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What will 9 more months without Amazon workers mean for Seattle's downtown?

By Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

SEATTLE — For many business owners struggling to survive the pandemic's upending of office work, news that downtown Seattle's biggest employer had extended its work-from-home policy by six months is yet another blow.

Many small businesses have already adjusted to the absence of Amazon workers — along with those of many other downtown companies — and their appetites for coffee, food, an after-work drink and other services. But scores of others have succumbed, and business leaders said that without help, more will fail in the coming months.

"We've already endured six months, with some help from the government," said Justin Young, owner of Flow Fitness, with locations in South Lake Union and Fremont. "I don't see us being able to do another six months" without additional support, or an easing in state limits on the number of customers in the gyms.

Both seem unlikely in the near term, as Washington state has seen a surge in new cases, and Congress has been unable to advance new relief measures.

Amazon on Tuesday told employees, including 55,000-plus corporate and technology staff in Seattle and Bellevue, they had the option to work from home through June — six months beyond the January date most recently targeted for return, and 16 months since the tech and commerce giant first implemented the policy.

Amid the pandemic's turmoil, some new patterns emerged downtown this summer, including an uptick in the number of people choosing to work in the office at least some of the time.

 

Weekday daytime worker visits to downtown Seattle in August and September were up more than 18% from a low in April, though still down by about two-thirds from a year earlier, according to an analysis of data from Placer.ai, which tracks people based on cellphone location data, cited by the Downtown Seattle Association. And in a recent DSA survey of 179 businesses, 44% of respondents said at least a quarter of their employees were already back at the office or worksite, while 38% said they expected to have at least half of their workers back on site midway through 2021.

An Amazon spokesperson said that anecdotally, the number of people coming into its buildings has been increasing, though she could not provide an estimate. (The majority of Amazon's employees, in its fulfillment centers and logistics operations, have no option of working from home.)

"We have invested significant funds and resources to keep those who choose to come to the office safe through physical distancing, deep cleaning, temperature checks, and by providing face coverings and hand sanitizer," a company spokesperson said.

Amazon also continues to employ the contract front-desk staff, janitors, security guards and other personnel who keep its buildings functioning. In some cases, they are performing new tasks. Shuttle drivers are making food deliveries and reception staff support temperature checks, she said.

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