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Fearful of COVID-19, Amazon workers ask California to probe working conditions

Sam Dean, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Workers at Amazon's Eastvale, Calif., fulfillment center filed complaints with California and Riverside County regulators Wednesday, asking for investigations into what they say are dangerous working conditions that pose a threat to public health during the coronavirus pandemic.

The fulfillment center was the first in Southern California to report an employee testing positive for COVID-19 in late March, with a second case confirmed shortly after. On April 2, The Times confirmed that a third worker at the same facility, which Amazon refers to as LGB3 for short, had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and that cases had also occurred at five other Amazon facilities in the region.

But it wasn't until Tuesday night that Amazon sent a mass text to all workers at the facility informing them of the third case -- five days after it was reported in The Times. According to screenshots of the text obtained by The Times, the third worker last reported for a shift March 31.

That delay put workers at risk, the complaints argue, and is representative of what they characterize as Amazon's slipshod response to the COVID-19 pandemic within its operations.

The filings, compiled by the Warehouse Worker Resource Center on behalf of LGB3 employees, allege that Amazon never stopped operations to clean and disinfect the parts of the facility where the infected workers had spent their shifts and that the company has failed to adapt its operations to promote social distancing. The CDC recommends that employers close off areas that people with COVID-19 have visited and "wait 24 hours or as long as practical before beginning cleaning and disinfection," as a precaution to ensure that cleaning crews encounter minimal levels of active virus.

Despite Amazon's official recommendation that employees wash their hands often, the complaints allege workers are forced to walk several minutes each way to the restroom to access hand sanitizer or soap and water, and that hand sanitizer dispensers are often empty. A typical employee is allowed only 30 minutes total for bathroom breaks during a 10-hour shift, in addition to a 30-minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks.

 

In a statement, Amazon spokesman Timothy Carter said accusations of workers being put at risk are "simply not true. We are supporting the individuals who are recovering. We are following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site."

"Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are evaluating and making changes in real time, and encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits and speed in which we're managing this crisis to other retailers and major employers across the country."

According to interviews with workers at the facility, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation, only some employees and managers are wearing masks, even after Amazon pledged to provide masks to all workers by this week in response to worker activism at Amazon warehouses in New York City and Riverside County officials ordered all residents to cover their faces when leaving home.

"Every time I come into work ever since the pandemic started, I'm coming into work with anxiety. I'm on edge all the time," one worker said. "There's a big question mark: Who has it? Why isn't everybody wearing a mask?"

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