Tech

Amazon workers plan strike at Staten Island warehouse to demand coronavirus protections

Key Points
  • Amazon warehouse workers at a fulfillment center in Staten Island, known as JFK8, are planning to walk out on Monday. 
  • The workers are demanding that Amazon close the facility for sanitizing after a worker tested positive for the coronavirus last week. 
  • While only one case has been reported publicly, JFK8 workers claim managers aren't being transparent about how many people are sick.
  • "We are following all guidelines from local health officials and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site," Amazon said.
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Amazon worker on why he's organizing a protest against the company over coronavirus safety measures

Amazon warehouse workers on New York's Staten Island plan to strike Monday to call attention to what they called a 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, planned for noon ET. 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 workers said they've grown increasingly concerned about coming into work after an employee tested positive for the virus last week. An Amazon spokesperson told CNBC it was supporting the person, who is in quarantine, and asked anyone who was in contact with the worker to stay home with pay for two weeks. The facility has remained open.

"We are following all guidelines from local health officials and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site," the spokesperson said.

The workers want to pressure 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 is 855,000 square feet and has 4,500 workers.

"Since the building won't close by itself, we're going to have to force [Amazon's] hand," said Smalls, who is also a member of nonprofit advocacy groups Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change. "We will not return until the building gets sanitized."

A day after this story was published, the Amazon spokesperson said the warehouse does not need to be shut down to be clean, but said the company was following guidelines from health authorities when making decisions. The spokesperson highlighted that the company has increased the frequency and intensity of deep cleaning and sanitation at its facilities. The spokesperson also called the workers' accusations "unfounded" and said Amazon is "working hard to keep employees safe."

"We have heard a number of incorrect comments from Christian Smalls, the hourly associate claiming to be the spokesperson on this topic," the spokesperson said. "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."

Another spokesperson from Amazon said that as an hourly employee, Smalls does not manage other staff and does not have the authority to send anyone home.

Amazon recently implemented daily temperature screenings at the facility as an additional preventative measure, the spokesperson said. The company added that teams onsite are speaking daily with employees to hear their questions and discuss options that are available for them amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

The company said it has been consulting with health authorities and medical experts on how to handle building closures for deep cleaning after an employee tests positive. Amazon evaluates where the employee was in the building, for how long, how much time has passed since they were onsite and who they interacted with, among other things.

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 has 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 and practicing social distancing. 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. They say uneven safety precautions at facilities across the country have sown feelings of distrust between workers and their managers. Workers say they've become worried that managers aren't being honest about whether employees are sick with the virus, so that they can keep the facilities open. 

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'It's like a domino effect'

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

He said he's concerned Amazon is taking steps to force sick workers to stay home only until it's too late. He said the supervisor, whom he manages, had been coming into work for at least a week before she tested positive, even though management knew 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," he said, after he had expressed frustration to management about conditions at the facility. Smalls said he 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 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 every use.

Both workers said they have been hearing about quarantined employees from their co-workers, 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."