In the early days of the pandemic, Amazon was known for offering warehouse workers onsite free testing and even developed its own Covid test kits for consumers. But the company has since shut down its warehouse testing facilities, and now, as Covid cases are rising across the U.S., some Amazon workers say they are scrambling to find tests to determine if it's safe to return to work.
And when they seek help from the company's human resources system, some employees say it's so overwhelmed that they risk losing pay or time off they have accrued.
"I really wish they would bring free Covid testing back to us. It's scary how many Covid cases we have in our building at the moment," said an Amazon warehouse worker in Texas who asked to remain anonymous because they weren't authorized to speak to the press. "Testing was hard. My partner and I had to go to two different places. We both have Aetna insurance and the same place that tested me for free tried to charge my partner $100."
The employee's partner, who also works at Amazon, eventually went to a nearby hospital to get tested free. They both later learned they were positive for Covid, despite being vaccinated.
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Amazon is one of the nation's largest private employers and has roughly 1 million workers in the U.S. Like many businesses, it's being hit with rising Covid cases, many from the highly infectious omicron variant. Roughly 750,000 members of Amazon's workforce are operations employees, most of whom work in fulfillment centers filling e-commerce orders.
On Jan. 7, Amazon cut back its Covid leave benefit after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened its recommended isolation period for asymptomatic Covid cases to five days, from 10. Workers who test positive or are exposed to the virus now qualify for up to 40 hours of paid leave, down from an initial two weeks. Workers also have a five-day excused absence period to get their test results back, meaning they won't be disciplined for not being able to come to work.
NBC News spoke to nine Amazon employees who recently contracted Covid-19 or suspected they might be sick. At least five said that they had trouble securing sick leave because of problems with the company's human resource systems. Nearly all of the workers said they experienced hourslong wait times when they tried to reach company representatives over the phone. Five of the workers reported that Amazon incorrectly deducted their paid vacation time or unpaid time off while they were out sick.
Barbara Agrait, a spokesperson for Amazon, said the company was looking into the issues with employees losing time off. But she stressed the company was focused on vaccinations.
"As we have throughout the pandemic, we continue investing heavily and working closely with public health authorities and our own medical experts to help keep our employees and our communities safe," Agrait said in an email. "We continue to believe that the best way to protect our front-line employees and communities from Covid-19 is through vaccinations. To help, we have offered incentives and hosted more than 1,800 free on-site vaccination events at Amazon facilities across the U.S., making vaccines and boosters available to our employees and their household members."
Amazon workers who spoke with NBC said that they believe the company's efforts are still falling short, and that it remains difficult to get in touch with support staff who can help when they test positive or think they might have the virus.
"I started calling from 9 in the morning to literally 6 at night when my husband came home," said a worker in Illinois who recently contracted Covid-19 and asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak to the press. "I would get close to talking to someone, and then the phone would hang up."
The worker eventually got paid sick leave from Amazon after submitting paperwork from their doctor. But while they were out, they said they lost 30 hours of their earned time off, which Amazon has yet to reinstate. Speaking between bouts of coughing, the worker said they now worried they would be unable to take a day off to rest or go back to the doctor if they experienced complications from the virus.
Natalie Monarrez, an Amazon warehouse worker in Staten Island and an organizer for the Amazon Labor Union, said she tried calling Amazon to get time off to get tested after learning a colleague whom she works with closely was positive. "I could not reach a live person no matter how hard I tried," Monarrez said. She eventually went to speak to a building manager in person, who she said eventually granted her the time off after she insisted on it.
After Drew Duzinskas, another Amazon warehouse worker in Illinois, tested positive for Covid-19 over the holidays, he quickly notified Amazon that he was sick. But for days afterward, he received text messages from the company alerting him that it was deducting his missed shifts from his balance of earned time off.
"They have a self-service kind of H.R. system," Duzinskas said. "That seems to be their goal — to kind of take the human out of human resources."
The workers' accounts echo similar complaints shared on Reddit forums for Amazon employees, where numerous users said they were unable to get through to the Covid Resource Center or the Employee Resource Center, two Amazon systems workers use to apply for sick leave or ask questions about their cases. Amazon acknowledged that it was experiencing higher call volumes than usual, and said it was working to increase phone staffing and encouraging employees to use self-service options available online.
The Amazon workers who spoke to NBC News said it wasn't always clear what the company requires for them to secure Covid leave. One employee needed to have Amazon-specific paperwork filled out by their doctor, while other workers reported getting leave after only submitting an at-home test result. Amazon said it accepts all FDA-approved home testing kits, as well as PCR lab tests.
"They say a lot of things about their leave and accommodation and stuff like that," said Duzinskas. "But when you actually get into it, it's a little harder than you'd think."
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Amazon has been criticized by some lawmakers and labor advocates for what they said was the company's failure to protect the health and safety of its warehouse employees, who were tasked with getting critical supplies to millions of Americans when the country was on lockdown. In June, The New York Times published an investigation highlighting problems with Amazon's human resources department. The company said it prioritized employee welfare and had expanded its human resources staff.
In November, Amazon paid $500,000 to settle claims made by California's attorney general that it concealed Covid-19 cases from its fulfillment center workers. That same month, the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC), a coalition group representing four labor unions, published a survey of almost 800 Amazon workers in 40 states. More than one quarter said they went to work even though they felt sick. Eric Frumin, the SOC's director of health and safety, said Amazon had the ability to do more to protect its employees.
"You would expect a high level of performance from [Amazon], because they're a very sophisticated employer," he said.
In response to questions from NBC News, Amazon said it has made it clear that employees should not come into work if they're sick. The company said it has consistently based its response to the pandemic on guidance from the CDC.
Several of the workers who spoke to NBC News said that Amazon has gotten some things right. One reported that the company helped them find a testing appointment at a nearby urgent clinic, while another was grateful that it approved their paid sick leave relatively quickly. Several Amazon workers said they appreciated how deluged the system had become two years after the pandemic began.
"I feel as if they are overwhelmed with Covid cases. This variant is seeming to grab a hold of everyone," said the worker in Texas. "I'm not sure that Amazon has the capability to slow the spread of this one."
One source noted that Amazon also appears to be making some changes, like reducing the amount of paperwork employees need to submit to go on sick leave. The adjustments are designed to help clear a "case processing backlog," according to screenshots of internal Amazon notifications obtained by NBC News. Previously, workers needed to submit at-home test results alongside a piece of paper indicating the date and their employee ID number, but that prerequisite has been dropped. Workers also no longer have to prove they cohabitate with someone who is sick or have guardianship over a sick minor. Amazon confirmed it was loosening some of the protocols.
The notifications were shared by an Amazon contractor who was not authorized to speak to the press. The contractor began answering calls for the company's Covid-19 employee hotline in September, and estimated that there used to be 10- to 15-minute lag times between calls. Since Thanksgiving, however, there has been little or no time between calls.
"At one point, we had 1,700 calls holding," the contractor said. "Some days it's really overwhelming. Some days, to tell you the truth, I find myself trying to calm people.