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  • The Narrative Project

On the Front Lines with Newly Essential Workers

By Mercy A. Quaye

April 26, 2020

The opening of Amazon's North Haven fulfillment center on June 20, 2019.
Photo courtesy of CTInsider

Right now, I have a nail polish kit, a hammock, and some Levi overalls in my Amazon cart waiting for me to check out. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly seven weeks ago, I’ve been limiting my shopping for nonessential items — unless those items can be shipped with Prime.

My decision to buy triggers a domino effect of “essential” workers being called to get my item to me through inclement weather, poor travel conditions and right now through the risk of contracting COVID. So is it worth it?

For weeks, there have been nationwide protests put on by Amazon workers who feel the retailer should close down or discontinue the purchasing of nonessential items. And let’s face it, Amazon has never been accused of being a model employer, so televised demands from its staff spouting off countless abuses in facilities across the country may not surprise or impress Connecticut residents. But how might we feel if those issues were in our backyard?

I spoke with an Amazon Inbound Stow Associate, working in the North Haven facility last week. He opted to stay anonymous due to fear of losing his job or being formally reprimanded. To protect his identity I’ll call him John.

John will be the first to say Amazon’s not all bad. Moreover, he’s happy to have a job right now. But he also will not absolve the powerhouse retailer for its role in potentially causing countless employees to contract COVID-19, even if it’s since worked to clean up its act.

“Judging by the parking lot, (the number of people out is) huge,” he said. “Usually, it’s almost completely full. If I came into work today, it’s probably only at 35 percent full for the whole facility.”

That number may be due to a combination of departments working from home and people out sick. For John, though, the nearly vacant lot is just one sign of how badly the facility has been affected by this pandemic.

“When it first started, it was chaos; the numbers were climbing for the confirmed cases for our facility and we were wondering why we weren’t being closed for deep cleaning,” he said.

He and his coworkers have been waiting to get a call about deep cleaning or other precautions being taken to ensure their safety. But instead, for weeks employees have been getting near-daily robocalls alerting them to the rising number of confirmed cases in the facility.

“Every day we would get a call saying more and more people were infected. More and more people stopped coming to work,” he said. Now, the facility is screening its employees for fevers upon entry and if you test above 100.4 degrees, you won’t be allowed in, he said.

Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty offered this official statement:

“The health and safety of our employees is our top priority. Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and local health authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and teams. We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on cleaning and sanitation, procuring safety supplies such as masks for employees, implementing temperature checks at our facilities, and ensuring all employees are adhering to safe distances in our buildings. ... Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are evaluating and making changes in real-time and encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits and speed in which we’re managing this crisis to other retailers and major employers across the country.”

John’s role is to manage inbound inventory, a job he said nearly 300 people have. The staff works in close quarters and shares tools and machines throughout their 12-hour shifts. John said he didn’t see substantial action from the company until sometime after the World Health Organization deemed the coronavirus a global pandemic.

“Amazon was kind of behind what the general public was doing,” he said.

So for weeks, John said employees would come to work with or without masks, at their discretion. As normal operations would have it, employees wore work gloves during their shifts, but John said those measures alone aren’t enough.

“We’re required to wear them at all times anyway, although they’re not protective gloves. If you have an [itch] and you take your glove off [to scratch it], your hands are still dirty.”

Through all this, John’s not complaining about being employed. He said without work he wouldn’t be able to pay his rent or student loans. So being considered essential was ideal for his situation. But he could do without the long hours, the chaos and the uncertainty.

“It is very hit or miss,” he said. “The long hours over time takes a toll on your body for the most part. As for the leadership, I think it’s fine; they work like any other company.”

According to John, when they started social distancing efforts mid to late March, the most apparent changes were in the break rooms where some tables were removed and the remaining ones were spread out. He said they also removed microwaves and marked a 6-foot distance with tape on the ground.

With a dwindling workforce, John said Amazon has incentivized attendance as much as possible. Employees have been given a raise, increased overtime pay from time and a half to double, and two weeks paid sick leave for anyone who reports symptoms. Amazon also is hiring to fill vacant positions.

“But it wasn’t always good,” he said. “It just got to the point where they had to get their heads on. We heard that Wallingford was closed [for cleaning], New Jersey, JFK. All these facilities were getting closed around us and we were wondering why we weren’t being closed.”

To clarify, John said the warehouse conditions are nearly always in need of cleaning.

“When it comes to COVID, though, the cleanliness of the building is of the utmost concern because of the fact that we never got shut down for a deep cleaning,” he said. “It’s a warehouse so we understand it’s not a restaurant, but when it comes to the tools everyone’s using there really isn’t a proper cleaning.”

Asked about whether I should buy the items in my cart, though, John told me: “In these times, whatever people want to buy, they should be able to buy. Just because you’re not able to go outside doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice self-care.”

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