed the work Amazon has done to help its employees, which includes increased cleaning and sanitization at all sites, such as disinfecting door handles, touchscreens, handrails and other frequently touched surfaces. Amazon also eliminated stand-up meetings and staggered start times and break times in warehouses to make it easier for people to physically distance themselves from one another.

Hourly pay and overtime pay has been raised. Up to two weeks' pay is offered for any employee diagnosed with the coronavirus or in quarantine, and hourly workers have been offered unlimited unpaid time off through April.

Huseman wrote a response letter back to Omar, which was sent out via Twitter later on Friday. In that letter, he said Amazon is considering broadening paid time off to allow employees to use this time after self-reporting coronavirus symptoms or exposure. That change could be beneficial to workers, since getting a test is still difficult in the US and several employees have complained that the paid time off policy as it stands is too strict.

Amazon isn't the only company struggling to keep its services operating and employees healthy, with Walmart, UPS and major grocers starting new protocols to keep stores and delivery vans clean. BuzzFeed on Thursday reported on Starbucks employees' concerns their company wasn't doing enough to protect them.

Read the Huseman letter to the four senators below:

Amazon Response - Senator Booker - 03.22.2020 by Ben Rubin on Scribd

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No, Jeff Bezos doesn’t want your public donations for Amazon workers – CNET

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Amazon is facing a minor backlash over the company asking for public donations to a relief fund it created for its contract and seasonal workers. Though the request may look bad, there's more to the story.

The world's largest e-commerce company in early March announced the Amazon Relief Fund, which will offer grants of $400 to $5,000 to independent delivery companies, gig workers in its Amazon Flex program and seasonal employees. It kicked in $25 million of its own money to start the fund. So far, so good, right?

Initially, the company mentioned on the relief fund website that the fund relied on both individual donations and Amazon's money. It also included a donate button. Amazon didn't publicly request donations except on this website, which Popular Information writer Judd Legum picked up on. The subsequent coverage sparked a backlash against the retail giant, which is worth nearly $1 trillion. 

Amazon has since changed the language on the site to clarify that public donations aren't being requested. The company says, due to the fund's structure, it's required to allow for individual donations. That donate button is still there, but now with more clarification that Amazon doesn't expect you to give. Fact-checking site Snopes has some good reporting on this issue, so please check it out.

"We are not and have not asked for donations and the Amazon Relief Fund has been funded by Amazon with an initial donation of $25 million," an Amazon spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "The structure to operate a fund like this, which hundreds of companies do through the same third-party, requires the program to be open to public contributions but we are not soliciting those contributions in any way."

Does this all mean Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the world's richest person, is asking the public to support his contract workers, as some headlines suggested? Technically yes, but that's not really what's happening here.

If you do want to donate directly to Amazon employees impacted by the coronavirus, Amazonians United New York City, a grassroots group of Amazon warehouse employees, has started a GoFundMe page to support these folks. That fund is being run separately from the company.

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Warehouse workers demand Amazon protect them during coronavirus pandemic – CNET


At an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, in early 2019.

Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

As he's done all year, William Stolz last week went to work at his Amazon warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, to prepare customers' packages. Around him were new signs telling him to wash his hands and more stations dispensing hand sanitizer. 

But Stolz worries the e-commerce giant still isn't doing nearly enough to prevent the spread of coronavirus in its warehouses as it rushes to respond to a torrent of customer orders during the crisis.

This past Sunday, Minnesota's governor ordered all the state's K-12 public schools to close for eight school days.

"If it's too much of a risk to have the schools open, it's definitely too much of a risk to have the warehouses open," Stolz said in an interview, calling on Amazon to start testing all US warehouse employees for the virus and offer more paid time off. He has three paid days off and considers himself one of the lucky ones, since workers leave warehouse jobs frequently so don't accrue time off.

Stolz, a worker organizer in Shakopee who's publicly criticized safety issues at his warehouse before, is part of a growing chorus of Amazon workers and their supporters who are voicing serious concerns that the company will fail to protect its hundreds of thousands of employees and delivery workers during the coronavirus outbreak.

Their fears were realized in part a few days ago, when Amazon confirmed that its first US warehouse employee contracted coronavirus and that the company had to temporarily shut down the employee's delivery center in Queens, New York. 

"Amazon can and should implement much more aggressive measures for cleaning, sanitizing, keeping us healthy," Stolz insisted, mentioning how the company is now seeing a spike in business because of the virus.

This issue is something customers will need to worry about, too, since shoppers now rely even more on e-commerce companies like Amazon to deliver food, toiletries and other staples while they're asked to stay home. If warehouses have to close due to outbreaks, it could reduce or slow down shipments. Also, recent studies have shown that the coronavirus can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours, so Amazon and other shippers will need to avoid spreading the pathogen through their packages.

An Amazon spokesperson called health and safety of employees and contractors its "top priority." The e-commerce giant worked with medical experts and health authorities to create a bevy of new protocols to protect workers' and customers' health. That work includes increased cleaning and sanitizing all facilities, staggered shift start times and break times to create social distancing, and requiring Amazon workers to sanitize their work stations and vehicles at the start and end of each shift. The company already recommends its office staff work from home.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos weighed in Saturday, writing an open letter to employees thanking them for their work. "We are meeting every day, working to identify additional ways to improve on these measures," Bezos said, later adding "I want you to know Amazon will continue to do its part, and we won't stop looking for new opportunities to help."

He emphasized that Amazon is providing a "vital service," especially to elderly people, who are especially vulnerable to the virus. "People are depending on us," he said.

A brewing confrontation in the warehouses

Amazon was already grappling with growing and more vocal worker discontent well before the outbreak. The company for years has faced negative news stories about poor working conditions and overworked employees. More and more of those US employees, who are not unionized, are now coming together and speaking out, forming local groups like the one Stolz is part of. The coronavirus crisis has ratcheted up many of these workers' concerns that they aren't properly supported by Amazon and are being forced to work faster even during an ongoing health emergency.


Demonstrators shout slogans at a protest at the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, in late 2018.

Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

The company now has to find a way to achieve the difficult task of fulfilling a surge in customer orders, keeping its warehouse workers healthy and rebuilding trust with many of these employees in the heart of an unplanned crisis. Ultimately, both customers and employees will suffer if Amazon's leadership doesn't succeed.

"If disease finds its way into any of these warehouses … that's going to put quite an extra curveball into this optimization problem," said James Thomson, a former Amazon executive and consultant at Buy Box Experts. "Fortunately they have a lot of warehouses."

Amazon is far from the only retailer struggling with these challenges, as Walmart, Target, Walgreens, Costco and major grocers work to keep their doors open for customers. In the last week, Walmart -- the biggest private employer in the US -- announced plans to hire 150,000 temporary workers in the US and to pay hourly employees bonuses of up to $300. Similarly, online delivery companies like DoorDash, Uber and FreshDirect are trying to find ways to keep their services going for shoppers.

Stolz and two other people who work for Amazon told CNET they're upset about the company's work so far to maintain sanitary work spaces during the pandemic. 

These concerns were bolstered by a petition circulated online by Amazonians United New York City, a group of local employees, that calls for better protective measures and more paid sick leave. The petition has already gained over 1,600 signatures, the group said. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the UNI Global union and Athena activist group -- all frequent Amazon critics -- within the last week have also pressured the company to do more for workers.

Sanders on Friday joined three other left-leaning senators to call on Bezos "to prioritize the health, safety, and well-being of your employees."

Sanitary protocols

An Amazon Flex contract worker who delivers Whole Foods orders for customers in New Jersey said Amazon hasn't consistently enforced sanitary protocols at the locations he works. He saw that a person was added to clean and sanitize the pickup areas at stores he works in, and gloves are provided for drivers. But he said that some drivers use the gloves while others don't. Little guidance in protecting against the virus is offered to these drivers, who are gig economy workers and aren't employed by the company, he added.

"These folks should be somebody's employees and should have health benefits," said the driver, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid losing his job with Amazon. "The company should back us up and the company should do the right thing, and they haven't so far."

Jake, an Amazon worker at a delivery center in Queens, New York, called on Amazon to offer more paid sick leave, as well as hazard pay of time and a half for workers during the crisis, which would reach $22.50 an hour for employees who usually net $15. Plus, simple changes were needed, like giving employees more time to leave their stations to wash their hands if they cough or sneeze.

"If we just have a cough, a little thing that we can live through, Amazon is designed to let us come in," said Jake, who is part of Amazonians United New York City and asked that his last name not be published.

The company says it requires employees to stay home and seek medical attention if they feel unwell, and it modified its attendance policies to support this mandate.

Amazon has worked to respond to many of these concerns. For instance, Amazon last week raised wages for hourly employees by $2 in the US through April, and made similar moves in Europe and Canada, costing it an additional $350 million. On Saturday, Amazon said it raised overtime pay to double, from 1.5-times regular pay, Reuters reported. To manage the increased demand, Amazon plans to hire 100,000 more US hourly workers.

This month, it expanded its sick leave policy to offer up to two weeks of pay for any Amazon employee diagnosed with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, or placed in quarantine. Jake said this bar was set too high, since tests to confirm the illness are still hard to come by. Amazon also offered unlimited unpaid leave for all hourly employees through this month, though Stolz and others said unpaid leave wasn't feasible for folks living paycheck to paycheck.

The company also created the Amazon Relief Fund with a $25 million starting contribution to help independent delivery businesses, gig workers who pick up work through Amazon Flex and seasonal employees.

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In warehouses, Amazon is stopping standup meetings, and has set up training in small groups or through devices to avoid gathering large crowds. Exit screenings were suspended to move people more easily through warehouses. More frequent and more intense cleaning of all sites now include sanitizing all door handles, stairway handrails, elevator buttons, lockers and touch screens, the company says.

Stolz, from the Minnesota facility, argued that many of these changes are insufficient.

"Amazon's got more money than anybody," he said. "If anybody can send us home early with pay, it's them."

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Amazon struggles to be the everything store during the coronavirus crisis – CNET

Amazon warehouse worker

A worker at an Amazon warehouse in Orlando, Florida, in April 2019.

Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Amazon is used to huge spikes in demand: It ships millions of packages after Prime Day and during the holiday season. But the spread of the coronavirus, which has locked down cities and put everyone in a more isolated reality, has tested the company's ability to meet its customers' needs like never before. 

The stakes for the world's biggest online retailer couldn't be higher, with its huge logistics operations and hundreds of thousands of employees now turning into a critical resource for millions of shoppers amid store closures and social distancing. Amazon, which accounts for roughly 39% of US e-commerce sales and is already a dominant player in retail, will now become a central provider of food, medical supplies and household goods for many customers, potentially for months, as they avoid leaving their homes.

If Amazon succeeds in fulfilling more customer orders during the crisis, it may emerge as an even more dominant force than it was before.

But the start of the coronavirus outbreak hasn't been easy for the company, with toilet paper and medical supplies going out of stock, deliveries slowing down, Amazon Fresh grocery shipment windows becoming scarce, and Amazon needing to fight off price gouging and counterfeits for much-needed products like hand sanitizer and masks. Over the weekend, the company's delivery system for Prime Now, Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods services suffered a significant glitch that forced some customer orders to be delayed or canceled.

Warehouse workers and their supporters have also started raising concerns about working conditions in fulfillment centers, with fears that an outbreak in a warehouse could sicken many employees and potentially weaken operations.

Amazon's leaders are trying to show they're up to the monumental task, and the company moved quickly this week to make big changes to react to the surge in demand.

Looking to allay customers' concerns that their items won't be delivered, the company on Monday announced plans to hire 100,000 more part-time and full-time US hourly employees to staff warehouses and run delivery routes. It followed that announcement with plans on Tuesday to prioritize shipments into its warehouses of medical supplies and household staples and prevent all other new shipments from coming in.

"We can more quickly receive, restock and deliver these products to customers," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement about its new plans.

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Regarding worker health in warehouses, the company said Monday it's consulting with medical and health professionals and adding preventative measures like increased cleaning to ensure workers are safe.

Victor Rosenman, CEO of Feedvisor, a software provider for independent Amazon merchants, said he believes the worst of the supply chain bottleneck is happening right now, as major manufacturers in China are just starting to come back online following that country's coronavirus lockdowns, and US and European customers have flooded digital and physical stores for pantry items.

"It will slowly come back to normal, I don't think it's a permanent issue," said Rosenman, who is based in New York. "And eventually people will relax, because right now people are starting to panic."

James Thomson, a former Amazon executive who's now a consultant for brands and manufacturers selling on Amazon, said Amazon's latest moves to increase staffing and focus its incoming supplies will help put it in the best position to meet the higher demand.

He added that Amazon doesn't do this work alone, likely leaning much more heavily on its partners UPS and the US Postal Service to make deliveries. Added to that, delays will be inevitable, he said, since -- unlike during the holidays -- Amazon was forced to come up with this strategy with hardly any warning.


Amazon warehouse workers in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 2018.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

"Amazon executives are smart and they move quickly but there's a physical limit to, 'How do I get my hands on 500 more 18-wheelers?'" said Thomson, who works for Buy Box Experts in Seattle.

"The fact that they've done this tells me it's not a 40% or 50% increase, but a two or three [times] increase," he said about Amazon's decision to restrict deliveries into its warehouses. "The system is bursting at the seams."

The e-commerce giant will benefit from lowered expectations from customers during the emergency situation, Rosenman added. People want to know their stuff will arrive in the next few days -- same-day deliveries are no longer necessary. He said so far Amazon is fulfilling that new promise.

"If I were in Amazon's shoes, I would not push myself to be in the same standard as normal times, but one step faster than the competition," Rosenman said.

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