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Exclusive: Detroit Amazon workers plan to walk out over handling of COVID-19

Exclusive: Detroit Amazon workers plan to walk out over handling of COVID-19


In a growing wave of protests, workers are demanding Amazon close the warehouse for cleaning

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Amazon workers at a fulfillment center near Detroit, Michigan, plan to walk out over the company’s handling of COVID-19. Workers at the facility, called DTW1, say management failed to notify them of the first new coronavirus case and was slow to alert them to the second, leading them to suspect there are more infections at the warehouse than they’re being told about. The workers also say that shortages of cleaning supplies, crowded conditions, and a pace of work that leaves little time for sanitation put them at risk of infection. They are calling on Amazon to be more transparent about the virus and immediately close and clean the warehouse. 

On the morning of the walkout, workers received an alert that a third worker had tested positive for the virus.

“I get we’re essential, but our lives are essential as well.”

“As the numbers rise in Michigan, a lot of us strongly feel that there are more cases within DTW1 that they’re failing to tell us about, that they’re just covering it up, and a lot of us just have had enough,” says Tonya Ramsay, a worker at DTW1 in Romulus, a city in the Detroit metro area. “I get we’re essential, but our lives are essential as well.”

The walkout is the latest in a series of labor actions at Amazon facilities. On Monday night, workers at a Chicago delivery station walked off the job in protest of Amazon’s refusal to close the building for cleaning after a worker tested positive for COVID-19. Earlier that day, workers at a Staten Island fulfillment center walked out, also calling on Amazon to close the facility for cleaning. At the time, Amazon had confirmed only one case of COVID-19 at the Staten Island facility, but, as with DTW1, workers suspected there were more. Amazon has since confirmed that five workers are infected with the virus, according to notifications viewed by The Verge

Workers in New York and Chicago have been organizing for better working conditions since long before the pandemic, but workers at DTW1 say the facility hasn’t been a major site of protests, a sign that frustration with Amazon’s handling of the virus is beginning to galvanize its larger workforce. Ramsay, who helped organize the walkout, has been at the facility for a year and a half and says she loves the job.

“That’s what I’m born to do, I like the movement, excitement, and busyness,” she says. She just wants Amazon to make it so “I can feel safe going to work and not worrying if I’m going to come home and possibly kill a family member by giving it to them.”

“I have a three month old child at my house, a six year old, and my girlfriend at the house. I don’t want to bring the virus home to them.”

Like several workers at DTW1 and other Amazon facilities, she learned about the first case of COVID-19 through word of mouth and calls management’s handling of it “slow and secretive.” Last week, rumors that someone had tested positive began circulating at the warehouse. Mario Crippen, another organizer of the walkout, messaged a supervisor about them, and they confirmed there had, in fact, been a positive case. The next day, workers received an official notification, but the robocall said there had been not one but two cases at the facility. The late message, the rapid spread of the new coronavirus in the area (Michigan is now third in the country for coronavirus-related deaths), and rumors about many more cases pending led him to believe infections at the facility were far more widespread than management was admitting. 

“I was sitting at work and just thinking to myself, I don’t want to get sick. I have a three month old child at my house, a six year old, and my girlfriend at the house. I don’t want to bring the virus home to them. So what I decided to do is see if I can rally up some people to do a walkout,” Crippen says. 

He posted on a private Facebook group and received an immediate response, then printed out flyers to hand out at work. In addition to demanding Amazon immediately shut down the facility for cleaning and send workers home with pay until it’s reopened, they’re also calling for more cleaning supplies, improved safety measures, expanded health benefits, a reduction in the pace of work, and greater transparency around COVID-19 cases at the facility. 

Amazon has resisted closing facilities where employees test positive. Workers in at least 19 warehouses in the US have been infected with the new coronavirus so far, according to local news reports, and the company has kept the vast majority running. The few exceptions came only after worker actions or government orders. In Queens, New York, Amazon temporarily closed a facility after employees refused to work their shift upon learning of a COVID-19 case. In Kentucky, Amazon indefinitely shuttered a returns processing facility after the governor ordered it closed. In Italy and Spain, Amazon refused to close facilities where workers were sick, prompting protests.

“I feel like if I’m afraid of a little retaliation, then I’m not fighting for nobody.”

An Amazon spokesperson previously told The Verge that the company consults with health authorities and medical experts on how to respond to illness among its workforce. If a worker is diagnosed with COVID-19 but hasn’t been in the building for some time or if the area where they worked has already been cleaned during the regular course of business, the facility may not need to be closed, the company said.

Amazon is straining to meet surging demand as millions of Americans under lockdown orders turn to the company for basic necessities. Closing facilities would further impede the company’s delivery system, but failing to assure workers that their safety is being taken seriously poses a potentially greater risk. Two other workers at DTW1 say they support the walkout but wouldn’t be participating because they’d already chosen to stay away out of fear for their health. In Italy, after Amazon refused to close facilities, workers went on strike. Now, workers in the US are increasingly using their new leverage to push the company to close and clean warehouses. 

Crippen says 50 to 100 workers have said they support the walkout, but several expressed anxiety after Amazon fired Chris Smalls, the organizer of the Staten Island walkout. Amazon says it let Smalls go for violating quarantine after he came in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19; Smalls says he had only passing contact with the worker and was singled out for quarantine in an attempt to silence him. New York City is now investigating his firing.

Smalls’ firing doesn’t worry Crippen. He feels he has to speak out to protect his co-workers and their families, and retaliation would only strengthen the case that Amazon’s policies need to change. “I feel like if I’m afraid of a little retaliation, then I’m not fighting for nobody. There has to be one person to stand up and fight for what’s right, and that’s got to be me,” he says. “They fired [Smalls] because he was standing up for what’s right. So once I stand up for what’s right, you fire me, and then let’s say another building does a walkout, you fire them. What are you trying to hide, Amazon? What are you trying to hide?”

Update April 1, 5:00 PM ET: In a comment, Amazon said it has taken “extreme measures to keep people safe,” including intensifying cleaning processes, and that fewer than 15 employees walked out. Workers say approximately 40 participated in the action.