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Some Amazon warehouse workers see spike in Covid cases

Workers in Dallas, Baltimore, St. Louis and Las Vegas have all noticed a rise in cases.
Image: Workers fulfill orders at an Amazon fulfillment center on Prime Day in Raleigh, N.C.,
Workers fulfill orders at an Amazon fulfillment center on Prime Day in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, June 21, 2021Rachel Jessen / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

As the nation faces a fourth wave of Covid-19, Amazon warehouse workers say the company is notifying them of a rising number of cases among employees. At the same time, the company is relaxing its mask policies and shutting down on-site free testing at the end of the month.

According to one Amazon worker who regularly trains new employees at a facility at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and asked to remain anonymous because she’s not allowed to speak to the press, many are flouting the rules. She says that some people come to her training wearing masks and unvaccinated. But she sees them remove their masks later on.

At the same time, she says, cases are on the rise in her building. She wonders if her unvaccinated co-workers may be inadvertently spreading Covid at her workplace.

“There was a dry spell for a couple months,” the woman said, referring to the automated emails she’s received from Amazon that disclose new Covid cases.. “But it’s picking back up.” NBC News has viewed several of the emails the company sent this month to notify employees of positive Covid cases in its Dallas-Fort Worth Airport facility.

Amazon, like much of America, has begun to relax its workplace rules in recent months. But at the same time, the nation is facing a new surge in Covid cases fueled by the infectious delta variant, found almost entirely among unvaccinated people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although in some rare cases vaccinated people can still become infected.

NBC News interviewed 11 Amazon workers nationwide who say that they are concerned about their own welfare, want mask requirements to be more stringently enforced while the delta variant continues to spread, and for the company to keep its on-site Covid testing.

“That’s what most of us are worried about. They’re lifting everything and it’s like they don’t care that there’s another variant out,” said one worker at an Amazon facility in Baltimore, who sought anonymity out of fear of reprisal.

“They don’t care that people don't have to get a vaccine and are working right next to us. We really don’t know what to do. We’re doing our best because most of us have bills we have to pay.”

For nearly two months now, Amazon has allowed nearly all workers to come to its fulfillment centers maskless if they are fully vaccinated. If the workers want to be maskless, they are asked to demonstrate that they have been vaccinated by uploading their vaccination card to the internal worker app, known as “AtoZ.” Once the vaccination record has been registered in Amazon’s system, the digital background color changes in the app.

Now Amazon is set to wind down most of its pandemic protocols, including elimination of temperature checks at the entries to its fulfillment centers, the halting of on-site testing, ending of its social distancing enforcement crew, and the required wearing of masks for all employees. In its annual report in February, Amazon stated that it spent $11.5 billion on Covid-related costs in 2020. Amazon spokesperson Maria Boschetti said in an emailed statement that the company does “strongly encourage” employees to be vaccinated, offering $40 per dose, regardless of where they receive a vaccination.

“As our employees and communities continue to get vaccinated and health authorities evolve guidance, we are continuously evaluating the temporary measures we implemented in response to COVID-19 and making adjustments in alignment with public health authority guidance,” she said. “As a result, we will begin ramping down our U.S. testing operations by July 30, 2021.”

She added the company would “always align our safety protocols with updated guidance from the CDC and other public health officials,” and that the company was “prepared to immediately resume our employee testing program as needed.”

Boschetti also shared correspondence that was recently sent to workers, explaining how and why the company was “returning to normal practices,” and again reiterating that “the most important safety measure any of us can take is to get vaccinated.”

Available testing

Workers in Amazon warehouses have been voicing concerns about their safety since the start of the pandemic, organizing walkouts from warehouses in locations like Queens and Staten Island, New York, and Chicago in protest against what they said were hazardous working conditions that lacked the protection they needed to stay safe from the coronavirus.

Many workers who spoke out against the lack of safety at work during the pandemic and attempted to organize their colleagues to push for stronger health protections claimed they were retaliated against, according to an investigation by NBC News in March. That reporting found the number of charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Amazon of interfering with workers’ rights to organize more than tripled during the pandemic.

“We have zero tolerance for racism or retaliation of any kind, and in many cases these complaints come from individuals who acted inappropriately toward co-workers and were terminated as a result,” Leah Seay, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in response.

“We respect our employees’ right to join, form or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization of their own selection, without fear of retaliation, intimidation or harassment,” she said.

Amazon said in October that nearly 20,000 of its warehouse employees had tested positive for Covid. The company has not provided an updated number of positive cases since then. Amazon employs almost 1.4 million people in the United States.

On-site testing

But to address its outbreaks, in November the company said it was on pace to reach 50,000 tests per day across 650 sites with a “world-class laboratory team” to rapidly test workers. Amazon did not require its warehouse employees to get tested.

Jonathan Bailey, who works at an Amazon warehouse in Queens, New York, and who organized a walkout over the company’s alleged lack of Covid protections last year, confirmed that he received an announcement in recent days that Amazon is ending its on-site testing later this month. But even with the Covid testing that is now offered at the facility, Amazon rarely encouraged him to get tested, he said.

“There’s one time I had a manager tell me, ‘Hey, we’re doing testing at 2 a.m. in case you want to get tested,’ and that was over the entire pandemic,” he said.

Other workers said that having free on-site testing was very convenient, especially for people who were working long shifts that can end at odd hours.

“You have a lot of employees working 10-hour shifts, 50 to 60 hours a week, and it was a lot easier to get tested on site rather than take time off work,” said one woman who works at an Amazon facility just outside Cincinnati and asked to remain anonymous because she’s not allowed to speak to the press.

“I understand that free testing is widely available. But it doesn't make it convenient. I work until 5 a.m. and then I have to do [other errands].”

Maskless and unvaxxed

Several workers say that they have seen mask wearing get more lax, particularly as the so-called “safety patrol” — repurposed workers tasked specifically with enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing — winds down in warehouses.

“The managers aren’t on it like that,” said Jeremy Byron, 38, who works at an Amazon facility outside Toledo, Ohio. “I don’t think they push the rule as much as they should and if they did that would push vaccinations. Before I got vaccinated, I personally would get to my station and I would take my mask off and managers never said nothing.”

In addition to not wearing masks, some unvaccinated workers have figured out other ways to circumvent the rules by engaging in petty theft, according to the Baltimore worker.

Once workers demonstrate that they have been vaccinated, and their digital records are updated, they also receive a physical sticker to put on their ID badge as a visual cue that they have been vaccinated and no longer need to wear masks.

“I saw people that found the roll of stickers and started passing them around. Nobody was paying attention. So he grabbed a roll of stickers off of a desk," he said. "It’s not really monitored."

Little notice

Amazon has routinely sent out automated emails to employees at its fulfillment centers and other logistics hubs that alert workers of “an individual” who had a confirmed case of Covid. But employees throughout the pandemic complained that the emails lack specificity: they only contain information about when the person was last at work, and don’t say which shift or which department in which they worked.

Amazon workers in Facebook groups and other online gathering places have compared notes across facilities to get a sense of where new outbreaks are happening nationwide. Amazon has not updated its infection statistics since October, when it said that nearly 20,000 employees contracted the virus since last March.

Workers in Las Vegas and Baltimore are sharing in private Facebook groups reviewed by NBC News that they’ve received multiple notifications in recent weeks of positive cases. Both cities are experiencing a surge in the coronavirus, according to news reports.

Bailey, the Queens employee, said that at his facility, the notifications Amazon sends out of positive Covid cases often feel like an undercount.

“You can’t trust the information that is given to you because Amazon very regularly doesn’t communicate cases. We will find out about folks who have got sick and yet there’s no notification that comes out about it,” he said.

In response to a September 2020 NBC News investigation into Amazon’s lack of transparency about Covid outbreaks in its facilities, spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski said that the company reports all positive cases among workers to the health department where the worker lives, but doesn’t release total cases broken down by facility to avoid creating “unnecessary fear.”

“We believe that sharing a case count is misleading, and lacks a significant amount of context — like when each individual was last on-site, the overall infection rate in the community where the site is located, community data relative to where the associate lives, timelines since the start of the pandemic and the overall rate compared to other companies,” she said.

Other workers wonder why it has sometimes taken a long time to inform employees of infections that were diagnosed months ago.

“In the messages, it will say the last time that these associates were last on the site,” Derrick Palmer, a worker at the Staten Island facility, said.

The 32-year-old New Yorker sued the company last year over pandemic-related concerns and allegations that the company violated New York laws and federal health guidance. Last year, Amazon won a motion to dismiss, but Palmer and the other plaintiffs’ appeal is pending before a federal appellate court.

Palmer says this month he’s received notifications for positive cases at his facility that say the individual was tested months ago. “It doesn’t make sense. Why [is Amazon] informing us now?” he said.

Rising cases

Meanwhile in Dallas, there has been a spike in reported cases listed in emails that the Dallas-Fort Worth worker has received from Amazon, according to a count of this worker’s recent Covid-related work emails that she shared with NBC News.

To date, her emails show, Amazon has told local workers on 10 separate days in July that there was at least one confirmed case. In June, there were only three reports of confirmed cases, the woman said.

Similarly, a 42-year-old man who works at an Amazon facility west of St. Louis, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that so far in July, he’s received 18 notifications of new cases, compared to 14 for June.

That appears to track with a new spike in cases in the St. Louis metropolitan area, where local health officials are “strongly recommending” masking and social distancing anew.

The St. Louis worker said that he has lost friends to Covid and said he “takes it very seriously.”

“I get those [notifications] daily, it’s almost every day at 6 p.m.,” he said. “This is crazy.”

Olivia Solon contributed.