Amazon’s Coronavirus Problem Is Worse Than It Let On

Photo: Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For months, Amazon has said that its warehouses are safe, or at least no more infection-prone than the rest of the nation. “We see COVID cases popping up at roughly a rate generally just under what the actual community infection rates are,” Dave Clark, a senior vice-president, said on 60 Minutes in May. And for just as long, Amazon’s workers have disputed the company’s public claims. Conditions inside the warehouses, they said, are much worse than the company has admitted in public. And they’ve staged protests and walkouts in warehouses nationwide over what they describe as an uneven and inadequate corporate response to the coronavirus. There’s now hard evidence that in at least one case, the workers were right. Amazon wasn’t telling the truth.

According to a leaked memo first reported by Bloomberg, infection rates in a Minneapolis-area warehouse far outpaced those in the surrounding community, and Amazon knew it. Though the company has refused to release tallies of workers sickened or killed by the virus, it’s tracked infections in its warehouses for months. At the same time, workers who complained about Amazon’s lack of transparency or handling of the crisis encountered a formidable retaliation campaign. Some, like Staten Island protest leader Chris Smalls, have even lost their jobs.

But by the middle of May, Bloomberg continues, Amazon “was aware of 45 COVID-19 cases at its MSP1 facility in Shakopee, Minnesota, enough for an infection rate of 1.7 percent, according to the memo. That was higher than the rural county that surrounds the warehouse, and roughly four times higher than any county in the nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.” It remains difficult to tell if sick Amazon workers got exposed to the virus at work. The existence of a case cluster suggests that some worker-to-worker transmission may have occurred at the Shakopee facility, though Amazon disputed this in a statement to Bloomberg.

Amazon also kept “granular” details on sick employees, Bloomberg reports. At the Shakopee facility, Amazon monitored employee density in common spaces and tracked the living conditions of sick employees, all in an attempt to figure out where they’d become ill. From a certain angle, Amazon’s efforts look responsible: It’s the sort of extensive tracking operation that could, in theory, help the corporation reduce infection risks in its warehouses.

But workers themselves have said that the risks they face are pronounced, and that the company hasn’t been transparent with them about the spread of infection in its warehouses. The Shakopee facility has been a particular site of unrest. In April, workers walked off a nighttime shift to protest the firing of a woman who had stayed home for fear of getting the virus. Though the worker, Faiza Osman, was later reinstated, her co-workers told Intelligencer they had other reasons to protest, too. They’d just worked a shift with someone who’d fallen ill, and several watched a manager disinfect an area of the warehouse before they were eventually told there were three new positive cases at the facility. “One thing led to another, kind of like how a spark starts the whole forest fire,” one worker, Hafsa Hassan, explained at the time.

Amazon has taken steps to polish its reputation in recent weeks. In public, the corporation supported Black Lives Matter protests. Last week, it announced that it would rename Seattle’s Key Arena, and dub it the Climate Pledge Arena. The arena “will be the world’s first net zero carbon-certified” facility of its kind, the Verge reported; hockey stars will skate on a surface of frozen reclaimed rainwater. But window dressing can only hide so much. Amazon’s efficiency has a cost, both to its workers and in a tangential sense to consumers as well. Infection spreads. The environmental consequences of Amazon’s operations will affect everyone, too. And while the company’s retaliation efforts will silence many workers, the discrepancy between its public image and its practices may become more and more difficult to obscure.

Amazon Misled the Public About Its Coronavirus Problem