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He was part of Amazon's coronavirus hiring spree. Two weeks later he was dead

Sam Dean, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

LOS ANGELES -- When Harry Sentoso got called back to work at an Amazon delivery center in Irvine, Calif., in late March, he was excited.

He had been working in Amazon warehouses on and off for two years, always hoping to get a full-time position but always laid off after seasonal demand died down. Just a few weeks earlier, at the beginning of March, his bosses had told him they didn't need him anymore. He had spent most of the month cooped up at home in Walnut, looking for other work.

Sentoso saw the warehouse job as a last chance to earn some cash before settling down to retirement. A small business he had started with a friend a few years earlier selling forklift tires hadn't taken off, and he didn't want to touch his savings if he didn't have to. He had applied to dozens of jobs in recent years, but Amazon was the best the 63-year-old could find.

Before dawn on March 29, he left home in his Honda Civic, radio tuned to classic rock, and made the drive down to Orange County to work the early morning shift hauling and sorting packages before they went out to customers' homes.

Two weeks later, in the early morning hours of April 12 -- his 27th wedding anniversary -- Harry Sentoso would be dead.

Sentoso's return to work was a part of a massive wave of hiring Amazon has undertaken in response to the coronavirus crisis. In mid-March, the company announced plans to hire 100,000 new workers to deal with a surge in online orders. In April, it began hiring 75,000 more to keep up with demand as it resumed shipping more nonessential items to customers.

 

With that human wave came the virus. The same week that Sentoso was called back into work, new cases of COVID-19 were reported at six warehouses across Southern California. Until now, no cases at the Irvine facility, known as DLA9, have been made public, and Sentoso's death had gone unreported. Across the country, Amazon workers have documented more than 1,000 cases among warehouse workers as of May 20, and 7 deaths. Sentoso is the eighth.

Thousands of businesses have had to close and more than 38 million Americans have lost their jobs since the lockdowns began. But Amazon is hiring. The company has put new measures in place to make its warehouses safer for employees, but the number of cases at its facilities keeps rising. As consumers continue to minimize their own risk by shopping from their couches, workers have to decide: Is working for Amazon a lifeline, or a life-threatening risk?

Harry Sentoso moved to Southern California in the 1970s, fleeing anti-leftist violence and persecution in his native Indonesia that targeted his family for their Chinese ancestry. His legal name was Sukoyo, but he chose to go by the short version of his middle name, Hariyadi, in his new home.

After a few hard years scraping by in downtown L.A., he worked in sales for a doll company, then started his own small business, an import-export operation moving construction materials between California and Indonesia. Along the way, he earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and an MBA from Cal Poly Pomona, met his wife, Endang, and started a family. In his 40s, he landed a steady job as the warehouse supervisor at an oxygen sensor manufacturer, and worked there for over a decade.

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