“Hey team—I know it’s been a long 36 hours and you all have probably heard things or seen the news, but I wanted us to all be on the same page here,” wrote the station manager of DBK1, an Amazon delivery station in Queens, to the warehouse’s management in an internal chat at 3:42 PM on March 19.
“We did in fact have a confirmed case of COVID-19 at DBK1 yesterday,” he continued, according to screenshots of an internal Amazon messaging app obtained by Motherboard. “We escalated the information as soon as we were informed and actioned on it quickly with our partners up to and including Tim Collins [vice president of Global Amazon Logistics].”
These communications refer to the first reported coronavirus case at an Amazon warehouse in the country. Amazon has since reported that at least 20,000 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide.
Although the media first reported the case on March 18, warehouse management at DBK1 in Woodside, a working-class neighborhood in Queens that would quickly become the epicenter of New York City’s COVID-19 outbreak, did not begin sending out official communications to warehouse workers until a day later. Workers initially learned of the case via a text message from a worker-led group called Amazonians United New York City—and staged protest outside the building.
A collection of internal documents, handouts, and communications from DBK-1 obtained by Motherboard from the early days of the pandemic paints a picture of how Amazon scrambled to handle its first COVID-19 cases and implement COVID-19 safety protocols. According to the documents, Amazon failed to comply with New York City paid sick leave laws resulting in what a group of workers claim were wrongful terminations, sent managers to Costco, 7-Eleven, and elsewhere to buy out entire stocks hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and disinfectant, which Amazon had run out of, as well as drinking water for workers experiencing “heat stress,” and used video surveillance to conduct contact tracing on workers who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
“Please before coming in for your next shifts stop at whatever store you can and grab as much hand sanitizer/Clorox wipes as you can find, we’re running low,” a manager wrote in a group chat in March.
“No wipes in Costco. Next best thing, they come in packs of 3,” another manager later wrote to the chat alongside a photo of three bottles of Meyer’s Multi-Surface Cleaner. “How many should I get?”
“All of it,” another manager responded. “Like seriously. We won’t get another chance.” Managers then spoke about hiding the bottles of cleaner in a manager’s office where warehouse employees couldn’t have access to them: “I suggest it stays in the office and only brought out by managers,” one person wrote. A few hours later, a seemingly large shipment of disinfectant had come in. “Looks like we’re gonna be okay,” a user of the group chat wrote.
The documents also show that managers conducted contact tracing using grainy warehouse surveillance footage. On a group chat, managers struggled to identify which workers had come into contact with workers who had tested positive for COVID-19: “It’s very grainy, but it looks like there’s one additional male at this table that is not one of the previous folks identified,” a manager wrote in the group chat. “Are you able to identify the last male just knowing the group?” Managers would then share screenshots of the employee IDs and internal profiles of workers who were suspected to have been exposed.
Maria Boschetti, a spokesperson for Amazon, told Motherboard, “Amazon prioritizes the safety and health of its employees and has invested billions of dollars to provide a safe workplace, which is why at the onset of the pandemic we moved quickly to make more than 150 COVID-19 related process changes. This is in addition to supplying masks, gloves, thermal cameras, thermometers, disinfectant spraying in buildings, increased janitorial teams, additional handwashing stations, hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, and COVID testing at hundreds of our sites.”
According to internal communications between managers, DBK1 also frequently missed safety audits—routine check-ups on internal and external operations—and failed to adhere to social distancing guidelines, which Amazon monitors using surveillance cameras that use proximity detection to track concentrations of workers that exceed a certain threshold.
“Team—I understand that we all have a lot going on at the station right now, but we cannot use that as an excuse to miss on safety audits,” a station manager wrote in March. “We are the only site in the region that has any misses this week.”
After the first case was reported on March 18, the DBK1 station manager warned managers that after shutting down for a deep cleaning overnight, the warehouse was operating at a very low volume and that warehouse workers weren’t showing up for their shifts, as New York City began to be locked down. At the time, the warehouse closure marked one of the few times in the company’s history that Amazon has shut down operations at a warehouse in the United States.
The early days of the coronavirus pandemic were chaotic not just at Amazon but across the board, with widespread panic, conflicting messages from public health officials and politicians, and shortages of many basic supplies such as toilet paper and disinfectant.
But Amazon—a company that has a comprehensive intelligence program to identify threats to its business and an extensive manufacturing business in China, where COVID-19 raged for months before it spread widely in the United States—did not seem to have a coherent strategy or the supplies necessary to deal with an outbreak. New York City announced its first confirmed coronavirus case on March 1, more than two weeks before Amazon had a confirmed case.
The documents mirror reports from around the United States that Amazon, the largest and most sophisticated online retailer in the world, was ill-prepared and on the tipping point of breaking down in the early days of the pandemic. In California, Amazon is facing scrutiny for failing to comply with outstanding subpoenas requesting more information about the company’s COVID-19 health and safety practices. On December 14, the state’s attorney general announced that it is taking Amazon to court.
This happened despite the company having a highly sophisticated global intelligence team tasked with tracking threats to its employees, facilities, and assets. Presumably the company would have been aware of the World Health Organization’s guidance on preparing for COVID-19, which was first released on January 10, 2020. By March 17, as states and cities descended into lockdown, Amazon was running out of basic household goods, including food, soap, sanitizer, and toilet paper, forcing the company to temporarily suspend shipment of items that weren’t in high demand. Amazon’s own facilities—at least DBK1—had run out of some of these supplies for its employees’ use as well.
Less than a week after the first case was reported at DBK1 in Queens, the warehouse’s leadership sent out internal messages that two more workers had tested positive for COVID-19, and posted a series of scripts with talking points for managers to communicate to warehouse workers, in particular those who had been in contact with infected employees, about COVID-19.
The documents informed managers to tell workers that they could not distribute face masks because of a global shortage and discouraged workers from wearing N95 masks, though workers were allowed to supply their own masks. “Do not print or distribute hard copies of the messaging,” handouts for managers read.
On March 25, Amazon’s global human resource division, known as the Employee Resource Center [ERC], failed to inform all warehouse workers about the warehouse’s temporary closure after a third worker tested positive for COVID-19, and people showed up to work.
The DBK1 station manager told the warehouse’s leadership on March 25, “It’s unacceptable that the ERC missed here, but at the end of the day the mistrust will be towards us, not the ERC, if [workers] are not confident in the communication.”
In early March through May, Amazon managers were also given instructions on messaging surrounding walkouts and petition drives led by a group called Amazonians United NYC. The group had formed at DBK1 in early March to raise concerns that the warehouse had violated New York City paid sick leave laws, which mandate that companies with more than five employees provide 40 hours of paid sick time to workers.
The workers claimed Amazon had illegally fired workers who did not show up for their shifts, and was not offering them an opportunity to be reinstated. Internal messages between managers show Amazon struggling to come up with a response about the error. When a manager chimed in to ask if workers fired for absences would be reinstated, the station operations manager wrote, “this is unknown.”
“We recently identified a clerical error that misclassified the location of DBK1, which led to an error in the sick time you accrue,” a set of talking points for managers to read to warehouse workers at the time said.
Internal messages between managers also show that some warehouse workers were working shifts that lasted more than 12 hours, in violation of Amazon policies.
In the spring, Amazon also began facing widespread spontaneous protests and walkouts organized by workers who wanted more transparency about COVID-19 cases in their warehouses and stronger health and safety protections.
Another set of confidential handouts informed Amazon managers about how to talk to workers how the company would “protect” workers “from intimidation from [Amazonians United NYC],” and May Day walkouts planned at Amazon warehouses around the country.
As the pandemic progressed, internal communications show that the warehouse’s handling of social distancing policies improved, and protests and actions around the country have since died down.
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At the same time, corporate leadership continues to be concerned about protests and internal organizing at its warehouses. In the lead-up to the holiday season, known as peak season, Amazon’s North American Employee Relations Team required managers to attend a new, virtual training program on protest management.
“This training will specifically cover Protest Management heading into the Peak season, and is designed to be a refresher on protocols, how to address developing concerns/protests in a timely manner, and where to find vetted resources in real-time,” a message sent to Amazon warehouse managers in the New York City metro area read.