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Inside Amazon's Kent fulfillment center, a proving ground for the company's coronavirus response

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

The four-year-old Amazon fulfillment center in Kent, Wash., has played an outsized role in the company's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Employees there began sounding alarms to management in the first half of March, and then to reporters, as the virus began spreading in the Seattle-area and demand from customers spiked. The facility -- the closest of its kind to Amazon's Seattle headquarters -- became a proving ground for several new safety measures implemented by the commerce giant, including coronavirus testing.

The last three anxious months have brought dramatic changes to the Kent warehouse as the company learned on the fly how to operate during a pandemic. Updates refined at the facility have been implemented across Amazon's empire.

BFI4, as the Kent facility is known (the first three letters matching the airport code for Boeing Field) has also served as a media backdrop as Amazon sought to publicize its safety measures amid a chorus of criticism. It was featured, though not clearly identified, in Amazon-produced segments run by local television news channels across the country last month. Amazon operations chief Dave Clark gave a virtual tour of the warehouse, the size of about 25 football fields, on "60 Minutes."

About 3,000 people work at BFI4, 600 to 800 per shift. The first COVID-positive employee there was reported in late March. "We just had another case, so you better get some gloves on," a worker told a reporter leaving the facility earlier this month. (Gloves are not required, though many workers wear them routinely. Everyone must wear masks.)

Hundreds more employees have tested positive across Amazon's network, with higher concentrations reported at fulfillment centers in Minnesota and Pennsylvania. The company has declined to release a full count or details about specific sites, maintaining that infection rates among its workforce have generally remained at or below those of surrounding communities. "We utilize a variety of data to closely monitor the safety of our buildings and there is strong evidence that our employees are not proliferating the virus at work," said Kelly Cheeseman, director of external communications for Amazon worldwide operations.

 

Changes that some BFI4 employees pressed for, such as daily temperature screenings -- as recommended March 11 for all Seattle-area employers by health officials -- and scores of others made through both top-down directives and suggestions from employees and management at various Amazon warehouses, are now in place.

All eyes on Amazon

"We looked at every process that existed in the building," Cheeseman said. "We evaluated, do we need that still? Could we adjust it or remove it all together?"

The rollout of these measures during the spring was uneven, with employees at some of Amazon's more than 550 U.S. distribution facilities in late April and May calling out ongoing failures to adhere to social distancing rules; inadequate cleaning; confusion about notification of positive cases and contact tracing; and frustration with the process of applying for leaves of absence and pay promised to those sickened with COVID-19.

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