'Amazon is not taking care of us': Warehouse workers say they're struggling to get paid despite sick leave policy

Key Points
  • Amazon said it would provide workers with up to two weeks of paid sick leave if they tested positive or are in quarantine due to the coronavirus. 
  • But five Amazon workers told CNBC they've received no pay or were given 60% of their typical weekly paycheck, despite meeting the requirements for paid sick leave. 
  • Many of them are now applying for unemployment benefits in order to make up for gaps in their income. 
Men work at a distribution station in the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York.
Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images

Sharlene wanted to continue reporting to her job at Amazon. She needed the money to pay her bills and support her family. 

But after a trip to the emergency room, Sharlene, who didn't want her full name used out of fear of retribution from her employer, was instructed to self-quarantine. She was experiencing shortness of breath and worried that her weak immune system, asthma and COPD, a lung disease, would put her at risk if she returned to work. 

"I thought, if I catch the coronavirus and go on a respirator, there's no way I'm going to make it off because of my health problems," she said tearfully. "I would not make it through it. I'm not strong enough." 

Sharlene is one of many Amazon warehouse workers who are currently in quarantine, either out of fear of catching the virus, experiencing symptoms of the virus or after learning they had been previously exposed to someone diagnosed with the coronavirus. 

Amazon has said it will provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave for all full- and part-time employees who show symptoms, have the virus or are in quarantine. The company is also offering unlimited unpaid time off for all hourly employees through the end of April. 

Despite these measures, Sharlene and four other Amazon employees who have the virus or are in quarantine say they haven't been paid. Those who have been paid say they're only getting 60% of their regular weekly pay. Meanwhile, other Amazon workers said they've had no issues getting paid while in quarantine. 

A worker at a facility in Indiana said it feels like there's "lots of hoops that workers have to jump through" in order to get paid while they're in quarantine. The worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said the issue has only added to workers' frustrations around safety and transparency at their facilities.

"We do not feel safe in our building anymore," the worker said. "And the pay we do get if we test positive is only 60% of our pay. Amazon is not taking care of us."

An Amazon spokesperson told CNBC that the company offered two weeks of paid sick time to "ensure employees have the time they need to return to good health without the worry of lost income." Employees who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are in quarantine may be eligible for additional paid time off beyond the two weeks, the spokesperson said. They added that the company is "working with employees to gather the information we need to approve" extra paid sick time.

"Because we are continually revisiting policies to ensure the safety of our employees, going forward, this information may include self-report of patterns of symptoms and exposure, particularly when the employee cannot obtain medical certification at all," the spokesperson said. 

Additionally, the spokesperson said Amazon will provide employees who are sent home with a fever with up to five hours of pay. The company announced the policy earlier this week, after BuzzFeed reported that some employees with fevers were being sent home without pay. 

The spokesperson declined to comment on why some employees in quarantine have received 60% of their paycheck. 

'My money is dwindling down' 

The conflicting accounts of employees who are in quarantine could be a symptom of Amazon's vast network of warehouses across the country. Since the pandemic unfolded several months ago, each Amazon warehouse has responded differently to the crisis. 

Amazon employees at multiple facilities previously told CNBC they didn't feel safe coming to work, as they encountered shortages of face masks, sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Still, workers at other facilities said they had plenty of protective gear and felt site leadership was doing their best to keep employees safe. 

The company has announced a number of new safety measures at its facilities in recent weeks. Amazon has increased the frequency and intensity of cleaning at all of its sites and required that employees sanitize and clean their work stations and vehicles at the start and end of every shift. It has also started taking employees' temperatures when they report to work and supplied them with face masks. 

For warehouse workers who struggle to get the pay they need, they are faced with few options beyond relying on savings or applying for unemployment. 

Amazon workers, along with many employees around the country, can now stay home from work longer as a result of the CARES Act, which was signed into law March 27. Those eligible to collect unemployment in their state would get an extra $600 a week in benefits for up to four months. However, there are some stipulations around who can and cannot qualify for the expanded unemployment benefits laid out in the bill. 

The Labor Department now allows workers to qualify for unemployment if an individual is quarantined, as well as if an individual leaves employment due to risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member. But these are only recommended guidelines from the government, meaning that each state varies in its guidelines for eligibility. 

Several Amazon workers who told CNBC they applied for unemployment expressed concerns that it would put their job at Amazon at risk. Guidelines from the Labor Department state that workers don't need to quit their jobs in order to apply for unemployment. 

The Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on whether Amazon employees' job status will be impacted if they file for unemployment. 

A worker at a facility in Michigan said she recently applied for unemployment after she didn't receive a paycheck from Amazon. She said she was told by a doctor to go into quarantine after showing symptoms of the virus. She said that initially, an Amazon HR representative didn't accept her doctor's note as proof that she needed to be in quarantine, but after several calls, the representative agreed she should stay home. Since then, she said she has been unable to collect the pay promised to her by the company. 

Additionally, an HR representative told her to apply for Amazon's $25 million relief fund, which allows seasonal workers and contractors to apply for grants if they're in quarantine or if they test positive for the virus. However, as a full-time employee, she said she couldn't qualify for the fund.

"It's not even set up to include regular associates," the worker said. "My money is dwindling down. I'm just waiting for my unemployment to kick in." 

Sharlene said she's been working with her site's human resources department for the past three weeks to try to get the pay owed to her in quarantine, but to no avail. She said she applied for unemployment on Tuesday after she grew frustrated with the delays and came close to running out of money. 

"As it is right now, I don't have a job," Sharlene said. "I can't risk my health and get a job in the grocery industry because not only am I risking my own life, but also the others around me. So the way I see it, I can't work." 

While Sharlene is at home, her daughter, who also works at an Amazon warehouse, has continued to go to work. The family grew concerned that Sharlene's daughter would bring the virus home to her five-year-old daughter, so Sharlene decided to have her granddaughter quarantine with her in her home. 

Since they're in quarantine, it meant that the family was apart for her granddaughter's fifth birthday. The closest that Sharlene's granddaughter can get to her mom is via FaceTime call. Their separation has taken a toll on the family, as her granddaughter "just cries to go home." 

"My daughter is working and making money, but it's still a dangerous place to work," Sharlene said. "As long as she is working with Amazon, I'm taking every precaution I can." 

Two Amazon warehouse workers, both of whom asked to remain anonymous, had different experiences while they were on paid sick leave, despite the fact that they both live in the same state of Kentucky. 

One of the workers said he has been in quarantine for more than a week, since he "woke up one morning hacking up a lung." He received a paycheck from Amazon that included 60% of his typical wages. 

"It's only 60% of my regular weekly pay, but that's better than nothing," the worker said.

A worker from a separate facility in Kentucky said he had no issues getting paid while he was in quarantine for two weeks. Once he exhausted his two weeks of paid sick leave, he said he still didn't feel safe returning to work, so he took advantage of Amazon's unlimited unpaid leave and applied for unemployment.

Due to the CARES Act, the worker said he received an extra $600 per week on top of what he receives in state unemployment benefits. As a result, the worker said he is making more money than he would from his job at Amazon. 

An Amazon worker holds a sign at the Amazon building during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Staten Island borough of New York City, March 30, 2020.
Jeenah Moon | Reuters

Barbara Chandler, a process assistant at JFK8 in Staten Island, has been in isolation since March 25, when she was informed she had tested positive for the virus. Chandler reported to Chris Smalls, the Amazon worker who was fired after he organized a protest at JFK8. (Amazon has previously said no workers reported to Smalls since he was an hourly employee.) Smalls said he was fired for organizing the strike, but Amazon said it fired Smalls because he violated social distancing rules after being told to go under quarantine for coming into contact with Chandler.

Chandler said Amazon told her she would receive her full wages while she's home sick. But when Chandler received a paycheck last week, it was only for roughly 60% of her usual wages. She said she hopes she will get paid the full amount in her next paycheck, but she's preparing for the possibility that she won't. 

"I haven't paid my rent because the money I do have in my account, I'm trying to stretch it in case I don't get paid," Chandler said. "They said they're going to pay me this Friday, but you never know."

Staten Island Amazon warehouse workers walk out over coronavirus concerns
Staten Island Amazon warehouse workers walk out over coronavirus concerns