'They just turn a blind eye': Amazon Air contractors face safety risks as new coronavirus outbreaks emerge

Key Points
  • Employees at Worldwide Flight Services, an Amazon Air subcontractor, say they continue to face an unsafe work environment during the pandemic. 
  • At one facility in Phoenix, five WFS workers told CNBC that employees aren't wearing masks and social distancing is impossible to maintain. 
  • WFS workers say they feel overlooked by Amazon's coronavirus response after the company gave warehouse and delivery workers raises and relaxed attendance policies, among other measures. 

In this article

An Amazon Air plane at Ontario International Airport on Monday, February 4, 2019.
Katie Schoolov

The coronavirus pandemic has shed a bright light on Amazon's treatment of warehouse workers and prompted the company to take extraordinary steps to reassure employees, legislators and the broader public that it's protecting workers. 

Amazon has changed how its warehouses operate to improve safety, offered additional benefits to workers who fall sick and set up a relief fund for delivery contractors.

But a crucial piece of Amazon's shipping operations was left out of the company's response to the pandemic, some workers say. 

Workers at Worldwide Flight Services, a company that serves the Amazon' Air freight network and other carriers, say they have gone without many of the benefits provided to warehouse and delivery employees. They also say they weren't provided with bonuses, hourly wage increases, extra paid sick leave or unlimited unpaid time off, despite working long hours at the height of the pandemic. Employees accrue paid sick leave over time, so they're able to take a limited number of days off if they're sick, but once that time runs out, they must return to work.

WFS workers say managers aren't enforcing mask requirements and that hand sanitizer and soap are in short supply at facilities. At one WFS facility in Phoenix, safety concerns became so severe that a worker filed a complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration last month.

WFS is one of several companies that maintain lucrative contracts with Amazon Air. Workers load and unload cargo from Amazon planes at airports across the country, but they're not considered Amazon employees. Instead, Amazon contracts with third-party companies like WFS, which employs the workers. Amazon outsources other areas of its logistics network, including last-mile delivery, which has been a subject of controversy in the past.

Before and during the pandemic, Amazon's cargo partners, including WFS, have played an outsized role in ensuring the company can achieve its increasingly crucial goals of one- and same-day delivery. 

"These workers are vital," said Cathy Morrow Roberson, founder of consulting firm Logistic Trends & Insights. "It's like the connective tissue for your body, except they're the connection between the airplane and the warehouse. Without them, packages would just be sitting in these facilities."

Amazon spokeswoman Kate Kudrna said the company's "first priority" is the health and safety of workers involved in its operations, adding that Amazon has provided WFS with face masks during the pandemic. 

"All of our airline delivery providers must comply with the Amazon Supplier Code of Conduct and Federal Aviation Administration Regulations," Kudrna said in a statement. "We take seriously any allegation that a delivery provider is not meeting those requirements and expectations, and review accordingly."

WFS didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. After publication, WFS said in a statement that all employees have been notified of the company's corporate guidelines around Covid-19 via several forms of communication, including shift briefings, company newsletters and posters inside facilities. The company said it performs daily inventory checks to make sure personal protective equipment is replenished at facilities. 

"The safety, security and wellbeing of our employees and operations are our greatest priority," WFS said in a statement. "Our local management teams are accessible to any staff needing clarification of our Covid-19 policies and procedures."

As Amazon was hit with a surge of coronavirus-related demand in March, WFS workers were on the front lines, handling the Prime packages ordered by millions of Americans who were cloistered inside their homes. 

Demand has stabilized but the workers now face a new round of coronavirus outbreaks around the country. WFS workers say they feel just as vulnerable as during the beginning of the pandemic, since they still lack the basic protections to be able to do their job safely.

Sanitizer shortages and workers refuse to wear masks

WFS operates out of dozens of airports across the country, which means facilities are largely independent of one another. Some WFS facilities have taken coronavirus safety more seriously than others.

One WFS worker in northern Kentucky said everyone wore masks in the facility and hand sanitizer is located in all areas of the building. By contrast, a WFS worker in New York City said no masks are available for employees unless they bring their own, while managers "refuse" to answer questions about positive cases at the facility. Both workers asked to remain anonymous out of fear of losing their jobs. 

Five WFS workers at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport told CNBC they've confronted managers multiple times over the past few months about employees who don't wear masks or gloves, along with other safety concerns. Despite this, they say, not much has changed, except now the facility requires temperature checks. Many of the workers asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to talk to the media about company matters. 

"I figured when this pandemic started that they'd take it more seriously, but they haven't been professional about it at all," said Loren Green, a worker at the Phoenix facility. 

WFS cargo handlers work in very close quarters, which makes social distancing rules difficult to follow. Employees often stand next to each other to hand off boxes, while two or three workers stack packages inside large metal containers, referred to as cans, that are estimated to be about 6 feet wide by 7 feet tall. 

The issue hasn't improved months into the pandemic, workers said. In April, WFS managers said they had station no more than four workers to a can at a time, but they haven't always enforced that rule. 

A video taken in June and obtained by CNBC shows WFS workers in Phoenix clustered in groups around cans with the Amazon logo emblazoned on the side. Many of the workers in the video aren't wearing masks and there are at least three employees inside the cans stacking boxes. 

A video obtained by CNBC shows WFS workers in Phoenix crowding around containers without face masks on.

Hand sanitizer and soap are often in short supply at the facility, the workers said. Last month, Green said he noticed an empty sanitizer bottle had been refilled with water at a workstation. Another WFS worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said the bathrooms were out of soap for several days. 

The workers told CNBC they were concerned that the facility's nearly 200 employees only have access to two, single-stall bathrooms, one per gender, which could increase crowding and spreading of germs. OSHA requires workplaces with more than 150 employees to provide six toilets, plus one additional toilet for every additional 40 workers. 

Another WFS worker in Phoenix, who asked to remain anonymous, became so frustrated with the facility's lack of safety measures that they filed a complaint with Arizona's OSHA division on May 2. The complaint, which was viewed by CNBC, claims the facility isn't following federal guidelines for social distancing and that it isn't requiring workers to self-quarantine when they've been exposed to the coronavirus. It also claims employees aren't able to voice their concerns about workplace safety and health.

Trevor Laky, a spokesperson for the Industrial Commission of Arizona, which includes the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the state's equivalent of OSHA, said the complaint was closed May 8. Laky added that ADOSH representatives did not inspect the facility. 

In May, a WFS worker in Phoenix filed a complaint with the local OSHA branch, detailing various workplace hazards related to the coronavirus.

WFS said in a statement that its Covid-19 policies are in accordance with federal agencies. The company declined to comment on Phoenix workers' specific accusations. 

Kudrna, the Amazon spokeswoman, said WFS handles air cargo operations at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport for a variety of companies, not just Amazon. 

Workers estimate that at least four employees have tested positive for the coronavirus at the Phoenix facility. Each time, there was no official notification from the site's management, they said. Instead, workers said they learned about new infections via word of mouth. The company hasn't told workers whether it's carried out contact tracing or notified workers who might have been in close contact with the infected individuals, the workers said. 

Sidney Isais Gastelum, who quit his job as a ramp agent at the Phoenix facility last month due to coronavirus concerns, said he worked daily with three of the people there who tested positive for the virus. Gastelum said he informed the site's human resources department that he was in regular close contact with the workers, yet he was never told to quarantine himself. 

Instead, he said, an HR employee told him he had to come to work because he was "essential" and that if he didn't show up for his shift, he'd be written up. 

After his co-workers tested positive, Gastelum said, he urged his managers to hold a meeting about coronavirus safety measures, since managers had yet to address the confirmed cases. The meeting never happened.

"I was pretty disappointed they wouldn't even have a safety meeting about this because they're close friends of mine," Gastelum said. "I work with them and I care about them. If they don't talk about them, it just shows how much they don't care about our safety."

Amazon has called its workers "heroes" for providing supplies to millions of Americans during the pandemic. Gastelum and other WFS workers said Amazon should also applaud them for risking their health and safety on the front lines. 

"Amazon hasn't done anything for us," said one ramp agent in Phoenix, who works the day shift, and asked to remain anonymous. "We're pretty much fending for ourselves and expected to just keep working."

WFS workers contracted by Amazon said they may spend their days moving Prime packages, but their interactions with the company are limited, beyond occasional visits by Amazon representatives to WFS facilities. 

"To us, it seems like Amazon doesn't really care about how we operate so long as we get the job done," Gastelum said. "They just turn a blind eye."

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