US senators demand Amazon answer questions about warehouse worker safety

A group of four US senators, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking him to respond to questions about how the company is keeping its warehouse workers safe amid the ongoing spread of the novel coronavirus. The senators sent the letter two days after the first US-based Amazon warehouse worker tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

The group of senators is led by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and includes Sanders and Sherrod Brown (D-OH). “Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” the group said in the letter. The senators are also asking Amazon to provide paid sick leave and time-and-a-half hazard pay, among other financial and health protections. 

“The virus that causes COVID-19 can live for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel,” the letter says. “That means that Americans who are taking every precaution, staying home and practicing social distancing, might risk getting infected with COVID-19 because of Amazon’s decision to prioritize efficiency and profits over the safety and well-being of its workforce.”

The letter also discussed reports of troubling conditions at Amazon warehouses, such as how Amazon warehouse managers have held regular stand-up meetings with staff, which likely put employees closer than the CDC-recommended six feet of distance away from one another, and a lack of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers that recently spoke to The Verge described similar conditions.

The senators are asking Bezos to reply to the following questions by March 26th:

  • What preventative steps is Amazon taking to ensure its employees do not contract COVID-19?
  • Will Amazon agree to cover the cost of testing for COVID-19 for its employees?
  • Will Amazon suspend rate-based write-ups until the threat of COVID-19 is mitigated?
  • Will Amazon provide paid sick leave to its employees regardless of diagnosis?
  • Will Amazon provide its workers time and a half hazard pay during this period of heightened risk?
  • Will Amazon pledge to immediately shut down any facility on a temporary basis in which a worker tests positive for coronavirus and offer two weeks of paid sick leave to employees at that facility as they self-isolate? 

“These accusations are simply unfounded,” said Amazon in a statement provided to The Verge. “Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis. Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it is not easy as supplies are limited, but we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable. We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances.”

To help support employees, Amazon said it has increased cleaning at its worksites, ended stand-up meetings during shifts, and staggered start and break times. The company said on March 11th that it would give up to two weeks of paid sick leave to all employees diagnosed with COVID-19. The company will also raise its minimum wage by $2 per hour through April, the company announced earlier this week.

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