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Workers say Amazon lied about COVID-19 cases at Minnesota warehouse

Workers inside the Shakopee, Minnesota Amazon warehouse where 88 workers tested positive for the coronavirus described deep distrust between those who work on the floor with the packages and those in management, driven by opaque, obfuscating practices around disseminating, or withholding, information of how many people in the warehouse are actually sick.

Workers at the Minneapolis-area warehouse told Digital Trends that managers would outright deny that anyone was sick until they were overwhelmed with dozens of cases, and several mentioned they thought the real number of those infected might be higher than the 88 cases first reported by the Star Tribune. Workers said they didn’t hear about the new COVID-19  cases from their superiors at work — they heard about them from the media.

“From the beginning of this, they’ve tried to downplay and hide the extent of it inside the warehouse,” said William Stoltz, 25, who said he has been working in the Shakopee warehouse for three years. “I can see that worker safety is not the overriding concern. Keeping packages shipping is the overriding concern.”

Amazon’s vague and inconsistent messages

Both Stoltz and Tyler Hamilton, 23, also a worker at Amazon’s MSP-1 fulfillment center for the past three years, told Digital Trends that the main way the company had been communicating about the virus was through vague text messages to their employees. The texts would confirm that there had been “cases” of COVID-19 in the warehouse and that the warehouse was being cleaned, but had little other useful information. Copies of the texts shared with Digital Trends showed multiple messages throughout June from Amazon informing workers of “additional confirmed cases” of the disease.

Message from Amazon about COVID at Minneapolis warehouse
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“They were in absolute denial that anything was wrong,” said Hamilton. “I figured maybe we had 30 or 40 cases, but 88! That’s shockingly high.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Habiq Mohamed alleged that management was lying about whether there were COVID-19 cases in the warehouse. “I asked them how many people were sick, and they said, ‘oh, we don’t know.’ Amazon is not taking our health and safety seriously.”

Mohamed, a Somali immigrant to Minnesota, said she had been working at Amazon for just shy of four years, and now she and her colleagues are mad. A deep distrust has grown between the workers and the management, who she alleges is withholding information.

“People have to keep working when they feel sick, and they don’t tell us how many people are sick. They send us these unclear messages; just tell us the rate! Can you please just tell us the truth? We are grown people.”

Hamilton agreed with Mohamed that workers at the warehouse no longer trusted the retail giant or management. “Honestly, it’s management’s fault,” he said. “And a lot of it is corporate’s fault. As long as I’ve been there, it seems like every couple of weeks or months, something happens where they shoot themselves in the foot.”

The misinformation even extended as far as the break rooms, Hamilton said. “They literally had TVs placed in the commons areas of the warehouses that had a recording from the General Manager playing on a loop that was saying ‘there are no cases of COVID here’ and ‘people are fear-mongering,’ and ‘why are they sowing fear at a time like this,’” he said. “And then as soon as they had the first case, they sent out a text, and they took all the TVs down.”

Precautions and punishments

In a series of blog posts over the past months, Amazon has unveiled new safety requirements and benefits for workers. These included requiring masks while working, offering two weeks paid time off for people who get sick with coronavirus, and hiring more workers to deal with increased demand, all in the name of keeping workers safe and delivering essential supplies to customers, the company has said.

When asked for comment about the allegations put forth by employees, Amazon denied them.

“These claims are simply not true,” wrote Amazon spokesperson Timothy Carter in an email to Digital Trends. “We utilize a variety of data to closely monitor the safety of our buildings and there is strong evidence that our employees are not proliferating the virus at work — what we see generally is that the overall rate of infection and increase or decrease of total cases is highly correlated to the overall community rate of infection.”

“Over the months of COVID-19, thousands of employees and partners have worked at our Shakopee site and we believe strongly people are not spreading the virus at work given the robust safety measures we’ve put into place,” Carter added.

Stoltz did say the Shakopee warehouse was doing some things right: Providing masks, taking temperatures at the door, changing around various break areas so that social distancing was possible. But getting that paid time off was proving to be a bureaucratic nightmare, and all that essential supplies that are being shipped? “It’s nothing different than what we usually ship,” Hamilton said.

The Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota
The Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota. Kerem Yucel / AFP via Getty Images

In addition to the new safety precautions that have been established, new punishments for violating safety guidelines have been put in place. Instead of the usual three-strikes-you’re-out system, wherein an employee has three chances to get written up and is then terminated, Amazon has moved to a one-strike-you’re-out if ever someone violates the new six-foot social distancing rule. And keeping your distance, even in these huge warehouses, it turns out, is extremely hard to do.

“They’ve recruited so many new people, there are more people in the warehouse than before [COVID],” said Hamilton. “There’s only so much capacity in the space.”

Mohamed said that for a long time after the disease hit, people were still working shoulder to shoulder in the warehouse. And while they couldn’t recall the exact date, both Hamilton and Stoltz also noted that the warehouse did not start requiring masks until late April at the earliest, at a time when COVID-19 cases were starting to spike in Minnesota.

And then there’s the cleaning. In a statement at the end of March, Amazon said they instituted “enhanced cleaning of our facilities.” Those cleanings are definitely happening, said Mohamed and Hamilton, sometimes even as workers have to stay on the line and continue working apace.

Both described situations where people in full-body hazmat-looking suits would walk the floors spraying chemicals directly where people were still working. “They clean right on top of us,” Mohamed said. “The first time they cleaned, they kicked us out of the warehouse early, and then after that, they decided to keep cleaning while we were working.”

Hamilton said sometimes there are messages to not go to a certain area that’s being cleaned. If people have to walk through those areas, he said, they break out into rashes.

“It seems like there’s been a lack of coordination or lack of communication with disinfecting and cleaning,” said Hamilton. “This has been going on for a while now. There’s a reason they [the cleaners] are in those full suits.”

No option to stop working

Why all the secrecy? “If they told people how bad it is, people would not come into work as much, and they would not reach their staffing goals,” said Hamilton, noting that when the pandemic first started and Amazon started offering paid time off, he saw a lot fewer cars in the parking lot. “That new six-foot rule tells me that this is a lot more serious and dangerous than they’ve been letting on, but they need to keep up with demand.”

The choice now for Amazon workers in Shakopee, as around the world, is whether to go to work and risk getting sick, or stay home and not be paid. “Each worker is put in a position where we’re having to make a risk calculation,” said Stoltz. “Are we willing to go into work if it means catching the virus? But going on leave means no money.” Stoltz noted that it was frustrating that workers had to learn through the media about the warehouse illnesses, rather than from their bosses. He also said he suspected the actual number of sick people was higher than reported.

“I hope they consider that we’re human beings and they’ll treat us better,” said Mohamed. “If we speak up, they target us. They say ‘just shut your mouth and work.’ But we need to step in and do something. We’re worried about people dying.”

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