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Amazon Contends With Coronavirus—And Its Own Growing Crises

Amazon is in hot water over allegations that it’s not keeping workers safe amid the coronavirus outbreak, and now, the federal government is looking to step in.

On Friday, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) addressed reports that the tech giant is implementing practices that might be hazardous to workers’ health.

That’s on the heels of reports that the first American Amazon employee tested positive for COVID-19 at a warehouse in New York. And despite March 11 recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that workers in the Seattle area be screened daily for symptoms, multiple employees told the Seattle Times that those measures weren’t being taken.

“Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” the lawmakers argued in an open letter to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

“Americans who are taking every precaution…might risk getting infected with COVID-19 because of Amazon’s decision to prioritize efficiency and profits over the safety and well-being of its workforce,” they added.

The letter specifically addressed reports that Amazon warehouse staff were continuing to hold stand-up meetings wherein dozens of workers reportedly convene in crowded rooms to review protocols. It also highlighted allegations that cleaning supplies were lacking at many of the company’s giant distribution centers.

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“It is our understanding that if a warehouse employee coughs or sneezes, they can either take the time to wash their hands and risk being written up for falling short of their shipping expectations, or meet their shipping expectations and put themselves and their colleagues at risk,” the lawmakers wrote.

The letter, which presses Bezos on a number of topics related to worker safety, raised questions about the company’s future measures for protecting its employees from infection, including whether it would cover the cost of testing for its workers, whether it would provide paid sick leave and “time-and-a-half” hazard pay, whether it would pull back on efficiency and disciplinary measures in order to allow workers the time to practice good hygiene, and whether it would close any facility in which a worker tests positive for the disease.

“We ask that you provide a written response to the concerns raised in this letter… by no later than March 26,” the senators wrote.

Multi-billionaire Bezos may also have to contend with concerns from international authorities as the virus looms large in Europe.

According to local news report, at least five warehouse workers across Italy and Spain were infected with the coronavirus as of March 17, but rather than shutter operations, Amazon decided to keep open the facilities where they worked.

In France on Thursday, after several hundred Amazon workers protested the company’s widespread decisions to keep warehouses operational, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called the pressures on employees “unacceptable.”

According to a report from The New York Times, Amazon responded to the Finance Minister’s admonition by insisting that its staff’s health was a priority and that it “respected all workers’ rights”—including the right of French employees to walk out of their jobs.

Employees who wished to remain anonymous told The Times they were concerned about whether the conditions in the warehouses were sanitary, and claimed they were forced to work in close quarters, driving up the risk of infection.

Bezos seemingly responded Saturday with a memo to “Amazonians” posted on the e-commerce giant’s blog that acknowledged the current “stress” and “uncertainty” of what isn’t “business as usual.”

“We’ve implemented a series of preventative health measures for employees and contractors at our sites around the world—everything from increasing the frequency and intensity of cleaning to adjusting our practices in fulfillment centers to ensure the recommended social distancing guidelines,” he wrote, noting that “workers’ efforts are being noticed at the highest levels of government.”

“We are meeting every day, working to identify additional ways to improve on these measures,” Bezos added.

While warehouse workers across the globe are nonplussed with the corporation’s response, anxious Amazon sellers make up another unhappy contingent.

On Tuesday, the company announced that it would be saving warehouse shelf space for vital stock like medical supplies, household cleaners, food and hygienic items at its centers across the U.S., U.K. and Europe. That means that third-party purveyors of other types of goods could be left out in the cold.

Merchants selling non-essential items like toys, clothing and gadgets are now unable to restock their inventory at Amazon’s distribution centers, and they could be missing sales. In addition to putting them in a financial bind, they may be unable to pay back their loans to the company.

The Amazon lending program makes loans ranging from $1,000 to upwards of $1 million to sellers who qualify, using their inventory as collateral, Reuters reported. Merchants are expected to pay back their loans within three to 12 months, with interest rates ranging from 6 percent to 19.9 percent.

The publication reviewed a loan agreement between an Amazon seller and the company, which revealed that borrowers are considered in default if their sales for any 30-day period are less than 50 percent of the lowest level from the past 12 months.

With reduced demand and no way to replenish stock, many sellers might find themselves in violation of these terms.

A spokesperson for Amazon told Reuters on Thursday that the company is working to provide relief to the selling community, but declined to give specific details about what those measures might entail.

In a statement to the publication, Amazon said it was “working to determine the best ways to quickly assist its lending clients during the coronavirus crisis.”