Amazon reopened a warehouse in Queens, New York, on Thursday, a day after closing it in response to one of its employees there testing positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus. How the company is responding to the situation is one of the first indications of how it will deal with potential future outbreaks in its facilities during a pandemic in which many Americans are relying on the online retail giant to deliver essential goods.
The spokesperson told Recode on Wednesday that Amazon is “supporting the individual who is now in quarantine,” and that the company has been practicing “enhanced daily deep cleaning” at its facilities. After learning of this worker’s positive test, Amazon on Wednesday “temporarily closed the Queens delivery station for additional sanitation and sent associates home with full pay.”
But by Thursday afternoon, the facility was back open, stoking outrage from at least one local workers group.
“Amazon is reopening our facility one day after a worker was rushed to the ER with COVID-19,” a group called Amazonians United New York City said on Twitter on Thursday. “This facility is compromising our health and the health of the whole city. Please help us call on Amazon to close the facility with pay for two weeks to ensure our safety.”
Amazon is reopening our facility one day after a worker was rushed to the ER with COVID-19. This facility is compromising our health and the health of the whole city. Please help us call on Amazon to close the facility with pay for two weeks to ensure our safety.— Amazonians United New York City (@NYCAmazonians) March 19, 2020
An Amazon spokesperson did not immediately respond on Thursday to a request for comment on the group’s claims.
It’s still unclear if the coronavirus can spread via packages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that based on previous coronaviruses, “there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures.” But the National Institutes of Health said on Tuesday that scientists have found that the new coronavirus was detectable for “up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.”
The Amazon facility, located in the Queens borough of New York City, is an 80,000-square-foot “delivery station,” which is one of the company’s smaller warehouse types. These warehouses typically employ 100 to 200 workers who sort packages into delivery routes that delivery people then pick up to bring to customers’ doors.
With thousands of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the US so far, and hundreds of thousands globally, it seems unlikely this will be the last confirmed case among Amazon’s warehouse workforce, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands in the US alone. Already, at least five Amazon warehouse workers in Europe have tested positive for the coronavirus, but the company has declined to permanently close any of those centers, Bloomberg reported.
Amazon faces tough decisions. On one hand, it has become a crucial lifeline during a global health crisis in which millions of people are choosing, or being required, to stay home to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus. And its warehouse workers are the people who make the retail engine work. Earlier this week, the company said in separate announcements that it was hiring 100,000 new warehouse and delivery workers to keep up with demand, and that it was banning its warehouses from stocking nonessential goods for the next three weeks as it looks to restock important products that have gone out of stock and to speed up delivery times.
At the same time, unions and activist groups in Europe and the US are criticizing the company for potentially putting the company’s lowest-paid and most vulnerable workers at risk by continuing to operate facilities where employees who’ve tested positive have worked. Some workers have also spoken out about the risks they feel they are shouldering while continuing to work in Amazon warehouses during the pandemic.
“Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with local authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates, and we’re following all guidelines from local officials about the operations of our buildings,” the Amazon spokesperson said. “We have implemented proactive measures to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance, and adding distance between drivers and customers when making deliveries.”
The company announced last week that “all Amazon employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two weeks of pay.” It is also allowing all hourly employees to take unlimited unpaid time off through the end of March.
Amazon might continue to operate with more of these temporary closures if only one or two workers in a facility contract the virus. But it seems plausible that the company could face larger outbreaks among its workforce, which could cause ripple effects that impact the availability of goods to people across the US and beyond.