Coronavirus fears spur Amazon workers in New York to walk off job until building is cleaned

Charisse Jones, USA TODAY

Amazon employees at a New York City warehouse are planning to walk off the job Monday, as a growing number of delivery and warehouse workers demand better pay and protections in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Employees at the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island will strike until the building is sanitized in the wake of several workers testing positive for the coronavirus, says Chris Smalls, a manager assistant who is coordinating the walkout.   

"We're not returning to work until they close the building down,'' says Smalls, adding that roughly 5,000 workers work at the building during the course of a week. "They know at lunch time, when they clock out, do not return.''

The warehouse walk out is not the only one planned for Monday. More than 150,000 drivers and shoppers for the online grocery service Instacart are planning a national strike they say will continue until the company offers an additional $5 per order in hazard pay, the provision of supplies like cleansing wipes, and expanded pay for those affected by the coronavirus.

Deliveries are up, and so are workers concerns 

The demand for delivery has escalated amid a pandemic that has shuttered stores and led to tens of millions of Americans hunkering down at home. But it's also focused a spotlight on the conditions faced by workers who are filling orders, sorting boxes and dropping off packages virtually around the clock.

Amazon acknowledged in an earlier statement that a worker at the Staten Island warehouse was diagnosed with the virus and that it is "supporting the individual who is recovering." 

But Smalls says that at least five workers at the warehouse have tested positive for COVID-19. He adds that in recent days, he withdrew money from his 401(k) retirement fund to make ends meet because he'd taken off from work because of his concerns about the cleanliness of the facility.

"If you don't come in because you choose to be safe with your family, they're not paying us,'' said Smalls, adding that in addition to wanting the center cleaned and closed, the employees want to be paid for the time they are unable to report to work.

Amazon said in a statement that Smalls is now being paid for two weeks as he self-quarantines after he was notified that he may have had close contact with a co-worker who'd been infected.

"These accusations are simply unfounded,'' the company said. "We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available and changing process to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances.''

There have been reports of other Amazon workers becoming ill at fulfillment and distribution centers across the country, according to Athena, a coalition of groups that represent Amazon workers and others concerned about the company's influence.

But the organization says it believes only employees working at a center in Shepherdsville, Kentucky are receiving full pay while the facility is closed indefinitely.

"Amazon needs to offer workers paid leave, not just if they can prove they have the virus, but if they feel unwell, if they believe they are exposed, or if they are needed at home,'' says Dania Rajendra, Athena's director, who added that more walk outs might occur if workers concerns aren't addressed. "It is perfectly reasonable to expect that people will take actions necessary to keep themselves, their families, their communities, and Amazon customers .... safe."

In a blog post on March 24, Amazon said it was talking with health officials and medical experts to determine how to best deal with its facilities when a worker tests positive for COVID-19.

"Our process evaluates where the employee was in the building, for how long, how much time has passed since they were onsite, and who they interacted with, among other items, in determining whether we need to close,'' the blog said.

The company says if an infected  worker hasn't been at the building for a while, was there only briefly, or the area they were in was already deep cleaned many times during the regular course of business, the facility might remain open. 

Amazon says that the Staten Island warehouse has undergone deep cleaning. But company wide, anyone who has been infected, has been told to go into quarantine or who was in close contact with a colleague diagnosed with the virus will receive up to 14 days of pay while they stay home. It also says anyone who doesn't feel well should not come into work and the absence will not hurt their attendance record.  

On Sunday, Amazon said it is now taking the temperature of workers at the Staten Island warehouse daily. And according to its blog, it is encouraging all of its workers "to log out of their system to wash their hands whenever they choose, which has no impact on their performance." 

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Instacart announces changes on eve of strike

Instacart also announced new safeguards for its employees on the eve of a planned nationwide strike.

The Instacart Shoppers and Gig Workers Collective wrote in a post Friday on the online site Medium that "Instacart has refused to act proactively in the interests of its shoppers, customers, and public health, so we are forced to take matters into our own hands.''

But on Sunday, the grocery delivery company said it would distribute health and safety supplies to its full-service workers. It's also launching a new setting to help shoppers earn higher, more consistent tips. 

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Instacart says it has commissioned a third-party to manufacture hand sanitizer for its employees, and it announced last week that it plans to offer workers a bonus. The company previously rolled out retroactive sick pay for in-store shoppers. 

"We’ve been evaluating the COVID-19 crisis minute-by-minute to provide real-time support for Instacart shoppers and customers throughout North America," the company said in a press release.

Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 concerns lead Amazon workers in Staten Island to plan walkout