Amazon’s Unlimited Unpaid Time Off Ends May 1, and Workers Say That Could Be Deadly

Hamilton Nolan April 27, 2020

A woman works at a packing station at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, on February 5, 2019. (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Ama­zon ware­house work­ers across the coun­try today decried the company’s deci­sion to end a pol­i­cy of unlim­it­ed unpaid time off, and said that work­ing con­di­tions inside Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ters are putting their lives at risk.

Employ­ees from New Jer­sey, Min­neso­ta, Michi­gan and New York, work­ing with Athena Coali­tion, said on a call today that a pol­i­cy change announced late last week — which will replace the unlim­it­ed paid time off offered to work­ers as a response to the coro­n­avirus cri­sis with a more restric­tive pol­i­cy at the end of this month — is out­ra­geous” in light of the very real lev­el of dan­ger that still per­sists for those forced to work in close quar­ters. Peo­ple have to choose, do I stay home and risk los­ing my job, or go to work and risk get­ting sick?” said Haf­sa Has­san, who walked out of work yes­ter­day in protest, along with about 50 col­leagues at the Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter in Shakopee, Minnesota.

Amazon’s announce­ment that it will roll back unlim­it­ed unpaid time off at the end of April means that employ­ees will soon be required to apply to be grant­ed leaves of absence if they must be away from work for health rea­sons, or to take care of chil­dren who are out of school, or to pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble fam­i­ly mem­bers. But employ­ees say that sys­tem is con­fus­ing and bro­ken, even for those who should qual­i­fy. Rachel Belz, an Ama­zon ware­house work­er in New Jer­sey who also works with the activist group Unit­ed for Respect, has not been at work since mid-March because of fears of infect­ing her fam­i­ly, espe­cial­ly her son. Her attempts to apply for a leave of absence, though, have result­ed in mul­ti­ple dropped calls, unan­swered emails, and no response from the com­pa­ny. H.R. is over­loaded. You can open a case, and they won’t get back to you,” she said. If you’re expect­ing peo­ple at a high vol­ume to apply to these things, you need to work out the kinks in the system.”

Belz, who is in con­tact dai­ly with oth­er work­ers at the facil­i­ty, said that the company’s attempts to keep the ware­house free of coro­n­avirus are inad­e­quate. Among the prob­lems, she said: No soap in the bath­rooms, clean­ing sup­plies that are kept locked in cages that can only be opened by man­agers, and tem­per­a­ture screen­ings for work­ers that are being con­duct­ed using only a ther­mal cam­era — and work­ers who appear too warm are encour­aged to go out­side for a few min­utes, cool down, and try again.

Ama­zon spokesper­son Rachel Lighty said that we are pro­vid­ing flex­i­bil­i­ty with leave of absence options, includ­ing expand­ing the pol­i­cy to cov­er COVID-19 cir­cum­stances, such as high-risk indi­vid­u­als or school clo­sures.” She also called Ama­zon employ­ees heroes fight­ing for their com­mu­ni­ties and help­ing peo­ple get crit­i­cal items they need in this cri­sis.” The com­pa­ny had its first con­firmed Covid death two weeks ago, when an oper­a­tions man­ag­er at a Cal­i­for­nia Ama­zon ware­house died.

Mul­ti­ple work­ers said that their facil­i­ties lacked clean­ing sup­plies, and that hand san­i­tiz­er and clean­ing wipes are being kept in one loca­tion away from work sta­tions, mak­ing it impos­si­ble to reg­u­lar­ly san­i­tize your indi­vid­ual work area through­out a shift. They said that Amazon’s cur­rent hir­ing boom is mak­ing break rooms and com­mon areas even more crowd­ed, mak­ing prop­er social dis­tanc­ing impos­si­ble. They expressed doubt that the sin­gle mask being issued per per­son per shift is enough to keep them safe. And they described the unnerv­ing expe­ri­ence of see­ing ful­ly pro­tect­ed clean­ing crews descend on their job sites after a cowork­er report­ed test­ing pos­i­tive for Covid.

Jor­dan Flow­ers, who works at the Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter on Stat­en Island that has been the tar­get of protests and walk­outs in recent weeks, said that he knows cowork­ers who are now choos­ing to sleep in their cars, rather than going home and risk­ing get­ting their fam­i­lies sick. It’s fright­en­ing,” he said. Bil­lie Jo Ramey, an Ama­zon work­er in Michi­gan who has been tak­ing unpaid leave since March after get­ting ill with Covid-like symp­toms, fears what the pol­i­cy change will mean for her, and for those around her. I’m in no shape to go back. I’m at high risk,” she said.

Sev­er­al work­ers not­ed the wealth of Ama­zon own­er Jeff Bezos — who’s got­ten tens of bil­lions of dol­lars rich­er since the begin­ning of this cri­sis, thanks to Amazon’s boom­ing stock price — and con­trast­ed his resources with the lack of resources they feel they’re being giv­en on the job. That’s not just ter­ri­fy­ing,” said Rachel Belz, it’s pathet­ic that we can’t trust a tril­lion-dol­lar com­pa­ny to do the most basic thing, which is to clean.”

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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