An Amazon warehouse worker in Indianapolis, Indiana, has died of COVID-19, the company confirmed.
The death brings the known total of COVID-19 deaths at Amazon warehouses to seven, but Amazon’s process for notifying workers makes the true number difficult to determine. Several workers at IND8 first learned of the death through rumors and say management began informing employees more widely only after being confronted.
“They weren’t going to say anything if it wasn’t for people asking questions,” says a worker at IND8, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution.
Amazon has repeatedly declined to say how many warehouse employees have been diagnosed with or died from the virus. In an interview on “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, Amazon senior vice president of worldwide operations Dave Clark called statistics on infections “not a particularly useful number.” On Tuesday, 13 state attorneys general wrote to Amazon requesting data on the number of workers who had contracted or died of COVID-19.
An Amazon spokesperson said the company was made aware of the Indiana employee’s death on April 30th and immediately notified all employees within the building. “We are saddened by the loss of an associate at our site in Indianapolis, IN,” the company said in a statement. “His family and loved ones are in our thoughts, and we are supporting his fellow colleagues in the days ahead.”
In March, Amazon workers criticized the company for failing to notify employees when their colleagues were diagnosed with the virus. The company now sends text alerts or automated calls when a worker is diagnosed, but the alerts often refer only to “multiple new cases,” so workers have been left to tally alerts themselves to figure out the prevalence of the coronavirus at their facility. At IND8, workers believe the number is around a dozen. Jana Jumpp, an Amazon warehouse worker in Indiana, has been collecting alerts sent to workers around the country and says at least 800 Amazon warehouse workers have been diagnosed with the virus.
The Indianapolis case is the second known death of an Amazon warehouse worker in the state, after a worker was confirmed to have died in Jeffersonville, and it’s the seventh in the US. Workers have also died in Staten Island, New York; Bethpage, New York; Waukegan, Illinois; Hawthorne, California; and Tracy, California. It’s unclear how the worker contracted the virus, and the employee’s name hasn’t been released. Amazon says he was last in the building on April 19th.
Amazon has been determined to maintain something resembling normal operations throughout the pandemic. Faced with a surge of orders, it hired 175,000 new workers and resisted closing US warehouses where workers tested positive. (So far it has closed only one in the US, a returns-processing facility in Kentucky, after the governor ordered it shut.) After temporarily stopping deliveries of nonessential goods to its warehouses, it has now lifted restrictions and says delivery times have begun to fall to their pre-pandemic levels.
But workers, activists, and lawmakers have raised concerns about the safety of the company’s warehouses. Starting in late March, warehouse employees staged walkouts, calling for facilities to be closed and cleaned after employees tested positive for the virus. Amazon fired several workers who raised safety concerns, and last week, senators wrote a letter demanding information on the terminations. Earlier this month, a senior engineer and vice president resigned over the firing of workers who called for improving warehouse conditions.
Amazon has instituted new safety measures, including temperature checks, face masks, and increased cleaning. “Our top concern is ensuring the health and safety of our employees, and we expect to invest approximately $4 billion from April to June on COVID-related initiatives to get products to customers and keep employees safe,” the company said in a statement. The company also says infection rates at its warehouses are at or below the rates in the communities where they are located.
But workers at IND8 and elsewhere say cleaning has been uneven and conditions are often too crowded to allow for proper social distancing. Many worry that recent policy changes put them at greater risk. This month, Amazon reversed a policy it instituted at the onset of the pandemic that allowed workers to take unlimited time off without pay. (Amazon is set to end another coronavirus policy, an additional $2 per hour of hazard pay, on June 1st.) The leave policy had allowed workers who feared for their safety — and could afford to go without a paycheck — to stay home without being fired for overdrawing their quarterly allotment of 20 hours of unpaid time off. When the policy ended on May 1st, workers say their facilities became far more crowded.
“Before we had the unlimited UPT [unpaid time off] so if people didn’t feel safe, they didn’t have to come to work,” said a worker at IND8. “When that went away, we went from having one hundred twenty five people back to four to five hundred people per shift. It’s really crowded.”
That worker and others are concerned the end of the time-off policy is pushing people who feel sick to come to work. Amazon offers paid leave for people diagnosed with COVID-19, and partial pay for people with fevers but no test results, but no general sick leave. This week, workers at IND8 were sent home early when a worker on the floor received a positive COVID-19 test result.
The facility was cleaned, but the next shift came in as usual. For the IND8 workers, the risk feels particularly unwarranted, because they process returned merchandise rather than sending out goods to homebound customers. “We’re not essential,” said a worker. “Everyone’s like, why are we not shut down?”
That worker has received six notifications about positive cases at the facility, but it’s unclear how many people those alerts represent. Trying to get a sense of the risk, she wrote on the Voice of the Associate board, a bulletin for workers to request changes and ask questions, exactly how many cases there have been at the warehouse. She has received no response.