Hundreds of Amazon Employees Are Out on COVID Leave at a Single Warehouse

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Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP

On the Clock is Motherboard’s reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Hundreds of workers at Amazon’s largest New York City warehouse are out this week because they or someone in their household received a positive test result for COVID-19, an internal workforce roster obtained by Motherboard shows. 

552 workers are listed on the roster, which was updated earlier this week, as out on “LeaveWithPay,” which two Amazon warehouse managers told Motherboard is a classification created in early 2020 to designate employees who are out with paid leave because they tested positive for COVID-19. There are more than 9,000 people listed on the roster, which includes warehouse workers, managers, temp employees, and third-party contractors. Employees are classified as “active,” “leave,” or “LeaveWithPay.” 

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Motherboard verified the authenticity of the roster, which includes each employee’s start date, manager, and leave status, by cross checking the data on it with four current warehouse employees. The roster shows Amazon has already hired more than 200 new warehouse associates since the start of 2022. Motherboard spoke to a warehouse manager in Michigan who said that he uses the roster to determine how many workers are available to staff shifts. Motherboard could not independently verify each worker’s COVID status, but told Amazon that we would be reporting on the document and noting that more than 552 employees are currently out on COVID leave. Amazon did not dispute the number in a comment to Motherboard.

“The country is experiencing a surge in cases and nearly every company will be affected by that,” the spokesperson said. “Our team’s safety is incredibly important to us, and we’ll continue to follow the guidance of health experts in deciding next steps as the situation evolves.”

Another 1,254 workers are currently out on “leave,” the document shows. Some of these could be for COVID absences that extended beyond Amazon’s week of paid time off. 

“This document proves the point that Amazon is undermining workers’ safety and prioritizing productivity over safety,” said Derrick Palmer, an Amazon warehouse worker at JFK8 who is involved in union organizing with the group Amazon Labor Union.

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This outbreak occurs as COVID-19 numbers have exploded in New York City and across the country with the omicron variant. An Amazon spokesperson said that COVID numbers from any specific Amazon site lack the context of when an employee last worked, COVID spread within a specific community, the overall infection rate of a city or community, and information about whether Amazon warehouses are experiencing higher rates of infection than any other job site. The spokesperson also pointed out that employees could have gotten COVID either at work or elsewhere.

Amazon, however, has been loosening its COVID-19 restrictions. Last week, Amazon shortened its paid Covid-leave for warehouse employees who test positive for COVID-19 from 14 days to a week, or 40 hours, following changes in CDC guidance that asymptomatic people can isolate for five days instead of ten. 

The numbers on the spreadsheet likely underestimate the true impact of COVID at the warehouse, because many Amazon workers are struggling to find COVID-19 tests, NBC News reported. 

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“After reviewing the newly released guidelines from the CDC, we are updating Amazon’s COVID-19 isolation and quarantine policy to one week (seven calendar days) from when you took the test, with up to 40 hours paid leave,” a message Amazon sent to workers last week read. “This change is effective immediately and applies to all employees in the United States, regardless of vaccination status. Remember, do not come to work if you are sick. All employees must report a positive COVID-19 diagnosis to COVID Resource Center and are not allowed in our facilities during the required isolation/quarantine period. Additional leave options are available for individuals who remain symptomatic beyond one week.”

Amazon warehouse workers at JFK8 who have seen this document say that it shows that Amazon’s method of informing workers about COVID-19 cases in their warehouses, which is their primary source of information on their risk of contracting COVID at the facility, has been misleading. 

Amazon sends out daily notifications to workers on its internal AtoZ app about the dates when workers who tested positive for COVID last came to work, but does not specify how many workers last came to work that day—whether it is one, a handful, or more.

Here is what that notification looked like on Wednesday, January 12 for Amazon workers at JFK8 in Staten Island.

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“We always knew COVID notifications are deliberately misleading and meant to obscure the number of cases,” said Connor Spence, an Amazon warehouse worker at JFK8, who is active in the group Amazon Labor Union. “I had no idea it was this bad.”

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“I would say Amazon isn’t transparent at all. We know the day people tested positive but we don’t know how many cases,” said Palmer. 

In December, New York City mandated that its private sector employers require employees to receive one dose of the vaccine by December 27. On December 29, however, Amazon pushed the requirement to January 4 at JFK8, according to screenshots of a message the company sent to workers that was obtained by Motherboard. In that message, Amazon wrote that “currently, 31 percent of our New York City workforce, or approximately 7,000 people, have not received their first vaccine dose or have not yet shared their vaccine status with us.” An Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard that all employees who currently have access to JFK8 have gotten at least one vaccine dose or have requested a medical or religious vaccine exemption; they did not elaborate on what requesting an exemption means or how they are given. 

Amazon warehouse workers at JFK8 who are not sick told Motherboard that Amazon has asked them to work mandatory overtime in recent days, seemingly to compensate for all of the COVID-19-related absences. 

Amazon’s warehouse workforces frequently fluctuate throughout the year, depending on demand. The document reveals that the gigantic Amazon warehouse in Staten Island currently has more than 9,000 employees, temps, and third party contractors. 7,879 of those workers and managers are Amazon employees.

Some Amazon warehouse workers at JFK8 and its surrounding warehouses are in the process of unionizing, in order to improve their working conditions. The union has filed twice for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. In March 2020, Amazon fired Christian Smalls, a leader in the Amazon Labor Union, after he led a walkout at JFK8 in protest of COVID-19 safety measures. In November, New York’s attorney general sought emergency relief to implement COVID-19 safety measures at JFK8.