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Amazon Warehouse Worker Deaths Inflate Outrage Over Virus Safety Measures

Amid fervent public outcry regarding manifold workplace health and safety failures, an employee from Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse has succumbed to the coronavirus, a company official announced Tuesday. Another warehouse employee in Illinois also died from the virus, Amazon confirmed to CNBC Wednesday.

Employees at the New York warehouse, known as JFK8, have been calling for more stringent social distancing enforcement action and greater sanitation measures since early March. Later that month, Chris Smalls, a manager at the distribution center, was fired for allegedly flouting the company’s health guidelines in organizing a walkout to protest Amazon’s shortcomings.

A little more than a month later, the warehouse has confirmed its first COVID-19-related death.

Speaking to The Verge, an Amazon spokesperson said, “We are deeply saddened by the loss of an associate at our site in Staten Island, N.Y. His family and loved ones are in our thoughts, and we are supporting his fellow colleagues.”

According to the spokesperson, the employee last reported for work at the JFK8 location on April 5 and was placed on quarantine after testing positive for the virus on April 11.

The first reported death of a U.S. Amazon distribution center employee occurred on March 31 in Hawthorne, Calif., and a worker in Tracy, Calif., died on April 1.

The Staten Island warehouse led the charge in a series of global walkouts and protests of Amazon’s bungled response to the spread of the virus. The company refused to shut down operations or clean the JFK8 facility after workers fell ill, and only committed to implementing more precautionary measures—like temperature screenings and mandated social distancing orders—after the demonstration.

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Last week, in its quarterly earnings release, Amazon claimed that it planned to spend $4 billion on personal protective equipment, facility cleanings and testing for employees.

While the company has declined to offer firm statistics about the number of COVID-19 cases that have impacted its workforce, workers tallied company alerts and released the approximated number to The Verve. The count exceeds 130, they said, with dozens of cases in the JFK8 facility alone.

The company’s treatment of JFK8’s Smalls, along with its perceived failings at keeping its employees safe, have prompted shock and outrage from local elected officials and Washington lawmakers.

And, on Monday, Amazon vice president and engineer Tim Bray exited the company with a scorched-earth rant against the company’s targeting of whistleblowers. In a widely circulated blog post entitled, “Bye, Amazon,” the vice president of five years excoriated Amazon leadership for firing activists like Smalls instead of taking action to protect workers.

Using colorful language that has now been redacted, Bray intimated that the company’s actions were cowardly, and displayed an aim to figuratively “kill the messenger” rather than address real and widespread safety issues amid an international health crisis.

Bray went on to assert that the company’s greatest issue isn’t the specifics of its coronavirus response. “It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential,” he said.

“Firing whistleblowers isn’t just a side-effect of macroeconomic forces, nor is it intrinsic to the function of free markets,” he added. “It’s evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture.”

“I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison,” Bray concluded.