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On the Clock is Motherboard’s reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.
Michael Quintero, a 26-year-old packer at an Amazon warehouse in Jacksonville, Florida, says that a year and a half into the pandemic, he is still getting regular notifications on Amazon’s app for warehouse workers about colleagues testing positive for COVID-19. “It’s been pretty steady, about once or twice or three times a week,” he told Motherboard.
The county where Jacksonville is located is currently a hotbed for the virus, facing one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. But this fact and the number of cases at his facility have not swayed Quintero to get a vaccine. Today, he’s one of many Amazon warehouse workers around the country who have chosen not to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons largely related to distrust, inconvenience, or the perception that it’s not important because they believe themselves to be in good health.
“I just simply don’t want to,” he said. “I’m not a person who likes putting a lot of medicine in my body when there’s other ways to treat something or be cautious. If I got [prescribed] some sort of antidepressant, I would be hesitant to take it too.”
Across the country employers, including Walmart, Disney, Google, and Tyson Foods, are beginning to enforce vaccine mandates for their employees. But Amazon, the country’s second-largest employer, has been resistant to follow in their path. Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that this some employees believe this is because Amazon is afraid to lose warehouse workers who are vaccine hesitant or antivax. Amazon has taken a number of steps to encourage vaccination: It is offering employees who get vaccinated $40 per vaccine and a day of unpaid time off (10 hours) for each vaccine. This week, Amazon announced a “Max Your Vax Sweepstakes,” with raffle prizes for getting jabbed that include a $500,000 check, a new car, and a free vacation. Until last week, Amazon warehouse workers with vaccines—indicated by a special sticker on their badges—were allowed to go maskless at work. Some Amazon employees say this is not enough.
“Amazon is offering us $80 and 20 hours of unpaid time off. I’m like ‘Come on!’ With as much money as they’ve made and as much risk we took for them? The company took no risk. We took all the risk. I can’t stress how many people in my facility got sick,” a vaccinated Amazon warehouse worker in Greenville, South Carolina, told Motherboard. “I think if they offered at least $250 to take the vaccine, we’d do it.”
Motherboard spoke to eight recent and current Amazon warehouse workers from New York, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Illinois about their vaccination status and working at Amazon. All Amazon warehouse workers noted rising reports of cases in their facilities with the Delta variant—and a belief, based on conversations with their colleagues, that a large segment of their warehouse remains unvaccinated. Unvaccinated workers expressed adamant distrust toward the vaccine, in some cases citing unfounded conspiracies about Amazon and the government’s motivation in pushing the vaccine that have also been echoed in Reddit threads and private Facebook groups for Amazon warehouse workers online. Medical authorities and experts widely agree that taking the vaccine is safe and the risks of contracting COVID-19 by not getting the vaccine outweigh the possibility of severe side effects from the vaccine.
Quintero, who has young children, says the fact that he’s young, healthy, and likely already got COVID informed his decision not to get the vaccine. (The CDC recommends that people who have already had COVID get vaccinated, because research shows it provokes a strong, protective immune response even in people who have recovered.) In March 2020, he spent several weeks asleep in bed with chills, a headache, and troubling breathing. “I was deathly sick. I couldn’t move. I was imobile. I believe I already got COVID-19,” he said. If Amazon started mandating vaccines, Quintero says he’d be put in a really tough situation, that would come down to whether he had enough money to quit.
Last October Amazon announced that close to 20,000 warehouse workers tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 10 employees had died. Motherboard previously reported that Amazon struggled to keep its warehouses properly sanitized and identify workers who had come into contact with colleagues who tested positive for COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic. Last year, Amazon warehouse workers in New York, Illinois, and Minnesota staged walkouts in protest of Amazon’s handling of COVID-19 cases at their facilities.
“I would prefer if everyone got vaccinated but I’m not in favor of mandating or forcing it,” Rebecca Johnson, an Amazon warehouse in central Florida, another hotspot for the Delta variant, said. “I got vaccinated because I didn’t want to die of COVID.”
Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, told Motherboard that Amazon has offered more than 1,100 on-site vaccination clinics since the vaccine became available, and continues to do so. “We remain focused on making it as easy as possible for our employees and their household members to get vaccinated because we strongly believe that the best way to protect our front-line employees and communities from COVID-19 is through vaccinations,” she said. Nantel did not respond to a question about how many or what percentage of Amazon warehouse workers had been vaccinated.
This summer, Amazon dismantled its COVID-19 testing sites in warehouses, but in recent days has reinstated its mask mandate for all warehouse workers regardless of their vaccination status.
An Amazon warehouse worker in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who asked to be anonymous because he feared retaliation from Amazon, told Motherboard that no one in his family has gotten the vaccine and that he didn’t get it because it hadn’t been approved by the FDA. (While the FDA has not yet issued full approvals for the COVID-19 vaccines, they have been the subjects of extensive, rigorous vetting, and overwhelming evidence shows that they are safe and effective.) He would quit his job if Amazon decided to mandate the vaccine, he said.
“Some of us believe there’s something larger going on behind the scenes,” he said. “Who offers millions of dollars and a car for the vaccine? When you get free stuff, you become a product or a guinea pig.”
Another Amazon warehouse worker in suburban Illinois, a woman in her twenties, told Motherboard that most people in her warehouse hadn’t gotten the vaccine because of distrust, inconvenience, and a lack of incentive.
“I feel like most people have chosen not to get it. I think it has to do with distrust. Also I know the incentive isn’t enough for people,” she said. “I would probably get it if they offered it at my warehouse because I wouldn’t have to go out of my way. If I got it now, I would have to set up an appointment and that’s out of my way.” The worker said she lives with her family, including her father who is high risk, and everyone is unvaccinated.