After missed warnings, haphazard quarantines, and a fired protest organizer, Amazon is finally instituting new safety measures
Early Tuesday, March 24th, Barbara Chandler drove from her home in Queens to the Staten Island Amazon warehouse where she’d worked for three years. The streets were emptier than usual. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had ordered all nonessential businesses to close two days before, and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state had just passed 20,000. But the warehouse, called JFK8, was busier than ever, deluged with orders from a locked-down populace.
Chandler’s co-workers at JFK8 had been getting sick for weeks but none, as far as she knew, with COVID-19. Still, it was unnerving. The day before, she sent home one of her team members after they vomited at their station, visited the in-house medical facility, Amcare, and attempted to continue working. A week earlier, she sent several sick co-workers to Amcare, including one who said her fiancé had COVID-19 and whom Chandler never saw again.
Chandler, 40, had begun to feel unwell over the weekend, but she’d checked her temperature and wasn’t feverish. Just in case, she’d gone to get a coronavirus test after work the day before. She felt she needed to keep working as she waited for the result. Amazon would give her two weeks of paid leave if she tested positive for COVID-19. But if she was sick with something else, she’d have to take time off without pay. She had three children to support, and she was already starting to feel better.
A week later, JFK8 would become the first of several Amazon facilities to have workers walk out in protest, calling for the warehouse to be closed and cleaned after workers tested positive for COVID-19. Amazon’s subsequent firing of the organizer intensified the national spotlight and elicited condemnation from unions, promises of a state investigation, and letters from lawmakers. As the largest Amazon facility in the most severe COVID-19 hotspot in the US, the clash at JFK8 serves as a preview of tensions rising throughout Amazon’s fulfillment network. On one side, there’s a company that sees itself as providing a vital service to millions of homebound Americans and is determined to maintain operations amid the crisis. On the other, there are workers who feel increasingly unsafe at their jobs and, as Amazon struggles to staff its warehouses to meet unprecedented demand, newly empowered to push for changes.
Amazon has already made a number of policy changes in response to the pandemic, many of them long-desired by workers. In mid-March, it announced that employees could take unlimited time off without pay (previously, they would be fired for more than taking a certain amount), and they would receive up to two weeks of paid leave if they tested positive for COVID-19 or were placed in quarantine. Later, the company raised pay by $2 per hour, doubled overtime pay, and gave part-time workers paid time off. As the virus spread, Amazon moved warehouse break room tables apart, staggered shifts, canceled stand-up meetings, and made other adjustments to enable greater distance between workers.
But interviews with 12 JFK8 employees, as well as workers at other warehouses, show the implementation of safety precautions has been uneven. Often, changes are made only after workers exert pressure. Following criticism, Amazon has begun alerting workers when someone at their facility tests positive for COVID-19, but documents obtained by The Verge show notifications still lag by days. While Amazon is giving workers placed in quarantine two weeks of paid leave, some workers who came into contact with diagnosed individuals aren’t being notified. Though Amazon says it fired the JFK8 organizer for violating quarantine, other workers with greater exposure were never contacted.
After the JFK8 walkout, Amazon began checking temperatures at the warehouse entrance, enforcing social distancing rules, and piloting fog disinfectant. But workers had been sounding alarms for weeks, and they now fear it’s too late to prevent a major outbreak.
Amazon declined to say how many workers at how many facilities had tested positive for COVID-19, but Jana Jumpp, a worker in an Indiana warehouse, has been collecting alerts sent to workers and counted 314 workers at 111 facilities who have been diagnosed with the virus. JFK8 appears to be a hotspot. At least 14 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed, according to alerts viewed by The Verge. Workers believe the true number is closer to 30.
March 24th would prove to be a turning point at JFK8. Chandler began work as usual, but two hours into her shift, another assistant manager, Christian Smalls, came over and told her she looked sick — exhausted, with bloodshot eyes — and said she should go home. Other colleagues had noticed her appearance as well, but they attributed it to overwork. Smalls, however, had been anxious about the spreading virus for weeks and was on high alert.
Smalls, 31 years old and father of three, had worked at JFK8 since it opened in 2018 and Amazon warehouses in New Jersey and Connecticut before that. It’s a good job, he says, with good benefits, and he hadn’t had any complaints. But in early March, he became concerned about what would happen when the virus reached the warehouse with its 5,000 employees. After some managers flew back from Seattle, at the time the largest hotspot in the US, and one took sick leave, Smalls was alarmed enough to stay away, using his vacation time and eventually tapping his 401k. But now he’d returned, and he’d been pushing management to close the building for cleaning and institute other safety measures. The week before, Smalls and other workers worried about the rising cases of illness at the facility repeatedly went to the manager’s office and said the building should be shut down and cleaned.
Instead, Amazon made incremental changes and encouraged workers to maintain social distancing, even if their jobs often made that impossible. (A video of the break room from March 19th shows a crowded cafeteria with workers eating and walking within three feet of each other.) “They would say, ‘we don’t have any confirmed cases, we’re following the CDC guidelines,’” Smalls says. “They kept giving me that excuse, and I said, ‘yeah, but people are getting sick around me.’”
“People were just looking sick, and on top of that, we’re hearing about the pandemic on TV, it’s almost like the pandemic didn’t exist inside the warehouse,” says Derrick Palmer, a co-worker who also expressed concerns to management. “There was no social distancing going on, there was nothing.”
After Smalls sent Chandler home, he attended a supervisors’ meeting where he learned that a worker had tested positive for the virus, someone who’d last been in the building on March 11th. Again, he called for the building to be shut down, and again, he was met with resistance. More alarming for Smalls, managers refused to notify all JFK8 workers that someone had tested positive, opting instead to walk the floor and inform select people. The result was that most workers learned of the case when someone posted the news to Facebook later that day or when Vice reported the infection that night. Frustrated, Smalls left the building and went home.
“That was the last time Amazon got my services,” Smalls says. “After that, I came back to the building every single day at seven o’clock in the morning to raise concerns, and I sat in that building for eight hours a day, trying to spread the word, to tell the truth to the people. Since management wanted to keep it a secret, I felt like it was my obligation. I couldn’t just sit at home and watch people get sick.”
The next morning, Smalls returned to JFK8 and went straight to the break room without clocking in. New York had confirmed more than 30,000 coronavirus cases that morning, but in the facility, little had changed. (A video taken the next day, on March 26th, shows the tables had been separated and lines taped on the floor, but workers were still in close proximity.) On the warehouse floor, Smalls and other workers say, employees often worked shoulder to shoulder and shared equipment. For several hours, Smalls told co-workers about the COVID-19 case and gathered a group to visit the general manager’s office, interrupting the morning meeting.
Video of the visit shows a tense exchange, with workers and managers shouting over each other.
“You can pass it on to your grandmother, to your kids, what’s the point? For some money?” one worker said. Another demanded to know how many cases there’d been at the facility. “Time is of the essence right now,” one more worker added.
“We don’t make that decision at the site level whether we close or not,” a manager said. “We are also following the directions of the CDC. We’re done with this conversation.”
For the rest of the week, Smalls and other workers went back to the manager’s office each morning, and despite the fraught exchange Wednesday, he says JFK8 leadership was generally supportive, telling him when would be a good time for workers to come to express their concerns and thanking him for keeping people calm. But in each instance, leadership would promise to take their concerns up the chain to regional management, and nothing would happen.
Meanwhile, Chandler was at home awaiting her test results. On Thursday morning, she called the urgent care facility and got them: she had the virus. She texted her diagnosis to three supervisors who asked her how she was feeling and said they would escalate her case to human resources and global security. Later, Chandler got a call from HR. “HR just told me that I should keep it quiet,” Chandler says. “That’s all they told me.”
Four days would pass before workers received an alert about the second case at JFK8, but another worker heard about Chandler’s diagnosis and posted it on Facebook. Besieged with questions, Chandler posted the news herself and texted Smalls, who took the news to the manager’s office and said the dozens of workers Chandler had come in contact with should be quarantined. “They were like, ‘Oh no, we will notify you through the phone or through email,’” Smalls recalls.
Two days later, on Saturday, Smalls was sitting in the break room talking to workers about the virus when a senior manager took him aside and told him that last Tuesday, he had been in contact with someone who tested positive. They said Smalls should be quarantined and must leave the building, according to Smalls and two other workers present.
An Amazon spokesperson says that the company does not tell workers who they came in contact with out of respect for worker privacy and that it was first made aware that the employee Smalls had contact with tested positive on March 27th. The spokesperson said Amazon began notifying workers immediately and told Smalls verbally on the 28th that he should leave the building and go into quarantine. But because the supervisor told Smalls he had been exposed on Tuesday, the 24th — when Chandler, the second known case at the facility, was last in the building — Smalls, Chandler, and other workers surmised that the exposure in question was the moment Smalls sent Chandler home.
Chandler and Smalls both say this exchange was brief, about five minutes, and from six feet away. Chandler says she had closer contact with approximately 40 people that day and the preceding day. Yet as far as she knows, none have been quarantined. Palmer, who worked with Chandler, was not put in quarantine and doesn’t know anyone on their team who was. “You’re going to tell me that none of these 40 associates had contact with her? That’s impossible,” he says. (Amazon declined to say how many other workers were placed in quarantine in addition to Smalls.)
One worker who was in close contact with Chandler for prolonged periods on the 24th was never placed in quarantine. The worker, who asked to remain anonymous, didn’t learn Chandler had tested positive until the Friday after Chandler got her results when she checked Facebook. Upon seeing Chandler’s post, she contacted her supervisor asking whether she should quarantine and was told HR would be calling people shortly, according to screenshots viewed by The Verge. She never received a call. On Saturday, she messaged her supervisor again and was told someone would talk to workers during her shift the next day. But on Sunday, when the worker returned to JFK8, the supervisor on duty seemed not to know about the incident and later told her that the safety team had analyzed video and quarantined anyone who had had close contact with Chandler for more than 15 minutes.
“Chris only got quarantined because he started barking,” the worker said. “I had more contact with Barbara, Chris had about five minutes with her, I had almost a whole morning. And they told me absolutely nothing until I spoke to [a supervisor] and said, ‘are we going to mention this? What’s going on?’”
“It was retaliation,” Smalls says. “It was an attempt to silence me.”
After being ejected from the building, Smalls decided to organize the walkout. He contacted other workers he’d spoken to in the break room and formed an Instagram group chat. They posted on Facebook and printed out flyers, which workers left in restrooms at JFK8 the next day. “We had 24 hours to do it,” Smalls says. “I ran to CVS. I spent $100 on signs and posters. I was on go. I didn’t sleep that night.”
On Monday morning, workers at JFK8 received a text alert: a new COVID-19 case at the facility had been confirmed, last in the building on March 24th. This, Chandler says, was her. Four days had elapsed since she told supervisors she tested positive.
Around noon, workers walked out. Organizers say 60 employees protested, while Amazon put the number at 15. Many wore homemade masks or bandanas over their faces and carried signs calling for the building to be shut down and cleaned. Smalls returned to the facility for the first time since his expulsion and stood with protesters in the parking lot, addressing reporters.
When he got home, Smalls received a call from the same supervisor who placed him in quarantine, saying he had violated the directive by returning to JFK8 and was fired. In a statement, Amazon later said it did not fire Smalls for organizing the protest, but for “putting the health and safety of others at risk” by coming back to the facility after being placed in quarantine.
The firing brought Smalls a far larger audience than the walkout ever would have. Unions and elected officials issued statements calling for his reinstatement. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the city’s Commission on Human Rights to investigate his firing. Smalls gave interview after interview and appeared on MSNBC the next night. Minutes after the segment ended, JFK8 workers received an alert: three new cases at the facility.
Throughout the furor, Amazon struck a righteous tone, claiming that Smalls was the real threat to worker safety, and his firing shows how seriously the company is taking the virus. “I’m confused. Thought you wanted us to protect our workers?” Amazon public relations head Jay Carney tweeted at Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday. “Mr. Smalls purposely violated social distancing rules, repeatedly, & was put on Paid 14-day quarantine for COVID exposure. 3/30 he returned to the site. Knowingly putting our team at risk is unacceptable.”
This turned out to be a strategy developed at the highest levels of the company. Vice later obtained notes from a meeting attended by Jeff Bezos in which Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky called Smalls “not smart or articulate” and discussed plans to make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” (Workers began a unionization effort at JFK8 shortly after it opened, though Smalls says he was not involved.) “We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,” Zapolsky wrote.
After the memo leaked, Smalls gave yet another round of interviews. “They’ve been trying to silence me from the beginning,” Smalls says. “All I was doing was trying to help people in my building, but somehow my life changed in 24 hours, so I’m still trying to cope with this.” He’s been barraged with messages from Amazon workers around the world. “I got the weight of the world on my shoulders as far as the retail industry goes. I’ve got every person at Amazon from all over the world calling and texting me. They’re supportive, and it makes me feel good to know that I’m giving them a voice, but at the same time we need to take action. Everybody’s reaching out to me, I’m like, yeah, you know what you do, you walk the hell out of your buildings.”
But Smalls’ firing also had a dampening effect on worker activism. Multiple workers at JFK8 and other Amazon facilities say they share his concerns and would support a walkout, but that after his firing, they are afraid to risk their jobs. Worried about their health but reluctant to protest, they decided to stay home without pay and hope the pandemic receded soon. When workers at JFK8 walked out a second time this Monday, only 10 or so protested. Others posted messages of support online from the safety of their homes.
Since the first walkout, workers at JFK8 have received near daily alerts about new coronavirus cases. The alerts don’t specify a number, saying only that “multiple” or “additional” new cases have been confirmed. Amazon declined to give a total. Assuming each alert represents only two cases, there have been at least 14, and workers estimate there to be twice as many.
Amazon has been publicly dismissive of worker actions at JFK8 and elsewhere, calling their claims “simply unfounded” and saying it has taken “extreme measures” to ensure employee safety. But in the aftermath of the protests, the company has instituted new safety precautions at a rapid clip. Days after the walkout at JFK8 and similar protests in Chicago and Detroit, Amazon announced it would install temperature readers at its warehouses and anyone with a fever over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit would be sent home. Workers greeted it as a positive step, though it wouldn’t have caught someone like Chandler who never ran a fever. After criticism for sending feverish but undiagnosed workers home without pay, Amazon started offering partial pay. At JFK8 and elsewhere, workers now get masks at the beginning of their shift. The company also told workers it would institute “mandatory social distancing,” potentially firing workers who “intentionally violate” the guidelines. (A worker who received a writeup at JFK8 said her job still required being in close proximity and worried she’d be fired for unavoidable violations.) This week, Amazon began piloting “disinfectant fogging” at JFK8 and announced plans to begin producing its own diagnostic tests for workers.
In a statement, Amazon said it has been implementing new safety measures over the past several weeks and will continue to do so. “The health and safety of our employees is our top priority,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and local health authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and teams.”
“Were they slow? Yeah, definitely,” says Palmer. “The only reason they’re doing this stuff is because we blasted them in the media.”
But workers fear the measures arrived too late to avert a major outbreak, and five of the 12 workers The Verge spoke with had decided to stay home without pay, either out of fear of infecting vulnerable family members or concerns for their own safety. “I need the paycheck, I have bills to pay,” said one worker. But she has asthma and lives with her grandmother, and one day in the break room became overwhelmed with anxiety and never came back. Another worker grew alarmed by the repeated alerts about new cases and stopped coming in. “I can’t afford not to be there, but by the same token, I can’t afford to get the virus,” she said.
Chandler is still recovering and has developed a cough. She hopes she can return to work soon. She’s exhausted her two weeks of coronavirus leave and is now getting only 60 percent of her pay. (Amazon says employees who exhaust their COVID-19 sick leave are eligible for short-term disability, which pays 60 percent of their salary.)
She believes she got the virus at the warehouse. She only goes outside to drive to work and back, and she’s in such frequent contact with her co-workers. Chandler wishes Amazon had acted sooner and thinks it’s now too late to safely operate the warehouse without shutting it down and testing everyone before reopening. “They should have notified everyone with the first case,” she says. “And they should have closed the building for deep cleaning.”