Essential workers at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse called out sick on Tuesday to protest what they say is the company's continued failure to provide them with safe working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. The New York City facility, known as JFK8, is one of more than 40 Amazon sites across the country where workers are protesting by not showing up for work.
"It's ridiculous. We shouldn't have to be fighting as protesters, we shouldn't have to be fighting to protect their workers," said Jordan Flowers, 21, a robotics technician who has taken three weeks of unpaid time off from the Staten Island warehouse, because he has underlying health issues, and is afraid of contracting the virus at work.
Another worker at the JFK8, Philip Anthony Ruiz, said in a video on social media that he went on strike Tuesday "because Amazon is putting our lives at risk."
"Many of my coworkers have yet to see paid sick leave even when we call out sick. My family is at risk. Our community and customers are at risk," Ruiz said.
He called on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to close the facility and Governor Andrew Cuomo to step in to clean up the facility—like in Kentucky, where the governor ordered a warehouse to close.
"They actually don't know how many people they have that tested positive," Flowers said. "Even after the face masks and the latex gloves that they're offering—it's now that a bunch of these warehouses need to be closed and they need to test these workers ASAP."
According to United for Respect, a retail workers' non-profit group, there have been positive cases documented at more than 130 of the company's warehouses. JFK8 workers say their facility has more than 50 people with coronavirus. One JFK8 worker, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said Tuesday morning workers received notice that the facility had additional confirmed cases of the virus.
Jay Carney, the senior vice president of global corporate affairs at Amazon and a former Obama White House press secretary, recently told CNN he could not provide a specific number of cases.
"I honestly don't have it," Carney said during the interview, though he insisted that the infection rate among Amazon workers is relatively low.
Amazon warehouse workers say that turnover is high as more people fall ill, take half-days, or paid/unpaid time off to protect themselves.
"And as the cases rise, they're just sending people home, they're hiring more people to come in. It's like they're kind of replacing us right now," Flowers said. "I could still go back and work inside but just because of my health reasons, I'm not going back right now. They're just going to kick me to the side and hire the next person. And then just keep hiring and hiring until this pandemic is over."
Amazon is hiring tens of thousands of workers during the pandemic. More than 2,800 employees have been hired in New York, including 500 at the Staten Island facility, where 5,000 people work, according to Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty.
As retail storefronts shutter and people are sheltered at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bezos has gotten $24 billion richer in 2020, according to Fortune. Amazon senior vice president of operations, Dave Clark, said in a memo reviewed by the Wall Street Journal that there had been a "significant increase in demand."
Amazon has begun checking temperatures of employees across the U.S. and Europe at Amazon facilities and Whole Foods Market stores, which Amazon owns. Over the past few weeks, the company has distributed masks, eliminated stand-up meetings during shifts, and increased the company's starting minimum wage from $15 to $17 through April. Those with coronavirus or who self-quarantine due to contact with a diagnosed individual can take two weeks off with pay. Unlimited unpaid time off is offered through April without penalty.
Lighty said she couldn't provide an exact number of COVID-19 cases at JFK8, and called the sickouts "grossly exaggerated."
"Already more than 250,000 people have come to work today, even more than last week, to serve their communities," Lighty said. "We couldn't be more grateful and proud for their efforts during this time. The union organizers' claims are also simply false—what's true is that masks, temperature checks, hand sanitizer, increased time off, increased pay, and more are standard across our network because we care deeply about the health and safety of our employees. We encourage anyone to compare the health and safety measures Amazon has taken, and the speed of their implementation, during this crisis with other retailers."
In late March, a group of workers walked off the job led by a process assistant, Chris Smalls, who was fired hours after the walkout after the company accused him of violating a quarantine period after being exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. Smalls has said other workers who have been exposed weren't quarantined and he questions the process by which the company deems who should self-isolate. His firing was widely condemned after it was revealed Amazon higher-ups had strategized to frame Smalls as "inarticulate" and smear him as violating worker safety. The city's Human Rights Commission and New York Attorney General Letitia James are investigating the company's decision to fire Smalls.
In previous interviews this month, Amazon workers detailed ongoing frustrations with the company.
"Prior to [the March 30th walkout], they were keeping it very quiet," said the JFK8 worker who has requested anonymity. She works Wednesdays, so was not among those who called out Tuesday. She said she came into contact with the same worker as Smalls for at least 15 minutes—but was not quarantined by the company.
"My biggest concern is how they weren't doing what they were supposed to do from the beginning and how there's a lot of workers there—and they didn't tell anybody what was going on," she said. "I just don't feel like it's a safe environment for anyone to be there right now because the germs are still spreading."
Earlier this month, the worker said she had her temperature taken but the person came out from behind the plexiglass to check her—a recent initiative by the company that she feels is not being done properly.
Another worker, Gregory Rivera, a Staten Island resident and warehouse associate, said he brings his own Clorox wipes for his station because not enough are provided.
Text message updates and alerts on bulletins inside the facility "could have been done in February, they could've been done in March," Rivera said.
"They're so busy patting themselves on the back for installing some hand sanitizer machines and giving out masks three months later," said Rivera. "The building is really good at lip service, I'll give them that."
Asked if he was participating in the sickouts, Rivera said couldn't afford to—he needed the money.