Defining Safe: Inside an Amazon Warehouse During a Global Pandemic

Alex Chun, Assistant Audio Editor

Washington-based online-shopping service Amazon is facing intense criticism and accusations that it’s not doing enough to protect its workers. One of these workers happens to be Weinberg freshman Joey Ribera. Defining Safe asked him to keep audio logs and document the realities of working in an Amazon warehouse during a global pandemic.

JOEY RIBERA: Hello everyone! My name is Joey Ribera, and today is April 24, 2020, and I am currently at my Amazon warehouse shift in Kent, Washington.

CNBC REPORTER: Amazon says one of its employees has tested positive for coronavirus. The company says the employee worked at its South Lake Union office in Seattle.

CBC REPORTER: Amazon interestingly under fire for the way it’s treating its workers in this pandemic…

CBC REPORTER: …100,000 more workers hired since the pandemic began. We’re seeing day strikes. We’re seeing picket lines…

CNN REPORTER: Their national walkout calls on, Whole Foods and Instacart to offer better protection from coronavirus for its workers.

ALEX CHUN: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun, and this is Defining Safe, a podcast about marginalized communities within the Northwestern community.

Right now across the country, we continue to ask: Are we doing enough to protect some of the most vulnerable from coronavirus? Specifically, how are we protecting those whose jobs have been deemed “essential”? Amazon is among the companies facing accusations that it’s not doing enough to protect its workers, culminating in a nation-wide call for a May Day strike that took place last Friday. As of April 30, 2020, Amazon has hired more than 95,000 new workers. One of these workers happens to be Weinberg freshman Joey Ribera. Joey began working at an Amazon warehouse in Kent, Washington on April 2, 2020. So, Defining Safe asked him to keep audio logs: noting significant events that day, what work was like in the warehouse, and how Amazon was treating its employees.

JOEY RIBERA: So, just to sort of go over today’s shift… it’s going pretty smoothly. There aren’t a lot of packages for me to scan in my lane, and I’ve noticed that in other people’s lanes as well, which is very unusual because when I first started working here, it was package after package and you could never get a break in.

ALEX CHUN: Joey works four 4-hour shifts a week at the Kent, Washington warehouse, scanning packages before they’re sent off for delivery. The warehouse is just under a million square feet, or roughly the size of 17 football stadiums, and it contains over 18 miles of conveyor belts.

That’s what it typically sounds like in the warehouse. There are up to three workers per lane, but Joey tries to get a lane to himself to minimize his contact with others. As of May 6, 2020, Washington has nearly 16,000 confirmed cases and nearly 1,000 confirmed deaths due to coronavirus. And the Amazon warehouse that Joey works at is located in King County, which accounts for nearly half of the state’s total cases. Because of this, it’s extremely important that sanitary precautions are taken.

JOEY RIBERA: At the door, they have a laser temperature check. And also on top of that, they require everyone to wear a mask of some sort, whether that’s an actual mask or a cloth covering of some sort. They encourage people to wipe off their scanners, use hand sanitizer and to stay six feet apart.

ALEX CHUN: However, that rule isn’t always enforced. On May 2, Joey showed up to the warehouse to find it filled with workers.

JOEY RIBERA: My shift actually started at 9:30 and the time right now is 9:53. The reason I clocked off so quickly is because I was shocked to see the amount of people working today. When I went inside today, I saw that the lanes were way past the three person limit. I saw that all the scanners were gone and then when I went to get a scanner, they didn’t even have enough for the workers working in the warehouse for the shift. And then also, on top of that, they still expect us to do something. One of the managers told me to walk around while they find scanners for the extra people that are there.

ALEX CHUN: And Amazon’s inconsistency to enforce sanitary precautions at all times doesn’t go without notice from its employees. Since Joey started, rumors have circulated the warehouse about employees catching coronavirus but still working.

JOEY RIBERA: I don’t feel safe going into work. I like always have, like, this underlying fear… yeah, this underlying fear that I could get something, and if I do get something then it’s gonna be really bad. And then I go into this whole scenario in my mind, so I think definitely if I’m having this feeling every time I’m going into work, it’s definitely an indicator that I’m not feeling the safety and security I should be feeling.

ALEX CHUN: On Tuesday, April 28, Joey was working a typical shift scanning packages when a superior asked to see Joey’s nametag. When Joey asked why, his superior said that he was checking to make sure Joey had a green dot — he didn’t. In fact, it was the first time the green dots had been mentioned to Joey at all. Its purpose? Indicating the employee had been notified that there were confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the warehouse and was updated about precautions taken to reduce the spread. The superior left Joey with a green dot and no more protection than he had had before it.

JOEY RIBERA: He told me that Amazon, specifically the one that I had been working on, the Kent warehouse, had had three confirmed cases of COVID so far. It was definitely a shock to not at least hear more information. I feel like definitely when these cases popped up, it would have been important information for the employees to know. Were the people who were also exposed to the person with COVID, were they contacted? There was just a lack of information.

ALEX CHUN: If safety precautions are lacking, why has there been such a significant increase in the amount of workers that Amazon is hiring? Why are people electing to work in an environment that may not always enforce sanitary precautions? The answer is simple: many people don’t have a choice. Since mid-March, over 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment. And the numbers continue to rise. With a crumbling job market, some are desperate for any means of income. And this issue has disproportionate impacts. Recent data shows that in New York, for example, 70 percent of the essential workers are people of color. Meanwhile, Amazon is not struggling economically. The company has reported an economic uptick, making an estimated $10,000 per second since stay-at-home orders have led to an increase of online purchases. With an economy that has been anything but stable, Joey has been preparing for the worst.

JOEY RIBERA: I was scared that things were going to get drastically worse in terms of the economy, in terms of things just shutting down, in terms of opportunities to get an income, and my dad, he’s a pilot. My dad and I were just talking about the airline industry and what the impact on the economy will look like and how that’ll impact the airline industry. It is predicted that in the fall when contracts end, pilots will be furloughed and laid off, especially the newer hires. It definitely is a concern because they are cutting down flights and stuff like that and everything.

ALEX CHUN: On May 1, aka May Day, there was a national call to action. Workers from Amazon, Target, Instacart and Whole Foods picketed warehouses and stores across the country, demanding safer working conditions.

MAY DAY PRESS RELEASE VIDEO: We work hard every day. The CEOs don’t care about our lives. They don’t care. And they’ve shown it. For that reason, on May 1. On May 1. On May 1. On May 1. We are walking out until our demands are met. PPE for all shoppers. Distancing and protective equipment. Safety guidelines to be enforced at all times. Real paid sick leave now…

ALEX CHUN: May 1, May Day or International Workers’ Day began in the 19th century as a labor movement for workers’ rights. Now, two centuries later, workers are still using May 1 as a demand for better working conditions. The Youth Liberation Front, an autonomous group of students and student collectives working for radical change helped publicize and inform the public of the May Day strikes. A representative from the YLF who asked to remain anonymous says the coronavirus has only revealed existing inequities in the prioritization of one job over another.

YLF REP.: Recently, we’ve seen a lot of workers are suddenly because of this pandemic, being told that their work and their jobs are essential to keep the economy and the system functioning when for decades, their work hasn’t been called essential, their work has been called “unskilled,” and it’s been denigrated as work that “anyone can do.” Their labor is, in fact, essential to the system. This sort of demonstrates that a general strike has that certain power. If their labor is essential to the functioning of the system, if that labor stops happening, then the chains of capitalism stop running.

ALEX CHUN: But many companies are yet to implement changes that benefit their essential workers, causing controversy even within Amazon. That same Friday, Tim Bray, vice president of Amazon’s cloud computing arm quit. Bray says that he quit due to Amazon firing whistleblowers who raised concerns about warehouse safety. Bray called it “a vein of toxicity running through the company culture.” In March, former Amazon employee Chris Smalls led a protest at a warehouse in New York, demanding safer conditions. He was fired shortly after. An Amazon spokesperson said they terminated his employment because he violated social distancing guidelines. After Amazon fired Chris, leaked memos reveal Amazon’s effort to build a PR campaign against him, calling him “not smart or articulate.”

ALEX CHUN: While May 1 may have meant May Day to Amazon employees, May 1 meant something else for the company. In March, Amazon announced that hourly workers would receive unlimited, unpaid time off through the end of April. Though an Amazon spokesperson said that this wasn’t a change made because of May Day, that option is no longer in place.

JOEY RIBERA: I just really look at this whole situation of Amazon and other essential work companies — they’re taking advantage of their employees. You see how Amazon recently got rid of their attendance policy, so employees have to show up on time, stay for the entire shift and if they don’t show up, they’re gonna get points. If those points accumulate, you’re going to get fired, right? And I think especially during this time, with this economy and also just like, people just needing work, things just aren’t making sense, and I’m frustrated. So yes. To sort of conclude my day at work, it was really frustrating just to see that. Especially after the May Day strikes. I wasn’t able to participate, unfortunately, but just a lot of thoughts going through my mind right now. And I’m not for sure what this means for my future at Amazon.

ALEX CHUN: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun. Thanks for listening to another episode of Defining Safe. After this podcast was published, an Amazon spokesperson reached out to us. They said Amazon fired Chris Smalls for violating social distancing guidelines. A previous version of this podcast may have also suggested that Amazon took away the option of unlimited, unpaid time off for hourly workers because of May Day protests, when this was a policy originally due to stop at the end of April.

This episode was reported and produced by me, Alex Chun. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @apchun01

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“I’m doing my part:” the grocery store workers on the front lines of the pandemic
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Correction: A previous version of this story said Chris Smalls was fired without stating why Amazon said it fired him. An Amazon spokesperson said he was fired because he violated social distance guidelines. The previous version also may have suggested that Amazon took away the option of unlimited, unpaid time off because of May Day, when this policy was originally due to stop at the end of April. The Daily regrets the errors.