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Amazon made this injured warehouse worker sit 10 hours a day doing nothing

David Gallagher, who is on workers' comp, tried to get approval for a leave. He was denied twice over the course of a month.

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- 10:23

Work was busy at his Sacramento warehouse. Fellow Amazon employees were buzzing about trying to fulfill a persistent surge of orders coming in during the pandemic. But David Gallagher, who was trained to check inventories, just sat in a temporary break area and did nothing for 10 hours a day -- a requirement so he could continue collecting a paycheck.

Gallagher is on workers' compensation after being injured at his warehouse and has a doctor's order to stay seated at work at all times. He had previously been working a desk job for a nonprofit as part of an Amazon program that lets employees temporarily volunteer in their communities while still getting paid. When coronavirus infections started spiking in March, Gallagher said that program was paused and he was called back to his warehouse.

Shannon and David Gallagher

David and Shannon Gallagher, two Amazon warehouse employees employed in the same Sacramento facility.

Courtesy of Shannon Gallagher

To do what? Sit, surf the internet on his phone, text his wife and socialize with the handful of other workers' comp employees in the same breakroom doing the same thing -- for days. He sat in that break area for two days a week, 10 hours a day, in the middle of a health crisis, for two months.

There was no supervision of these workers. No clearly defined assignments. The local human resources office couldn't even explain to Gallagher why he was required to be there.

At first blush, money for nothing might sound like a good thing, especially during a recession that's put tens of millions of people out of work. But Gallagher said he was worried that coming into work was endangering his family's health during the pandemic, which has killed more than 110,000 Americans, many of them sick and elderly. Gallagher's father-in-law, who has suffered five heart attacks, has diabetes and uses an oxygen tank most of the day, lives with him.

So Gallagher tried repeatedly to get an unpaid leave from work but was twice denied. After he appealed the first denial, he was denied again this past Friday. He was approved for leave on Monday, two hours after CNET contacted Amazon.

"I thought it was a great company, until all of this started happening," Gallagher said. "The way they've done all of this, the way they've treated me at this point, you know, this whole process, this makes me see them in a whole different light."

Gallagher is just one employee in Amazon's sprawling logistics network, which includes over 500 US facilities and 400,000 US warehouse workers. But he's representative of the chaos Amazon has been thrown into during the coronavirus pandemic and how its mismanagement has at times frustrated its workers and left them more vulnerable to infection.

Amazon's delivery times were slowed for weeks due to millions more customer orders amid quarantines. Warehouses were overhauled with more than 150 new safety protocols, including providing masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to workers and instituting social distancing in facilities. Amazon hired 175,000 new employees to handle the surge. At the same time, many existing workers used a new unpaid time off benefit to stay home.

The unpaid time off benefit was first instituted in March, then ended May 1 and replaced by a requirement to ask for a leave of absence. Amazon's human resources department is now struggling to keep up with employees' requests during the pandemic, Bloomberg reported last week, causing workers like Gallagher to fall through the cracks.

Gallagher's story also adds to Amazon's reputation for mistreating its warehouse employees, with CNET and other publications reporting on worker injuries, firings of activist employees and harsh treatment by managers. Many of these concerns boiled over during the pandemic, with a string of worker demonstrations in recent months calling for better warehouse protections from the virus and more hazard pay.

Amazon, meanwhile, often points to its generous benefits packages and $15 minimum wage as proof of its positive relationship with employees.

Gallagher and his wife, who also works for Amazon, haven't been involved in these worker protests and say they have no connection to the activist groups and unions that often criticize Amazon's working conditions.

"These are unprecedented times, and we're working fast to support our employees," Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski said. "At the onset of the pandemic, we implemented significant changes to allow for effective social distancing, which included moving the workstation Mr. Gallagher was assigned to a converted breakroom. Like all companies, we continue to rapidly adjust to support our teams."

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Injuries on the job

David, 52,  and his wife, Shannon Gallagher, 42, met on Match.com five years ago and got married two months later. They brought with them two kids each from their prior marriages.

The parallels didn't end there. David and Shannon were both hired at the Sacramento warehouse in October 2017, within a week of each other, soon after the facility first opened. David had been laid off and looking for new work after spending time in customer service. Shannon left a job working for Toyota customer service. Both were eager to get away from a desk and do something more active. The job, they said, was physically challenging but enjoyable.

Shannon got injured on the job in February 2018. She was stowing items from a conveyor belt when her knee popped. Not thinking much of it, she continued her shift. The next day, her knee was swollen, but she kept going into work. After the injury kept nagging her, she visited a doctor a few weeks later and found out she tore a meniscus.

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Workers walk through Amazon's Sacramento fulfillment center, called SMF1, a few months before it opened in October 2017. David and Shannon Gallagher worked in this facility, helping stow merchandise and count inventories.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

She underwent surgery that June to fix the tear and went on workers' comp, which provides benefits including company-paid medical care and disability pay while she recovers. After returning to work for two hours a day in the fall, she could sense something was still wrong and her doctor found more damage. She had surgery again in April 2019 and will need a total knee replacement. Her doctor has cleared her to go back to work, so long as she stays seated, but Amazon has declined to accommodate that requirement, she said. So instead she's currently on unpaid leave and able to stay home.

David was injured at the warehouse in August 2018, after he twisted his knee when trying to pick up a cart that had fallen over. He kept working for more than eight months, but an MRI eventually revealed a partially torn meniscus and a sprained MCL. He had surgery in June 2019 and went on workers' comp too.

The couple provided CNET with copies of recent letters from their doctor that describe their injuries and guidelines for what activities they can do while recovering, with both letters specifically saying David and Shannon should be seated 100% of the time at work.

Back to work

David returned to work in December 2019, but instead of going to his warehouse, Amazon paid him to volunteer at a local nonprofit. He answered phones, getting back to his old life in customer service. That volunteer work continued all the way until March, when he received an email from Amazon that his program was halted because of the pandemic.

But instead of being sent home, David was required to go into his warehouse so he could continue drawing a paycheck.

"Once I got back, they had some table set up in a corner of the warehouse and, you know, they said go sit down at the desk. The first day I got there he just said he doesn't care what I did. Just sit there watching Netflix if I wanted to. Just sit there," David said, referring to the person running the warehouse clinic.

Amazon said David participated in the Amazon Community Together volunteer program, which is available for employees for up to 90 days. Once that 90 days ran out, he was told to return to his warehouse, the company said.

David and a few other workers' comp employees were all seated close together at the same table, part of a temporary break area on the warehouse floor that included a microwave, refrigerator and utensils. For the first week, they were given no assignments at all. Then they were told to help train a machine-learning algorithm by drawing lines around objects on desktop computers. David said none of the managers bothered to check if this work was ever done. In the interest of social distancing, the workers' comp employees were spread out to different tables within about two weeks.

Most weeks, David would go in only twice a week, using the unpaid time off benefit on the other two days he was slated to work so he could reduce his family's risk of getting sick. While Amazon eventually added many safety measures to his warehouse, he didn't feel safe going in to work and being around many other people, especially given his worries about his father-in-law contracting the virus.

David's concerns weren't hypothetical: There have been hundreds of confirmed coronavirus cases of Amazon warehouse employees across the US. He said there were two confirmed infections in his warehouse.

"I never felt that I needed to be there," he said.

Denied time off

When that unpaid time off benefit expired in May, things became even more difficult for him.

He asked a warehouse HR worker why he was being required to come in and was told it wasn't her decision and she had no specific answer for him. Instead, the HR worker recommended he apply for unpaid time off.

So that's what he tried to do. On May 9, he submitted a request for leave and stopped going into the warehouse, expecting a quick approval since he wasn't contributing to the warehouse work. Amazon denied the request 10 days later. He sent in two letters in May imploring the company to approve the request.

"My elderly father is on oxygen and is at high risk if exposed to the covid19 virus," he wrote in one of the letters to HR. "Please explain how putting myself at risk each for 10 hours each shift and not doing essential work is not considered an emergency situation for my father and the rest of my family in the house."

Gallagher's letter to Amazon's HR in May, which the company didn't respond to for weeks. (CNET removed the name of the HR employee in the letter.)

Courtesy of David Gallagher

HR didn't respond for weeks. Then an HR representative called and emailed him last Wednesday, saying an exception may be made to approve the request. For whatever reason, David received a formal letter two days later saying his appeal was denied, with the document saying he failed to provide the supporting documentation and didn't apply 15 days prior to going on leave. Amazon said it was processing his leave approval when the second denial letter was sent.

The Gallaghers provided copies of several emails to and from Amazon HR that clearly lay out David's request and the company's denials.

Around the same time David stopped going into the warehouse, he was called by the nonprofit he was working at prior to the pandemic and was offered a job there. He started there as a paid employee in mid-May, doing the same work answering phones. He feels much safer there, since he only sees one or two other people there a day, instead of the dozens or hundreds at the Amazon warehouse.

He didn't formally resign from Amazon, so was just waiting to get fired. CNET emailed Amazon's public relations on Monday detailing the Gallaghers' problems. Two hours later he was contacted again by the HR representative saying that his unpaid leave had been approved as a one-time exception until the end of July. But David said he doesn't expect to go back to Amazon.

"After the last month, I really didn't like what they put me through," David said on Monday. "It shouldn't take a month of having me worry about it."

Shannon, who remains on unpaid leave, said she probably won't go back to Amazon either, saying she's disgusted with how the company treated her husband.

"We know this is happening to other people, and hopefully our story will help other people to feel it's OK to come out and speak the truth," Shannon said Monday. "I would just like them to treat their employees fairly. There's all this talk about bullying at school, but there's bullying at companies as well."