In late August, something changed. Kendra Bartelmez-Forster said she started getting pings nearly every day on her Amazon app about positive COVID-19 cases in the Salem, Ore., warehouse where she worked. She was used to semi-regular notifications, but this was a notable uptick. Most evenings, she’d hear the ding on her phone and see the message confirming at least one new positive case somewhere in the facility.
“There were a lot,” Bartelmez-Forster said. “It was almost daily.”
Through public records, The Markup found that COVID-19 cases in Bartelmez-Forster’s warehouse and Amazon facilities all around Oregon spiked in the fall. And since last spring, at least five of the company’s warehouses in the state have experienced outbreaks. In two warehouses, including Bartelmez-Forster’s, still-active outbreaks have been ongoing for more than 565 days—longer than at any other workplace in Oregon, including the state’s hospitals and prisons, according to the records.
But instead of stepping up safety measures, Amazon has been rolling back pandemic protocols in its warehouses in Oregon and around the country, citing vaccinations as the best way to reduce transmission of the virus.
After Rollbacks, COVID-19 Cases Continued to Rise
Weekly data since the end of March 2021 show that two Amazon warehouses in Oregon saw an increase in total cases after the company rolled back certain COVID-19 protections
In July, the company announced it was removing in-house COVID testing centers at its facilities. And in late September, an app message sent to workers and reviewed by The Markup said Amazon was “returning to our pre-COVID paid break policy” on Oct. 6, dropping breaks from 20 minutes to 15. In late October, the company announced that vaccinated workers no longer needed to wear masks unless mandated by state or local law. And anticipating the holiday season this year, Amazon said it’s hiring 150,000 more people to work in its warehouses nationwide.
“Vaccines are the way out of this pandemic, and we’ve worked hard to provide access to vaccines for our employees and provide incentives for them to get vaccinated,” said Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait. She added that the company has “incurred around $16 billion in COVID-19 related operating costs since the beginning of the pandemic.”
As Oregon health records showed COVID-19 cases ticking up in the company’s warehouses this fall, Amazon warehouse workers from Ohio to Michigan to Texas to California say the coronavirus has continued to rage in their workplaces.
An Amazon warehouse employee in Rialto, Calif., who spoke to The Markup on the condition that he not be named, said he noticed a sizable rise in confirmed cases over the past three months. He counted 28 COVID notifications that came through his Amazon app in September and 24 in October; he said it was unclear how many actual cases each notification represented. In a nearby Amazon warehouse in Fontana, Calif., another worker said he too got scores of app notifications around the same time. He counted at least 13 COVID case alerts in the first week of October alone.
“When I was getting those notifications one after another, I was freaking out,” said the Fontana worker, who also asked that we not use his name for fear of retaliation. “ ’Cause you don’t know when your number is next.”
At least two Amazon warehouses, both in California, are currently the subject of active inspections being carried out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on COVID-related complaints, according to records obtained by The Markup through a public records request. And attorneys general in two states—New York and California—have filed lawsuits against the company, accusing it of failing to prioritize worker safety during the pandemic. California settled with Amazon in November for $500,000, while New York’s lawsuit is ongoing.
“Amazon is rolling back its already inadequate public health measures and acting as if the pandemic is over when the risk of virus transmission is increasing, and a new variant threatens to cause even higher rates of transmission, illness, and death,” New York attorney general Letitia James wrote in a filing three weeks ago, asking a state trial court to force Amazon to implement better COVID safety protocols. “While case rates, hospitalizations, and deaths rise, Amazon rescinds protections and packs in more workers for its holiday rush. Amazon’s ongoing—and worsening—failure to protect workers must be halted.”
Amazon spokesperson Agrait said, “It’s disappointing that the Attorney General is seeking to politicize the pandemic” and “the facts are that we moved fast from the onset of the pandemic, listened to and learned from the experts, and have taken a comprehensive approach to COVID-19 safety.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Amazon has been faced with an especially critical task: As the country’s second-largest private employer, it’s responsible for nearly one million employees who staff its network of hundreds of fulfillment centers and other types of warehouses. These workers have helped keep the retail behemoth operating at record capacity as demand for products (and the company’s profits) have skyrocketed.
It’s unclear how many Amazon warehouse workers have contracted COVID-19 in the process. Every state tracks cases differently, and unlike Oregon, most do not compile and publish data on COVID outbreaks in workplaces. Amazon last released data in October 2020, showing nearly 20,000 of its workers had tested or were presumed positive for the virus by that point; it said rates tended to be similar to those in surrounding communities. The company has since been silent on numbers.
Interviews with current and former workers from around the country, documents obtained by The Markup from federal and state public health agencies, and legal filings paint a picture of how COVID has played out inside Amazon’s warehouses. Workers say the company has lacked transparency and largely prioritized productivity throughout the pandemic. And now, they don’t trust it to look out for their health and safety as the coronavirus continues to rip through the country.
How It Started
It would be impossible to talk about COVID and working conditions in Amazon warehouses without mentioning Chris Smalls, who is part of New York state’s lawsuit against the company.
Smalls worked at three different Amazon warehouses over the course of nearly five years before the pandemic broke out. When he was fired after staging a protest over COVID safety in March 2020, he was working as a supervisor at a Staten Island, N.Y., warehouse. Beforehand, as the coronavirus embroiled New York City that spring, he said a colleague came to work looking bleary-eyed and rundown.
“A couple days later, she tested positive,” Smalls said. “Not only me, but hundreds of others were exposed. Instead of closing down the facility or quarantining people, it was business as usual.”
Across the country, in Salem, Bartelmez-Forster was working in an Amazon warehouse known as PDX7, and she too noticed cases starting to appear. Initially, she said, warehouse managers gathered workers together for briefings on COVID cases at the site. But then, as more cases rolled in, Amazon switched to the app notifications, which alerted workers that there’d been positive cases on certain dates but didn’t provide more specifics.
“There were just too many people to gather and tell about each case,” Bartelmez-Forster said.
Smalls said he lobbied Amazon to provide workers with PPE (personal protective equipment) and quarantine those sick and exposed, but the company didn’t comply with his requests. So, he began organizing with coworkers—ultimately staging a walkout on March 30 to demand safer working conditions. Amazon fired Smalls that same day and issued his colleague, Derrick Palmer, a written warning. Amazon’s Agrait said Smalls was fired for coming to the warehouse despite being instructed to quarantine, thus violating the terms of his employment. After the incident, both Smalls and Palmer quickly became the faces of Amazon’s warehouse worker movement.
“After it went public and after national attention, they started bringing in all this PPE and all this testing. They put up tents and made sure the building looked safe from the outside,” said Smalls, who continues to organize Amazon workers in Staten Island. “But that wasn’t the reality on the inside.”
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Public records show a similar pattern inside some of Amazon’s other warehouses around the country.
During the first two months of the pandemic, OSHA received more than 125 complaints about Amazon’s COVID protocols. The grievances typically listed similar concerns, like Amazon keeping facilities open even when workers tested positive, not doing proper contact tracing, and failing to deep-clean worksites.
“No social distancing, no masks, no gloves, no hand sanitizer, acting like covid-19 isn’t real,” read one complaint from an Indianapolis warehouse in April 2020. Another complaint that month from a Watson, Ind., warehouse read, “Employees are only being allowed a single Clorox wipe per shift.”
Shortly after that, Bartelmez-Forster noticed some changes at PDX7. Amazon began distributing masks and set up temperature checks and hand-sanitizing stations in the building. It staggered breaks for workers and made them five minutes longer, so bathrooms and walkways wouldn’t be as jammed. And for the first time, Bartelmez-Forster said, workers were allowed to keep their cellphones on them in case of an emergency.
Amazon also started heavily enforcing social distancing rules in common areas. The company laid baby-blue tape throughout PDX7 to give workers cues for maintaining a six-foot distance and erected plexiglass barriers in break rooms, Bartelmez-Forster said. Amazon also set up an AI monitoring system called “Distance Assistant.” The system involved cameras placed around the warehouse that fed TV monitors live video showing workers overlaid with virtual 6-foot green circles. If the green circles touched one another, the circles would turn red—alerting workers they’d breached the six-foot rule.
Other measures Amazon took included shutting off the water in every other sink in the bathrooms and removing all but about 10 of the 40 microwaves in the main breakroom, Bartelmez-Forster said. The move baffled her.
“People have to get in lines for microwaves,” she said. “So, it makes it harder to actually stagger people.”
Meanwhile, warehouse workers around the country reported they, too, like Smalls, were fired after bringing up safety concerns. Linda Rodriguez, an Amazon worker in Colorado, said she was terminated after she raised alarms about the company’s “sloppy contact tracing” and lack of pandemic safety information for Spanish-speaking employees. (She filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment; the matter is yet to be resolved. Amazon told Colorado Public Radio Rodriguez was fired for other reasons.) News reports show that warehouse workers in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and New York also said they were fired for speaking out about Amazon’s lack of COVID safety measures.
Amazon’s Agrait didn’t respond to requests for comment on Rodriguez’s complaint and the other worker firings but said the company takes “complaints very seriously” and “we also encourage employee feedback and have multiple channels for employees to share it.”
The rash of worker firings prompted Amazon’s vice president of Amazon Web Services, Tim Bray, to publicly resign in protest—a rare move for someone in upper management.
“I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19,” Bray wrote in an April 2020 blog post. “At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response. It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential.”
As fall approached, the virus continued to sweep through Amazon’s warehouses.
Brian Denning worked in Amazon’s Troutdale, Ore., warehouse, known as PDX9, from May to December 2020. He said he tracked COVID cases there for several months but eventually stopped when the numbers reached the 200s.
“It would get demoralizing,” said Denning, who’s now chair of the advocacy group Amazon Worker Solidarity Campaign. “Because you would see almost every day that one of your coworkers came down with COVID.”
In October 2020, Amazon released its data showing tens of thousands of its workers had gotten the virus. Within that data, one state in particular stood out—Minnesota. The company revealed COVID case rates in that state’s warehouses were double that of the general population (31.7 cases per 1,000 people versus 15.8 cases per 1,000 people).
Tyler Hamilton was working in Amazon’s Shakopee, Minn., warehouse at the time (and still works there today). Shortly after doing a training with other workers in the fall of 2020, he said, he and two colleagues tested positive for COVID. Hamilton said he came down with a high fever, completely lost his sense of smell, and had to take off about three weeks of work to fully recover.
“Pretty much everyone I know has already gotten COVID now,” he said. “It’s actually weird if you haven’t.”
Throughout the pandemic, Hamilton said, his Amazon app has continued to ding with constant alerts about COVID cases in his warehouse. “Honestly, it’s white noise at this point,” he said. “Another day, more cases. Another day, more cases. It’s almost dystopian.”
How It's Going
Two Amazon warehouses in Oregon have now been consumed in an ongoing COVID outbreak for nearly 19 months—longer than any other workplace in the state.
The longest publicly tracked active outbreak is at Amazon’s PDX7, Bartelmez-Forster’s warehouse in Salem, according to reports from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA). The second longest is at the company’s PDX9 warehouse in Troutdale. OHA considers outbreaks “active” until 28 days after a final case is reported; at that point they’re considered “resolved.” If cases continue, however, the outbreak remains “active.”
COVID cases reported in one Oregon warehouse as of Dec. 12, 2021
At PDX7, a total of 233 COVID cases have been reported to OHA from May 2020 to Dec. 12 of this year. The warehouse has an average annual workforce of around 1,600 employees, according to OSHA data. For PDX9, OHA has tallied 453 COVID cases, which includes 51 reported cases in the first two weeks of December. The warehouse is much larger than PDX7, with an average annual workforce of nearly 4,300 employees, according to OSHA data.
Ten Longest COVID-19 Outbreaks in Oregon Workplaces
Two Oregon Amazon warehouses have had longer ongoing outbreaks than hospitals, prisons, and non-Amazon warehouses in the state
|Workplaces||Outbreak length in days||Total cases||Active outbreak||Start date||Latest case date|
|1||Amazon Aumsville (PDX7)||566||233||May 21, 2020||Dec 8, 2021|
|2||Amazon Troutdale (PDX9)||565||453||May 21, 2020||Dec 7, 2021|
|3||Salem Hospital||558||366||May 27, 2020||Dec 6, 2021|
|4||Snake River Correctional Institution||357||639||Jun 24, 2020||Jun 16, 2021|
|5||Amy's Kitchen||268||153||Jul 28, 2020||Apr 22, 2021|
|6||Walmart Distribution Center||250||124||Jun 30, 2020||Mar 7, 2021|
|7||Oregon State Hospital (A)||233||104||Apr 16, 2021||Dec 5, 2021|
|8||Walmart Distribution Center||221||71||Apr 26, 2021||Dec 3, 2021|
|9||Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution||201||535||Jul 8, 2020||Jan 25, 2021|
|10||Oregon State Hospital||196||147||Jul 13, 2020||Jan 25, 2021|
Several other warehouses in the state have also seen high case counts. The Walmart distribution center that’s seen the most COVID cases is in the rural northeastern town of Hermiston. The warehouse has reported two outbreaks lasting several months that have totaled 195 cases as of December. Around 1,100 people work there, according to city data.
Walmart didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, nationwide, OSHA had received 382 COVID-related complaints about Amazon facilities as of Oct. 31, according to public records obtained by The Markup. Stemming from those complaints, the agency has conducted 33 in-depth inspections of the company’s warehouses, which have resulted in seven separate fines totaling $63,120. Two of those inspections are still ongoing.
“Amazon complies with all local, state and federal guidelines and directives, and we take any potential concerns very seriously,” said Agrait when asked about the OSHA complaints, inspections, and fines. “In most cases health authorities who have visited our sites have confirmed that we meet or exceed all requirements.”
Ellen Reese, a sociology professor at the University of California, Riverside, whose research team has conducted 35 interviews with Amazon workers during the pandemic, said the current nature of Amazon warehouse work—with thousands of people under one roof being pressured to fulfill tasks as quickly as possible—makes adhering to social distancing and sanitizing rules nearly impossible.
“Yes, there’s these safety rules,” Reese said. “But they’re often broken.”
All the current and former Amazon workers who spoke with The Markup said the company’s COVID safety protocols haven’t always been effective.
Denning said social distancing and mask mandates are often ignored or hard to enforce at PDX9. “It’s loud inside the facility. There’s pallet jacks, there’s forklifts, it’s not quiet,” he said. “So, people move toward each other to hear better…. You’d see [some employees] come in and they’re wearing their masks around their chin.”
Amazon expects its workers to sanitize their stations at the start and end of every shift. But the worker in the Rialto, Calif., warehouse said he doesn’t have time when he clocks in because items start coming down the conveyor belt immediately. He’s only able to clean during his break. A sanitizing team was deployed at his facility, he said, but he doesn’t feel that they are thorough enough.
“They go around cleaning with a leaf blower that just blows the dust from one side to another,” the worker said. This past summer, he said, he was moved to another station for three weeks and saw a used mask lying on the floor when he arrived. “That same used mask was on the floor for those three weeks.” he said.
Agrait said the company follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OSHA on sanitizing, and “we continue cleaning our high touch surfaces frequently, providing cleaning supplies to associates for their work stations, and hand sanitizing supplies around the sites.”
In May, the California division of OSHA, Cal/OSHA, fined Amazon $41,000—the largest COVID-related fine OSHA has issued to Amazon to date— after a seven-month inspection of that same Rialto warehouse. In its citation letter, the agency said Amazon didn’t “effectively implement” coronavirus safety protocols “to correct unhealthy conditions.” It also said the company failed to record 217 positive COVID infections in the warehouse from April to October 2020. Amazon has appealed; Agrait said the matter is pending in litigation.
The state of California separately settled a claim with Amazon for $500,000 on COVID-related issues in November. The settlement originated from a lawsuit first filed by the state in December 2020. Most recently, California attorney general Rob Bonta alleged in a November complaint that the company had “concealed” COVID case numbers from warehouse workers and local health agencies. He said because Amazon failed to adequately notify warehouse workers of case counts, they were left unable to make vital decisions about their safety.
“Amazon’s practices led to workers not knowing if they had been potentially exposed to two, 20, or even 200 cases of COVID-19,” Bonta said at a November press conference. “This left many workers understandably terrified and powerless to make informed decisions to protect themselves and to protect their loved ones.”
Amazon agreed to the $500,000 payment. “We’re glad to have this resolved,” said spokesperson Agrait, adding that the settlement “is solely about a technicality specific to California state law” regarding the COVID app notifications the company sends to warehouse workers.
The same day Bonta filed his complaint against Amazon, Nov. 12, the company changed the format of those notifications (for California workers only). Now, instead of just showing the date workers with COVID-19 were last on-site, Amazon also gives California workers an exact number of how many people tested positive in the warehouse. Workers in other states still only see if cases were reported on a given day, not how many people tested positive.
“Important operations update,” read a notification to the Rialto worker on Dec. 1. “We were recently notified that 10 individual(s) who work(s) at LGB7 received a COVID-19 diagnosis.” The next day he got an alert that 13 additional workers tested positive. The day after that, there were 11 more.
Rolling Back COVID Protocols
Four times a year, at least one of Amazon’s top executives hops on a conference call to hash out the company’s quarterly earnings with investors. In October, Brian Olsavsky, Amazon’s chief financial officer, kicked off the call saying, “We’ve incurred billions of dollars in additional costs to keep our employees safe and to support testing and other COVID-related costs.”
But, he later added, compared with the $4 billion the company spent in the third quarter of 2020, Amazon had cut COVID costs for the same quarter this year by $1.5 billion.
On-location testing, for one, has been suspended. And so have several other measures, such as temperature scans, mask mandates, and 20-minute breaks. For the rolling back of other COVID safety measures, the approach seems to vary among warehouses. According to workers who spoke with The Markup, some single direction walkways have reverted back to two-way walkways, some plexiglass barriers have been disassembled, and social distancing isn’t as rigorously enforced. In both PDX7 and PDX9, the “Distance Assistant” with its green and red circles, has been disabled.
Amazon initially told warehouse workers that as of Dec. 31 it would return to its pre-COVID rule of no longer allowing cellphones. Earlier this month, that policy came up as a safety issue when a tornado struck one of the company’s Illinois warehouses, killing six workers. Amazon has since changed direction. “We have made the decision to not revert to the previous policy indefinitely,” Agrait said.
Along with the easing of other COVID protocols, the worker in the Fontana, Calif., warehouse said having shortened breaks is stressful. The bathroom is on the opposite side of the warehouse, and it can take several minutes to get there. He said even the 20-minute breaks felt short.
“There’s traffic jams,” he said. “You have actual stop signs [in the walkways] to let the forklifts pass by,” he added, which can make it more congested and the bathroom commute even longer. Workers who aren’t back at their stations by the 15-minute mark can be issued warnings.
“Companies like Amazon have the power to set working conditions in a really substantive way. The way they go, others will also go,” said Lili Farhang, co-director of public health advocacy group Human Impact Partners. “There’s a high focus on vaccinations [in Amazon warehouses]. That’s great, but ideally you’re addressing the underlying conditions that expose people to COVID in the first place.”
In November, more than 200 public health experts signed a letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy about improving warehouse safety, especially as the pandemic persists and during the busy holiday “peak” season. The letter was organized by Human Impact Partners and recommended that Amazon implement stronger COVID precautions for workers, such as regular sanitization of workstations and unlimited time for hand washing.
Agrait didn’t say if the company would respond to the letter but said it’s “always listening to health authorities and experts and working hard to provide a safe workplace.” She added that, “However, in some cases external voices are misinformed about what it’s like in our buildings.”
Nancy Krieger, a professor of social epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who signed the letter, said it’s important for workplaces like Amazon to have broad pandemic protective measures, such as proper ventilation, mask mandates, proactive vaccine policies, and available testing.
“With Omicron coming at train wreck speed, we’re only going to see a surge in cases,” Krieger said. “We’re coming into this season where there’s lots of things that are going to be ordered…. It should not be a matter of business that workers be needlessly imperiled.”
When Amazon ended on-site COVID testing in July, cases had recently decreased and vaccines were widely available. A couple of months before that, Amazon had lifted its mask mandate. But then the Delta variant took hold, and cases started rising. Amazon reinstated the mask mandate in early August (which it then again ended in November) but never brought back testing.
“It’s too bad because it was a really good system,” said Bartelmez-Forster. “I was getting tested every week.”
This year would have been her third season working “peak” at PDX7, and she said she was dreading it. The 60-hour workweeks are grueling, more workers are stuffed into the warehouse, and those near-daily COVID app notifications are alarming, she said. So, in mid-November, Bartelmez-Forster gave notice.
“During peak, all you do is eat and sleep and eat and sleep and you work six days a week and that’s all you do for five or six weeks,” she said. “And during peak, the six-feet regulations really do go out the door.”
That’s something Bartelmez-Forster said she just couldn’t deal with as the pandemic approaches yet another winter surge.