woman in mask with phone coronavirus Seattle

To enter the Amazon warehouse facility where she spends more than 10 hours a day, packer Monica Moody must first pass through double doors and entry turnstiles. Then she packs 60 boxes an hour — a quota she says has not abated during the coronavirus pandemic — handling items and boxes while not wearing a mask.

Workers are now spaced farther apart at the facility to prevent the spread of the virus, and they wear the work gloves that they are normally given for packing work, Moody said. But the atmosphere is fraught — it’s difficult to avoid crowding around break times as workers leave and reenter the warehouse, and workers are also themselves expected to help clean the facility on top of their regular duties, she said.  

“I’m just touching, touching, touching everything,” said Moody, 22, who for almost six months now has worked at the CLT3 facility in Concord, N.C. “I have hand sanitizer on my keys, I’m not playing around. But I still don’t feel safe.” 

In the past week, employees at Amazon, Whole Foods and Instacart have staged walkouts or protests over what they say are unsafe working conditions, and asked for better paid sick leave. While most states, including North Carolina, New York, New Jersey and California, have ordered residents to stay home, warehouse and distribution facilities can be deemed “essential services” that stay open during the crisis. 

An Amazon representative denied claims of workplace hazards at its facilities and said the company has ramped up cleaning, and instituted policies to keep workers a safe distance apart from one another. 

“These accusations are simply unfounded,” said Amazon representative Timothy Carter, of claims of unsafe working conditions. “Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with health authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and teams. We have also implemented proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees, including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance in the [fulfillment centers] and adding distance between drivers and customers when making deliveries.”

Amazon and Walmart, retailers seeing increased demand during this time, have indeed scrambled to implement some new health and safety measures, instituting temperature checks, ordering masks for employees and issuing emergency sick leave policies. 

But workers and unions say such measures don’t go far enough. On Wednesday, a group of union leaders called for Amazon to shut down its warehouses until it can implement stronger protocols to enforce workplace safety, including independent safety inspections, as well as protections for workers including child-care expenses amid school closures, and paid leave for workers who need to self-quarantine.

The letter was signed by union leaders including Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents some 100,000 workers across the country’s supply chain in food processing, shipping and fashion retail. The RWDSU also represents some 6,000 employees at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, and has negotiated some extended pay and health benefits for those workers during the pandemic. Those benefits expired at the end of Wednesday, and any additional benefits will hinge on the outcome of further negotiations between Macy’s management and the union, according to a representative for the union.

All the while, government oversight of workplace safety during a pandemic, and employers’ legal obligations to workers under these circumstances, remain unclear and appear to vary from state to state. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency of the U.S. Department of Labor that sets workplace safety standards, has issued new COVID-19 guidelines. But those guidelines, which offer tips for employers to “encourage workers to stay home if they’re sick” and to “encourage respiratory etiquette,” make clear that those are just recommendations, and not new legal requirements. 

“OSHA has put up some useful guidance on its website, and that guidance is valuable, but it’s also voluntary,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health. Until 2017, Michaels was also head of OSHA under the Obama administration. 

“Many employers will embrace that guidance and do the right thing, and there are many reports where employers are not, and that’s where OSHA should step in,” he said.  

Amazon and Walmart, which are planning to bring on 100,000 and 150,000 new workers, respectively, have highlighted some concrete steps they are taking. 

On Thursday, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations, Dave Clark, wrote on the company’s blog that it has ordered “millions” of masks it will be distributing to workers going forward. The company has also begun instituting temperature testing at some facilities, and plans to expand that throughout its U.S. and European operations network and its Whole Foods Market stores by next week, he said. The company is also providing up to two weeks of paid leave for employees who are quarantined or diagnosed with COVID-19. Other hourly workers can use their existing paid time off, or use “unlimited unpaid time off” through the end of April if they are unable to come into work, Amazon has said.  

“We are doing this to ensure employees have the time they need to return to good health without the worry of lost income,” said Amazon’s Carter. “Any employee may stay home without risk of losing their job, whether to care for children whose schools have closed or for any other reason.” 

Walmart has a similar emergency leave policy, and is also instituting temperature checks. Employees reporting to work with a fever of 100 degrees or more will be sent home and paid for the day. 

“We care about our associates, their health and well-being,” said Walmart representative Robyn Babbitt. “And we offer the COVID-19 emergency leave policy and want them to be able to stay home if they have concerns, have symptoms, or are ill or quarantined — and knowing that their jobs are going to be protected.” 

Workers and advocacy groups argue that such measures fall short of addressing the reality of their working conditions, amid a pandemic involving a disease that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated could even spread from asymptomatic people who are infected. 

Moody, the packing worker at the CLT3 facility in North Carolina, described one of her concerns as the ability to take paid time off if she felt unwell and is unable to access a COVID-19 test. Having worked for less than six months at the facility, she believes she has not accrued enough paid time off to use. Moody now makes $17 an hour, which includes the $2 an hour pay increase that Amazon implemented in mid-March. 

Employees like Moody tend not to have many avenues to address workplace conditions, worker advocates say. Unions can play that role, but union membership in the U.S. is at roughly 10.3 percent, according to a January economics news release by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

But she is not without options. About two months ago, Moody became a member of United for Respect, a worker-oriented non-profit. The group is exploring formal ways to address workers’ safety complaints during the crisis.  

“In order to protect employees, their families and customers alike, we’re calling on Amazon and Walmart to immediately provide adequate protective gear and generous hazard pay, and to implement policies that provide all part-time and full-time employees with paid leave and comprehensive, affordable health coverage so that they can continue to do their jobs safely and take time to care for themselves and their families,” a United for Respect representative said in a statement. 

There are now more than 1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with the U.S. leading the pack with more than 236,000 cases, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. The cases have led to at least 51,485 deaths worldwide, according to the tally. 

When it comes to government oversight, the federal OSHA’s actual role in practice may be unclear, but the states that have their own versions of the program have a chance to play a more active role. Oregon’s OSHA, for instance, received about 1,300 complaints related to COVID-19 during the week of March 23, a spike to an agency that usually receives about 2,073 complaints a year, according to Oregon OSHA’s spokesman Aaron Corvin. 

North Carolina’s Occupational Safety and Health Division has received 40 complaints related to COVID-19 as of April 1 and will conduct investigations, said Dolores Quesenberry, director of communications at the N.C. Department of Labor. 

These state agencies can dispatch investigators to workplaces in response to complaints, and issue citations for violations. In Oregon, the maximum financial penalty for a nonwillful Oregon OSHA violation is $12,750, and the maximum penalty for a willful violation is $126,749, though the actual penalties can vary depending on the circumstances, according to Corvin. 

Meanwhile, the federal OSHA has a sanitation standard that requires employers to provide their employees with soap and water, and a protective equipment standard that could apply to providing gloves, though usually for work involving hazardous chemicals or sharp objects. 

But those rules simply set baseline hygiene and safety standards that don’t necessarily rise to the rigor of guarding against an airborne contagion in a workplace, said Michaels of George Washington University. 

“I don’t think those rules have been tested in this context,” he said. “They weren’t conceived at all to address a viral hazard, exposure of which could lead to death.”