NEW YORK, N.Y.—A small group of workers at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse and shipping facility on Staten Island walked off their jobs Mar. 30, demanding that the company shut it down for two weeks and give workers full pay until it can be disinfected.
“The reason I walked out is that there are known cases of corona-19 inside the building and they refuse to sterilize the building,” one woman said in a video filmed by Make the Road New York during a lunch-hour rally in the parking lot. “We are on the front lines too making sure customers get everything.”
“We feel that Amazon should sanitize the building and shut down for two weeks,” said a woman holding a pink “Alexa, Send Us Home” sign. “Two weeks would give people time to see they’re showing any symptoms.”
Workers say that the company has been slow to notify them about employees who tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus, Zachary Lerner, organizing director of New York Communities for Change, told LaborPress. They are also “pretty freaked out” that they are not being provided with masks, gloves, or sanitizers, he added, and the facility’s more than 2,500 workers have been on mandatory overtime for the past two weeks, as consumers turn to online shopping because regular stores are closed.
“All employers need to prioritize the health and safety of their workforce at this time,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has been working to organize Amazon employees into a union, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Amazon appears to be prioritizing maximizing its enormous profits even over its employees’ safety—and that is unacceptable.”
“These accusations are simply unfounded,” an Amazon spokesperson responded. “We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances, and in Staten Island, we are now temperature-checking everyone entering the facility.”
The company says that only one worker at the facility, in an isolated industrial park on Staten Island’s far west side, has been diagnosed with the lung-afflicting virus, and “we are supporting the individual who is recovering.”
It adds that all Amazon employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two weeks of pay, and other hourly employees will get unlimited unpaid time off through the end of March. It says it’s requiring workers to wipe their stations down at the beginning and the end of every shift, encouraging workers to wash their hands more often, paying double time for overtime, and “consulting with health authorities and medical experts on how to handle building closures for deep cleaning, if an employee tests positive for COVID-19.”
“They’re lying,” said a woman named Heaven at the rally. “They told me there was one case in the building, and there’s actually eleven. I don’t feel safe.”
The paid time off for workers who test positive or get a doctor’s note, says Lerner, does not include those who are sick or suspect they might be, but have been unable to get tested or see a doctor because of the shortage of tests, limits on who can get them, and the epidemic’s overload on medical services.
Workers’ demands include closing JFK8 until it can be thoroughly sanitized, with full pay for workers while it is shut; full sick pay for workers are sick or self-quarantined, or taking care of family members who are; retroactive pay for workers who’ve had to take unpaid time off in the past month; covering child-care expenses for employees while schools are closed; and canceling all speed and productivity requirements that mean workers might get penalized for taking “time off task” to wash their hands thoroughly.
Amazon says workers “are invited to log out of their system to wash their hands whenever they choose, which has no impact on their performance.”
However, workers complain that they’re only given a few disinfectant wipes and gloves per shift, says Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, a labor-community coalition active in the campaign against Amazon’s planned office complex in Long Island City last winter.
“They haven’t provided masks or any safety equipment,” a middle-aged man in a dark sweatshirt said at the rally.
“Amazon is a company that traditionally doesn’t care about its workers,” says Silva-Farrell. Given its size, she adds, it has the resources “to show how good a corporation they can be during moments of crisis.”
She believes that will require government action, however. “The governor can easily use state power to shut down the facility until it can be cleaned,” she says.
With “social distancing” measures closing almost all in-person businesses except for food and medicine, Silva-Farrell continues, people are depending on low-wage workers to pack and deliver other goods, and those workers should “be given the value they deserve. This corporation is not doing it.”
“We are walking out on Amazon because they are lying to us, not caring about our health & safety, not caring about any of us,” one man said at the rally. “There’s people sick in the building. They’re not caring about this pandemic, this epidemic, this virus, and it’s affecting us the hardest here in New York, right here in Staten Island.”