Retail giant Amazon.com came under fire after reporting that almost 20,000 of its frontline workers, including from subsidiary Whole Foods Market, have been infected with COVID-19.
In a blog post yesterday, Amazon said 19,816 frontline Amazon and Whole Foods Market employees — or 1.4% out of a total of over 1.37 million — have tested positive or been presumed positive for the virus between March 1 and Sept. 19. The Seattle-based company said that number is 42% lower than the estimated 33,952 workers who would have tested positive or been presumed positive if the infection rate was the same as that of the general population, based on Johns Hopkins University data.
“Since the beginning of this crisis, we’ve worked hard to keep our employees informed, notifying them of every new case in their building. We also want to share details and best practices for keeping employees safe with NGOs, governments and other companies,” Amazon stated in the blog. “As part of this commitment, we’ve decided to publicly share the COVID-19 infection rates among Amazon front-line employees — something few, if any, companies and no other major retailers have done. We hope other large companies will also release their detailed learnings and case rates because doing so will help all of us. This is not an arena where companies should compete; this is an arena where companies should help one another.”
After the blog posting, United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) blasted Amazon for the high number of COVID-infected workers. Since the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, UFCW and other labor groups, government officials and regulators have criticized Amazon — among other companies — for not disclosing their number of infected workers. In published reports, Amazon employees also have complained about what they called inconsistent safety measures, including facilities that remained open despite confirmed COVID cases.
“Amazon’s confession that nearly 20,000 of its workers have been infected by COVID-19 is the most damning evidence we have seen that corporate America has completely failed to protect our country’s frontline workers in this pandemic,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement on Thursday. “[Amazon founder and CEO] Jeff Bezos has repeatedly demonstrated that profits will always come before the safety of the company’s employees in Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods grocery stores.”
Amazon noted that it has built its own coronavirus testing capacity to bolster employee safety. The company said it has assembled a multi-skilled team — ranging from research scientists and program managers to procurement specialists and software engineer — and hired lab technicians to ramp up testing. Plans call for the company to expand from thousands of COVID tests per day to 50,000 across 650 sites by November.
“We’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars in this initiative, but testing is just one of the things we’re doing to keep our front-line employees safe,” Amazon said in the Oct. 1 blog. “We provide our employees comprehensive health insurance from their first day on the job and paid time off to any employee who needs to be quarantined or receive treatment. In the early days of the crisis, we enlisted several of the world’s leading epidemiology and outbreak-response doctors to work with our 5,000-member global safety team to devise and implement process changes throughout our buildings.
“All in, we’ve introduced or changed over 150 processes to ensure the health and safety of our teams, including distributing over 100 million face masks, implementing temperature checks at sites around the world, mandating enhanced cleaning procedures at all of our sites, and introducing extensive social distancing measures to reduce the risk for our employees,” Amazon said. Cleaning is performed at each worksite about every 90 minutes to sanitize door handles, stairway handrails, lockers, elevator buttons and touch screens, the company added.
UFCW’s Perrone, however, contends that Amazon must be “held accountable” for the large number of coronavirus-infected employees.
“As the largest union for America’s retail and food workers, UFCW is calling for immediate action by federal regulators and a full congressional investigation,” he said. “This titanic safety failure demands the highest level of scrutiny. The lives of America’s essential workers are on the line.”
Overall, UFCW represents 1.3 million workers in grocery stores, meatpacking, food processing, retailing, health care and other industries. The union said that, among its grocery and retail members, at least 110 workers nationwide have died due to COVID-19 and nearly 16,000 workers have been infected by or exposed to the virus.