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Amazon Warehouse Workers at Pandemic’s Epicenter Walk Off the Job

Online retail Goliath Amazon is contending with worker walkouts at one of its essential warehouses servicing the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

Employees at the company’s Staten Island, N.Y., distribution center, known as JFK8, over the weekend announced their plans to strike on Monday over conditions they described as unsanitary. They also complained of a lack of transparency from company officials about containment measures since one of the warehouse’s workers tested positive for the virus last week.

According to a report from CNBC, the company declined to shut down the facility for a deep cleaning, and has been up and running since the warehouse’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed.

About 100 workers at JFK8 reportedly walked away from their posts at noon on Monday. Latinx immigrant rights group @MaketheRoadNY tweeted videos from the facility’s parking lot, showing employees exiting the building, some holding signs marked with words of protest.

“I walked out because Amazon lied,” said a sign-wielding employee named Heaven in one of the group’s videos. “They told me there was one case in the building, and there’s actually 11,” she claimed. Amazon has not addressed the employee’s claim that others have been infected.

On Sunday, JFK8 management assistant and strike organizer Chris Smalls spoke to CNBC about the group’s plans, telling the outlet that employees would “cease all operations” until workers’ concerns are addressed by Amazon leadership.

Staff would like the company to close the warehouse for deep cleaning and sanitization—and offer them paid time off while it’s shut down. Smalls told CNBC that he feared an outbreak at the facility, which houses 4,500 workers on an 855,000-square-foot campus.

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An Amazon spokesperson declined to address the workers’ request, but told CNBC that the company is “following all guidelines from local health officials” and is “taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site.”

A March 24 Amazon blog post details the safety steps the company is taking in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Beyond boosting the “frequency and intensity of cleaning at all sites, including regular sanitization of door handles, handrails, touch screens, scanners, and other frequently touched areas,” Amazon also  requires workers and delivery service partners to “clean and disinfect their work stations.”

But Amazon stops short of automatically closing facilities, as have other companies, when someone in one of its warehouse is confirmed to be ill with the virus.

“We are consulting with health authorities and medical experts on how to handle building closures for deep cleaning, if an employee tests positive for COVID-19,” according to the blog post. “Our process evaluates where the employee was in the building, for how long, how much time has passed since they were onsite, and who they interacted with, among other items, in determining whether we need to close. We also ask anyone at the site who was in close contact with the diagnosed individual to stay home with pay for 14-days in self-quarantine.”

What’s more, the Amazon spokesperson described workers’ concerns as “unfounded,” adding that the company is “working hard to keep employees safe.”

When pressed by CNBC’s Dominic Chu on the impact that shutting down JFK8 would have on consumers in need of essential items, Smalls countered that despite Amazon’s announcement last week that it would be saving warehouse shelf space for vital stock like medical supplies, household cleaners, food and hygienic items, his warehouse hasn’t narrowed down its range of offerings.

“I understand that we’re doing a service to the community in the public eye… but I work with the outbound department,” he said. “I see the items that customers are ordering firsthand. The items are not as essential as people think they are.”

“What service are we doing if we’re infected?” Smalls asked, highlighting an issue that has stoked consumer anxieties in recent weeks: that packers could transfer the virus to products, and ultimately, to shoppers.

Smalls also argued that it does the community “no good” if workers are becoming infected at the facility and bringing the virus home to their families.

“We’re at the epicenter of the pandemic—this is New York,” he said. “We have [workers from] all five boroughs in the building… We have people riding the subways, buses, public transportation.”

Smalls said Amazon higher-ups told him that workers could always revert to taking leave without pay if they felt their health was at risk coming into the facility.

“They say we have the unpaid option, which doesn’t really help us if we’re trying to make ends meet and bring money home to our families,” he said. “We can’t afford to take off work just because we don’t feel safe at work.”