Just weeks after one of its Canadian warehouses was ordered to close amid surging coronavirus infections, which then prompted the local health board to launch an investigation into potential labor violations, Amazon is now starting to vaccinate vulnerable first-line workers.
On Thursday, the Seattle tech titan—which added 30 million members to its Prime membership subscription service last year alone—unveiled plans to institute vaccination events for front-line employees on site at its facilities in Missouri, Nevada and Kansas, with more locations to follow. The development comes after Amazon has come under relentless scrutiny for the allegedly deadly conditions in its warehouses and distribution centers across the country.
The company implemented regular testing at its workplaces last spring, and said in a blog post that it had since processed millions of tests at more than 800 sites across the globe. Amazon said its rollout of that program informed its foray into on-site vaccinations, which it will be running in partnership with local government and public health officials.
In its blog, Amazon said licensed health care providers will administer vaccinations at a number of fulfillment centers across the three states—a model that will be replicated in other regions as more vaccines become available locally. “This is an important initiative not only for the health and safety of Amazon employees, but for the communities where our teams live and work,” it wrote. “Our events will protect Amazon employees while also helping ease the burden on community-run vaccination clinics.”
While the e-tail giant said it’s working quickly to secure vaccines and supplies for employees across the country, not all workers will have access to the new on-site clinics. As a result, Amazon is offering up to $80 to those who want to get vaccinated elsewhere. So far, it has invested $11.5 billion in Covid-19-related safety and protection measures overall, and offered $2.5 billion in special bonuses and incentives for workers at Amazon fulfillment centers, AWS data centers and Whole Foods Market stores.
The move to offer vaccines and stipends comes after a series of kerfuffles with lawmakers over the company’s treatment of workers and its efforts at transparency throughout the crisis. In February, Amazon preemptively sued New York Attorney General Letitia James to stop her office from taking action against its early pandemic response, which included firing whistleblower and former distribution center manager Christian Smalls last spring. James filed a suit against the company anyway, citing its “flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements,” which she said put workers’ lives at risk.
Mid-December saw California’s then Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, file a petition against Amazon in the Sacramento County Superior Court, requesting that the company be compelled to comply with outstanding investigative state Department of Justice subpoenas from August. Becerra, who has since been appointed U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, initially requested information about safety protocols and the measures being taken to contain the spread of the virus in Amazon’s workplaces throughout the Golden State.
“Amazon has made billions during this pandemic relying on the labor of essential workers,” he said at the time. “It’s critical to know if these workers are receiving the protections on the job that they are entitled to under the law.”
While legislators continue to pursue all legal angles in an effort to hold the company to account, the biggest threat to Amazon may come from within. The company is currently contending with more than 6,000 warehouse employees in Bessemer, Ala., who are voting this month on whether to form the company’s first union—a move largely spurred by their concerns about health and safety, in addition to the oft-cited taxing physical demands of their jobs at Amazon. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.)—an outspoken critic of the e-commerce titan—is scheduled to travel to the site on Friday to discuss the vote, which concludes on March 29, with workers.
President Joe Biden expressed his support for Amazon employees in late February through a video on the White House’s YouTube channel. “Today and over the next few weeks, workers in Alabama, and all across America, are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace,” he said, calling the decision “a vitally important choice.”
“Let me be really clear: It’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union,” he said. “But let me be even more clear: It’s not up to an employer to decide that either. The choice to join a union is up to the workers—full stop.”