Amazon workers in southern California’s industrial heartland say the company’s policies are forcing sick employees to work and that warehouses are refusing to comply with a state paid sick leave law meant to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks.
In the Inland Empire region outside Los Angeles, Amazon workers told the Hlcarpenter.com they fear losing their jobs if they are ill and stay home. At least four Amazon warehouses in the region have recorded Covid-19 cases.
On 1 May, Amazon ended a policy allowing unlimited unpaid time off, a measure adopted at the start of the coronavirus crisis that allowed workers to take time off for any reason. They would forgo wages, but if they were concerned about their safety or had new childcare responsibilities due to lockdowns, they could stay home without losing their jobs.
Without the policy, workers say they could now be fired if they miss shifts. They worry the reversal will result in sick and vulnerable people showing up for shifts because they can’t risk termination. The health concerns are particularly serious in the Inland Empire, which has some of the worst air quality in the US and disproportionately high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Employees also shared emails showing that Amazon has dismissed some paid sick leave requests by claiming a California law intended to provide supplemental sick leave during the pandemic does not apply to the warehouses.
“I’m afraid to come to work, but I don’t have a choice,” said Eddie, a 48-year-old San Bernardino worker with diabetes, who asked to go by his middle name and works in one of the facilities that had an outbreak. “I shouldn’t be there. We’re risking our safety for the company … The more I think about it, the more stressed I get.”
“We are a vector of this disease,” said one worker at a warehouse in San Bernardino. The 27-year-old, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, recovered from pneumonia last year and is at high risk of serious complications if they contract Covid. “There shouldn’t even be a debate about this. It’s incredibly nerve-racking.”
The Inland Empire, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, was once home to the west coast’s largest steel plant, a major air force base and an agricultural economy. Today, the historically rural area is a hub for distribution centers and the logistics industry, with huge warehouses for Amazon, UPS, Walmart and other retailers. The sector has added more than 50,000 jobs over the last decade as e-commerce has boomed, but a majority of families in the region don’t earn enough to make ends meet.
On 16 April, the California governor, Gavin Newsom, passed an executive order providing food sector workers two weeks of supplemental paid sick leave if they have to isolate due to Covid-19 concerns. The law covers “workers at warehouses where food is stored” and is aimed at protecting consumers from the virus and offering additional support to essential workers whose jobs involve the food supply.
Amazon warehouses in the industrial neighborhoods of San Bernardino and Riverside counties handle a wide range of packages, including food items. But employees say that when they have asked about Newsom’s order in recent weeks, the human resources department has ignored their questions or responded that the facilities are not considered part of the food sector.
The 27-year-old worker with a history of pneumonia works at a sort center and has been responsible for helping package a range of pantry food items. When they asked HR about the paid sick leave law for food workers, the company directed them to steps they could take to request unpaid time off.
A labor spokesperson for the state, however, told the Hlcarpenter.com that the law does apply to warehouses such as Amazon’s centers, noting that the order has a broad definition of “food facility”, which includes any operations that store or package food for human consumption.
Eileen Hards, an Amazon spokeswoman, declined to answer specific questions about Newsom’s order or whether the company has provided this form of paid sick leave, saying in an email: “Amazon has complied with all requirements given by the State.”
The company says in addition to the time off it provided before the coronavirus pandemic, it now gives two weeks of paid time off for infected employees and those presumed to have Covid-19. But in one recent case, a worker who tested positive only received his pay after a BuzzFeed reporter inquired about it, and employees across the country have reported difficulties getting any sick pay during the pandemic.
California’s law also appears to be broader than Amazon’s policy, requiring paid leave for workers who have to isolate due to health concerns, including if they live with someone sick or exposed, and it says they are entitled to “immediately” start leave upon request.
“People are absolutely going to show up sick. They have to,” said a 23-year-old worker at an Amazon fulfillment center in Rialto, a city near San Bernardino. The worker recently stopped going to work out of fear, even though he now risks losing his job and gets no paid time off. “We’re all crammed in there. It’s gonna get bad.”
A San Bernardino worker in her 40s, who has two children with asthma, said she was terrified of getting them sick but would not stop working: “Necessity is bigger than my fear. I need to pay my bills. If I don’t go, then my family is going to lose my home.”
Amazon confirmed that it had ended its unlimited unpaid time off policy, but the company says it continues to allow the option on a case-by-case basis. Workers accrue roughly 80 hours of unpaid time off over the course of a year, and they can now also apply for an unpaid personal leave of absence due to Covid concerns. But it can take weeks for Amazon to respond to these requests, and multiple employees who asked for this said their requests were “pending” and that they were worried they would soon lose their jobs.
Amazon workers across the US have accused the company of not doing enough to protect their health and safety amid the pandemic. Amazon has fired several employee activists after they participated in organizing actions, and a high-profile vice-president resigned this week over the firings. Meanwhile, Amazon has experienced a boom in sales during the pandemic, with revenues of $75.4bn in the first three months of 2020, over $33m an hour. The fortune of CEO Jeff Bezos has grown by $24bn during the crisis.
‘Infections are going to spike indefinitely’
“It’s wild that we’re asking for an [unlimited unpaid time off policy] to be returned, because even that was never enough,” said a San Bernardino employee in their 20s, who works at a sort center and is on an unpaid leave of absence. “It was a bare minimum so people who could afford to could have the chance to stay home without jeopardizing their job.”
The worker said they had another part-time job they could do from home and had some money saved as they worked toward graduate school: “This is going to set me back.”
Amazon has made changes over the last two months to try to enforce distancing within the warehouses, but the worker said the nature of the job made it hard to avoid other people. Another benefit of the unlimited time off was that the facilities became slightly less crowded, they said.
A 25-year-old who lives in Riverside county and has worked for Amazon for more than two years noted that Amazon was continuing to hire new workers as employees quit in fear.
“We don’t know what these people are bringing in. Infections are going to spike indefinitely,” said the worker, who has a baby and lives with his two older parents, who both have a range of health issues. “If I don’t go to work, I die of starvation. If I come home with an infection, I nearly kill half my family.”
Due to the lockdowns, he couldn’t find any other work. “Me and a lot of others have broke our back for Amazon … It’s almost like the virus doesn’t exist around them and all they care about are their numbers.”
Hards, the Amazon spokeswoman, said the company was “encouraging those who are unwell to stay home and taking extreme measures to keep people safe in our buildings”.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams,” she added.