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Amazon's details on COVID-19 infections aren't good enough, workers and officials say

Calls to release nationwide coronavirus statistics have come from Amazon's workers and 13 state attorneys general.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
7 min read

A protester outside an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in early May, at which demonstrators called on Amazon to improve safety protocols during the pandemic.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Courtenay Brown, who puts together grocery orders for online shoppers, says she's afraid of coming into work at her Amazon Fresh warehouse in New Jersey.

"For me right now in the warehouse, it's chaos, it's terrifying," she said, wearing a neon-colored safety vest and Amazon-branded hat. She spoke May 21 as part of an Amazon-focused online webinar hosted by CtW Investment Group, a part of the union coalition Change to Win. "There's really no transparency."

She called for her company to provide more detailed information on coronavirus cases and deaths, which Amazon so far has refused to do. The company does send its workers text messages and robocalls about new coronavirus cases at their local facilities and has confirmed coronavirus-related deaths of warehouse employees to reporters. But it doesn't provide national or statewide statistics on either of these figures. Other details, like the shift of an infected worker or their department, aren't disclosed.

Brown said that's left Amazon employees to independently compile the information the company disseminates in dribs and drabs to calculate nationwide coronavirus statistics so they can assess the risk of going to work and find hot spots in Amazon's logistics network.

And it's not just employees who've been asking for these numbers. Last month, 13 state attorneys general called on Amazon to disclose a state by state breakdown of coronavirus infections and deaths in its workforce. According to the Massachusetts Attorney General's office, Amazon hasn't yet responded to this request.

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On the same CtW call, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who invests in Amazon through the state's pension fund, criticized Amazon's decision, saying it's "leaving its employees and investors in the dark about the effectiveness of its COVID-19 response." The United Food and Commercial Workers union, a frequent Amazon critic, has also excoriated Amazon for not releasing these numbers.

Amazon's refusal to release more details about coronavirus cases and deaths has become the latest battlefront in an ongoing dispute between Amazon's leadership and its employees, backed by activist groups and unions. 

The situation is already sowing more distrust among Amazon's workforce, which isn't unionized in the US. Many more employees are already protesting against Amazon's health and safety response to the virus and criticizing its decision to roll back hazard pay and unlimited unpaid time off during the pandemic. More employees may be fearful to come to work -- as DiNapoli said was already happening -- slowing Amazon's ability to run its business and get packages to its millions of customers. In a worst-case scenario, this lack of broader information could potentially help spread the virus.

Amazon isn't the only company facing this same problem. This is a global pandemic, after all, driven by a virus that's killed more than 100,000 Americans. And while Amazon has faced a large amount of the scrutiny and criticism for its virus response over the past few months, its position on releasing these statistics doesn't appear to be unique.

Walmart , Target , Instacart and CVS all said in statements to CNET that they don't release nationwide numbers either. The New York Times last week wrote about meat producers, including Smithfield Foods, refusing to do so, too. Several of these companies cited privacy concerns and others said these numbers could easily be misinterpreted. Four Democratic US senators have called on Walmart to release its statistics.

Meanwhile, Kroger, Domino's, Walgreens, McDonald's, Costco, Dollar General and Dollar Tree didn't respond to requests for comment from CNET about whether they release these statistics.

Still, the fact that many major companies won't disclose these numbers, or won't respond to a reporter's question about them, likely offers no comfort to people like Brown, the Amazon worker in New Jersey, who said she feels she's risking her life to fulfill customer orders.

Amazon's texts and calls 

Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski said that warehouse rates of infection "vary almost entirely based on the communities of which our associates live" and added that rates are "at or below" the community spread in nearly all its facilities. A Walmart spokesman said his company's rates of infection are also generally below community rates. This general trend offers some evidence that both companies' efforts to keep workplaces clean have had a positive impact.

"We see that in our quarantine rates as well," Amazon's Levandowski said. "Quarantine rates are a critical part to understanding what's happening in the workplace -- it shows that our hard work around social distancing is paying off. 

"Unlike others who hide behind HIPAA, anytime there is a confirmed diagnosis we alert every person at the site," she continued, referencing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a federal health information privacy law. "This alert to employees is a direct text message noting when the person with the confirmed diagnosis was last in the building."

Dave Clark, Amazon's head of global operations, sat with 60 Minutes last month to explain why his company won't release its national statistics. (CNET and 60 Minutes are both owned by ViacomCBS.) He said of the total number of worker infections that "it's not a particularly useful number," adding that the statistic needs to factor in community spreads and the number of employees in a given facility. Amazon said the number of recoveries, with workers back on the job after getting sick, would also have to be considered to avoid having the raw totals be misunderstood.

Asked why the company wouldn't release the numbers with these adjustments included, Amazon said it would be incredibly difficult to summarize all these factors and caveats in an easily digestible text message to employees or website for the general public. 

That being said, Amazon added that it will release the numbers if it's legally required to do so but said it would be inappropriate to share that otherwise.

Ashley Conway, a workplace health and safety expert in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, strongly disagreed with Amazon's position, saying information about a work hazard should be accessible to anyone affected by it, which in this case includes the workers and the communities where they live.

"The assumption is that people can't take tough information. So it's kind of like this worst paternalistic attitude that people can't handle it," said Conway, the former director of the Disease Surveillance and Response division for the health department in Calvert County, Maryland.

Without Amazon providing these statistics, employees have taken it upon themselves to put together the company's text messages and robocalls to come up with a total number. The figures most recently cited are over 1,000 cases nationwide and nine deaths. Reports on worker deaths have been piecemeal, with news stories surfacing every so often to announce a new fatality, often after workers are informed. Amazon, the second-largest private employer in America, has over 500,000 employees in the country.

A separate effort by United for Respect, a nonprofit founded by UFCW, reported 805 coronavirus cases and 22 deaths among Walmart employees, New York magazine said last week. Walmart, the largest private employer in the US, has over 1.5 million employees in the country.

'They are afraid to tell the world the truth'

Several other retailers have taken roughly the same position as Amazon about their own statistics.

A Walmart spokesman said it doesn't report nationwide cases and deaths from coronavirus in part over privacy concerns of workers and because it's hard to track the source of an infection. CVS and Target cited privacy concerns, too. All three do inform employees about infections. A Target spokesman added: "We're providing information that any health department requests of us."

Walmart's US workers, the company spokesman said, "are not immune to the impact of COVID-19," acknowledging that employees have been diagnosed with the disease or had suspected cases. "Sadly, we have also had associates pass away, and we feel their loss deeply," he added.

While these companies don't offer a lot of details about coronavirus infections, they do talk a lot about their safety protocols. Instacart, for example, said it's supporting workers by supplying face masks and hand sanitizer, hazard pay for workers and paid time off for infected employees.

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Walmart, too, emphasized its work to keep customers and workers safe, saying it installed plexiglass screens, provides masks and gloves to workers and thoroughly cleans facilities.

Amazon said it's provided over 100 million masks, 48 million ounces of hand sanitizer and 34 million gloves to its workers, and added over 2,000 hand-washing stations in its facilities. As part of its $4 billion effort to combat the virus, Amazon is developing its own coronavirus testing capabilities. 

All this work should help cut down on new infections and reduce the chances Amazon warehouses will become hotspots for the virus.

Jordan Flowers, an Amazon warehouse employee who's actively involved in worker protests, said Amazon is hiding the information to protect its business and ensure new hires will come to work at its warehouses.

"It's blood money all over them not disclosing their nationwide cases," he said. "They are afraid to tell the world the truth cause customers would stop ordering and business will go down, and Amazon will do whatever it takes to keep its business operational during a pandemic like COVID-19."