Amazon workers are some of the most omnipresent as the coronavirus has shut nearly all business in the U.S., and the company is holding fast against pressure that it’s not doing enough to safeguard their health.
In a letter to five Democratic senators — who last week questioned Amazon founder and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos in their own letter on his company’s “abrupt firing” of a New York warehouse employee after he organized a small protest of worker conditions, along with what exactly Amazon is doing to protect workers from contracting the coronavirus — company executive Brian Huseman wrote that the web giant has “taken extreme measures to keep our people safe.”
Regarding a number of worker concerns the senators had heard about a lack of basic sanitizing supplies in at least some Amazon warehouses, like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, and only receiving two pairs of gloves a week, Huseman, who is the company’s vice president of public policy, admitted: “Obtaining supplies of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies has been challenging.”
Nevertheless, he said Amazon is distributing medical-grade face masks to all workers (it did not specify how many) and four pairs of gloves a week (more if an employee asks, although the CDC recommends gloves be disposed after each use), and is “creating new sources of supply to keep critical items in stock,” like sanitizers and wipes. Amazon has distributed to warehouses in North America 450,000 canisters of disinfectant wipes, 50,000 individual hand sanitizers and 20,000 refillable, wall-mounted hand sanitizer pumps.
In addition to working on keeping such supplies stocked and available for workers, Huseman said the company is “piloting disinfectant fogging.” It’s a process of spraying a disinfecting mist on an area, typically used in hospitals and in the mass food supply industry.
Huseman did not go into detail on where the fogging was being tested and how likely it was to roll out more widely.
The company has also apparently implemented more widely temperature checks for employees reporting to work. At the very end of March, Amazon was only starting to do this at some locations. Huseman said the company is now checking 100,000 employees a day and sending home anyone that registers over 100.4 degrees. However, there have been numerous cases of the coronavirus confirmed before people come down with a fever.
Still, Amazon is looking to hire even more employees in the coming weeks. Huseman wrote that the company’s call in March for another 100,000 U.S. workers has already been met. Now it wants to hire 75,000 more. He added that Amazon is looking to increase pay and benefits as well and the company now expects to spend $500 million on increased wages this year, up from a previous estimate of $350 million.
“We will continue to invest in safety, pay and benefits for our teams who are playing an invaluable role in getting items to communities around the country,” Huseman wrote to the senators.
He also addressed Amazon’s firing of Chris Smalls after the warehouse worker organized a small protest outside of the Staten Island, N.Y., facility where he worked. Huseman stuck to the company line that Smalls was fired for violating a company order that he quarantine with pay for two weeks after “contact tracing” found that he’d come into contact with a colleague confirmed to have the coronavirus. However, he added that Smalls had been warned previously for allegedly “violating” “social distancing” guidelines on three earlier occasions. He also gave a different timeline of events than the senators pushed Bezos on in their letter, despite that initial timeline coming from an Amazon spokesperson.
While Amazon initially said it learned of the diagnosed employee Smalls was in contact with on March 11, Huseman said in his letter that the employee diagnosis came on March 26 and Smalls was informed and asked to quarantine on March 28, then fired for violating the quarantine on March 30. However, Huseman’s timeline of Smalls’ alleged warnings show all came in the week before he was ordered to quarantine.
“We want to be clear that we respect the rights of employees to protest and recognize their legal right to do so,” Huseman wrote. “We have zero tolerance for retaliation for employees who raise concerns.”
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