Amazon workers in Staten Island plan strike over coronavirus safety

Amazon workers in Staten Island plan strike over coronavirus safety

Peter Endig | AFP | Getty Images

Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island plan to strike on Monday to call attention to the lack of protections for employees who continue to come to work amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Nearly 100 workers at the facility, known as JFK8, plan to participate in the work stoppage. The employees will walk out Monday morning and “cease all operations” until their demands are heard by site leadership, said Chris Smalls, a management assistant at JFK8 and a lead organizer of the strike. 

Smalls and other associates said they’ve grown increasingly concerned about coming into work after an employee tested positive for the virus there last week. Amazon said it was supporting the individual who is in quarantine and taking “extreme measures” to ensure employees are safe at the site. The company said the facility would remain open. 

The workers want the strike to put pressure on Amazon to close the facility for cleaning and offer employees paid time off while it’s shut down. Smalls said the facility has continued to run as usual since the employee tested positive. He fears the virus will spread like “wildfire” if no extra precautions are taken. JFK8 employs 4,500 workers and spans 855,000 square feet.

“Since the building won’t close by itself, we’re going to have to force [Amazon’s] hand,” said Smalls, who is also an organizer with nonprofit advocacy group Make the Road New York. “We will not return until the building gets sanitized.”

Representatives from Amazon didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Unrest among Amazon’s warehouse workers has continued to swell in recent weeks as at least 13 facilities have reported cases of the coronavirus. Most of the facilities have remained open. An Amazon warehouse in Queens, New York, temporarily closed earlier this month after a worker tested positive. Amazon has also closed a facility used for processing clothing and shoe returns in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, known as SDF9, until April 1 after there was a confirmed case of the coronavirus.

At some facilities, workers say essential supplies like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are rationed or there’s none available, putting them at risk of catching the virus. Warehouse workers say they’re forced to choose between going to work and risking their health or staying home and not being able to pay their bills. 

Amazon has previously said it’s gone to “great lengths” to keep facilities clean and make sure employees are following all necessary safety precautions, such as washing their hands, using hand sanitizer, practicing social distancing and other measures. The company has also announced several benefits changes in recent weeks, including  raising pay for warehouse workers and delivery drivers by $2 per hour through the month of April, doubling overtime pay and allowing for unlimited unpaid time off. Last week, Amazon said it would offer paid time off for part-time warehouse workers.

Still, Amazon employees who spoke to CNBC argue that these efforts aren’t enough to keep them safe. The uneven safety precautions at facilities across the country have sown feelings of distrust between workers and their managers. Workers say they’ve become paranoid that managers aren’t being honest about whether employees are sick with the virus, so that they can keep the facilities open. 

‘It’s like a domino effect’

Smalls said that employees aren’t being told when workers are in quarantine at the facility. Smalls is currently in quarantine after he came into contact with the supervisor who tested positive, but his colleagues didn’t find out for several days until he told them. 

He said he’s concerned Amazon is only taking steps to force sick workers to stay home until it’s too late. The supervisor, who Smalls manages, had been coming into work for at least a week before she tested positive, despite the site’s management knowing she was showing symptoms. 

“Her eyes were bloodshot red. She had a mask on but she looked terrible,” Smalls said. “I sent her home immediately. A day later she tested positive.”

After the worker tested positive, Smalls said the site leadership only told “a select few of the general managers,” as well as people who worked on the same side of the building as the supervisor. That response was the “icing on the cake,” after he had expressed frustration to management about conditions at the facility. Smalls told leadership that they lacked essential supplies like disposable gloves and masks and that workers were getting sick.

“Every day I was sending someone home,” Smalls said. “I felt like the building was getting sick, one by one. It’s like a domino effect.” 

Two JFK8 associates who asked to remain anonymous reiterated concerns that they didn’t have the necessary gear to keep them safe. 

One associate said gloves were being rationed at the facility and workers were told to take two pairs of gloves per week, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending that users throw away gloves after they’re worn once. 

Both of the workers said they have been hearing about quarantined employees from their coworkers, not from management. “They’re definitely keeping the amount of COVID-19 cases a secret,” said one worker who asked to remain anonymous. 

Smalls said workers won’t feel confident that they’re safe unless Amazon shuts down the facility for cleaning. 

“The number one objective right now is to save my people,” Smalls added. “We need to close down.”

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