‘Way Too Late’: Inside Amazon’s Biggest Outbreak
Therese Kelly arrived for her shift at an Amazon warehouse on March 27 to find her co-workers standing clustered in the cavernous space. They were awaiting a buildingwide announcement, a rarity at the complex known as AVP1. Over a loudspeaker, a manager told them what they had feared: For the first time, an employee had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Some of the workers cut short their shifts and went home. Ms. Kelly, 63, got to work, one of the hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees dealing with the spike in online orders from millions of Americans quarantined at home.
In the less than two months since then, the warehouse in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania has become Amazon’s biggest Covid-19 hot spot. More employees at AVP1 have been infected by the coronavirus than at any of Amazon’s roughly 500 other facilities in the United States.
Local lawmakers believe that more than 100 workers have contracted the disease, but the exact number is unknown. At first, Amazon told workers about each new case. But when the total reached about 60, the announcements stopped giving specific numbers.
The disclosures also stopped at other Amazon warehouses. The best estimate is that more than 900 of the company’s 400,000 blue-collar workers have had the disease. But that number, crowdsourced by Jana Jumpp, an Amazon worker, almost certainly understates the spread of the illness among Amazon’s employees.
Amazon saw the pandemic up close before many American companies. In early February, it fretted about its global supply chain and consulted an infectious-disease specialist. Based in Seattle, an early epicenter of the outbreak, the company told its 50,000 employees there to work from home starting March 5.
About that time, Amazon was hit by a massive wave of orders, a surprise surge the likes of which it had never experienced. Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder and chief executive, called it “the hardest time we’ve ever faced.” The company paid workers extra to stay on the job and announced that it would hire 175,000 more to fill orders. Mr. Bezos told investors that pay increases, safety measures and testing efforts would cost more than $4 billion this quarter.
Still, toilet paper and jigsaw puzzles almost vanished from the site, and the 100 million American households that are Prime members watched Amazon struggle. Finding a balance between meeting the promise of one- or two-day delivery and keeping employees safe has been a challenge for the company ever since.
At the 600,000-square-foot warehouse where Ms. Kelly worked, in Hazle Township, products shipped from China and elsewhere are removed from trucks and broken down into smaller packages that are trucked to Amazon’s other facilities for shipment to shoppers. Safety measures began arriving at the warehouse in mid-March, but they were introduced without rigor. When a team that oversaw safety protocols posed for a photo on March 17, wearing green for St. Patrick’s Day, its members stood right next to one another, without social distancing. Yellow tape marked off six-foot increments on a main walkway, but many people worked much closer together, Ms. Kelly said, “just like every other day.”
On April 1, Ms. Kelly, who had worked at the warehouse for nine years, noticed that four hand sanitizer pumps affixed to a pole were empty. Later that day, feeling ill with a scratchy throat, she left work early. She tested positive for Covid-19 a few days later.
Dave Clark, who runs Amazon’s global operations, said in a statement that “we were earlier than most when rolling out broad protective measures for our teams, and we’ve adapted every day to make improvements.” He pointed out that the warehouse is in a region with a high community infection rate and said he didn’t think employees had caught the virus at work.
“We believe our efforts are working,” Mr. Clark said.
But workers and local leaders began worrying early on that Amazon wasn’t doing enough.
The company in February began consulting with Dr. Ian Lipkin, an infectious-disease specialist at Columbia University, who advised introducing checks for fever, social distancing and other measures.
“They wanted to stay ahead of the science as best they could,” Dr. Lipkin said.
Still, some standard safety advice didn’t become common practice at AVP1 for almost two months, according to interviews with six workers, local leaders and elected officials, some of whom asked that their names not be used for fear of retribution.
It wasn’t until the first week in April, about a month after white-collar workers in Seattle were sent home, that fever checks were instituted at the Hazle Township warehouse. Masks were available to those who asked for them, but weren’t required. Tables in the break room were moved apart, but as employees who had stayed home returned to work, lunch became crowded; Amazon added an extra break time on April 21 after workers complained. In social media posts and interviews, workers argued that the plant should be temporarily closed for deep cleaning.
By the end of March, State Representative Tarah Toohil, a Republican whose district includes the warehouse, was hearing from workers. A relative of an employee called to say Amazon’s cleaning crew had not shown up for work the previous day. Two days later, the mother of a contract worker told her to say not enough had changed at the warehouse.
“Now they are up to about nine cases, and it’s still running the same,” the woman wrote in an email.
Amazon kept alerting workers to new infections. April 4: four cases. April 6: nine cases. April 8: eight cases.
That day, a worker complained to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, reporting that “there’s no disinfectant we bring our own,” and that employees awaiting Covid-19 test results were still going to work.
“The richest company in the world can afford to close for a few days with pay for their people,” the employee wrote. OSHA, which asked employers to investigate themselves during the outbreak, closed the complaint after Amazon provided documentation of its efforts.
As neighboring Hazleton, at the intersection of two interstates, became a hot spot for the virus, there was increasing pressure on the area’s big employers to shut down. In a few days, more than 1,500 people signed a Change.org petition calling for Amazon to close AVP1. The petition said social distancing at the facility was nearly impossible.
The local congressman, Matt Cartwright, a Democrat, held an online press conference and announced that he had asked OSHA to investigate three of the area’s major employers, because he had heard about problems with social distancing and the lack of protective gear. He later confirmed that one was Amazon. Ms. Toohil called on large industrial employers, including Amazon, to close and pay employees.
Pressure mounted when the Cargill meatpacking plant in the same industrial park as Amazon shut its doors, promising to pay its 900 workers for two weeks. More than 100 had tested positive for the disease.
“I believe it actually saved lives,” said Wendell Young IV, who heads the region’s United Food and Commercial Workers union. “Any spread related to the plant stopped immediately.”
On April 10, Amazon announced 11 new cases. On April 13, it was four new infections, and on April 15 the company told employees that another 11 people were infected. After that, no specifics were forthcoming, just announcements that there had been additional cases.
On a whiteboard in the warehouse, several employees asked managers why the number of infections was no longer shared. They were told that it made no difference and that the company didn’t want to make employees fearful.
In the dark early morning of April 11, trucks from a pest control company pulled into the facility’s parking lot. A team in hazmat suits wearing respirators sprayed disinfectant fog in the building between shifts.
There were other safety improvements. Where two people once had moved a stack of 10 empty pallets, one person instead moved five at a time. Managers told workers to tip and slide heavy items instead of lifting them with another person. Masks were required.
Still, by late April, a few places could still be too congested for employees to feel safe. One worker told colleagues in a Facebook group that social distancing was practiced everywhere but the busy area near the loading docks known as End of Line. Another wrote that she had seen 25 people working face to face across pallets, grabbing products to prepare for shipments.
“If anyone is going to get infected, it’s going to be from tonight,” she wrote in a Facebook post. She later said she had told a manager, who spaced people out more.
Since Ms. Kelly returned to work in late April, she has often worked almost 11-hour shifts — overtime to make up for the time she was out sick beyond the two weeks that Amazon pays workers with Covid-19.
She said she was glad to see some work stations had been removed while she was away, because they had been too close together. And some workers had been hired just to refill all the sanitizer bottles.
“It’s just way too late,” she said.