Lifeline or life risk: Working in an Amazon warehouse

When the California state college system shut down its campuses and moved classes online due to the coronavirus in March, rising junior Chad Ellis returned home to Charlotte, where he expected to finish his classes and hang out with friends and family.

Then, mega e-tailer Amazon announced plans to fill 100,000 positions across the U.S at fulfillment and distribution centers to handle the surge of online orders. A month later, the company said it needed another 75,000 positions just to keep up with demand. More than 1,000 of those jobs were added at the four Charlotte-area fulfillment centers. Amazon also announced it would raise the minimum wage from $15 to $17 per hour through the end of April.

Ellis, a marketing and communications major, applied and was hired right away to work in the fulfillment center on Charlotte’s west side near the Charlotte Douglas airport. He was thrilled to earn extra spending money while he was home and doing his schoolwork online. The work was easy but tedious: folding and taping boxes, filling orders and sorting packages. However, it didn’t take long for his glee to turn into worry for him and his parents.

“On the second day after I got there, a girl who had COVID was throwing up in the bathroom,” said Ellis “She didn’t want to go home and was still trying to stay at work. They finally just took her out.”

Amazon workers all across the country have complained about unsafe working conditions that left them vulnerable to the coronavirus. As consumers tried to minimize their own risk by shopping for everything from toilet paper to televisions without leaving home, Amazon workers were confronted with a choice: Does working for Amazon provide a lifeline or a life risk?

The coronavirus begins to spread

By mid-April, there were seven known cases of employees in Amazon’s Charlotte-area warehouses testing positive for COVID-19. At the time, spokeswoman Alyssa Bronikowski told the Charlotte Observer that the company was “following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site.

An April 2 statement on the company website laid out its newly implemented safety measures, including maintaining social distance at centers, increased cleanings at facilities, and making masks available to all employees. The facilities also implemented daily temperature checks for all employees. Anyone with a temperature above 100.4 degrees would be sent home.

While it sounds good, Ellis says it didn’t really work that way in practice. Each day, when he arrived for his 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift, he was immediately instructed to don his mask. If he didn’t have one, Amazon would provide one. To enter the warehouse, he passed through a system that automatically checked his body temperature. But once on the packing line, nobody bothered to enforce safety precautions.

“Plenty of people had masks, but they weren’t wearing them. And once they did get past the front line of checking in, nobody was checking to make sure,” said Ellis. “I was working next to a woman who had a mask but wore it below her chin. I was like ‘seriously, what is the point?’”

Since masks mainly guard against potentially spreading infection to others, Ellis was annoyed that, while he was diligent about protecting others, many of his co-workers didn’t reciprocate.

The article was published at Lifeline or life risk: Working in an Amazon warehouse.

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