US lawmakers press Amazon to do more to protect its workers

The company also confirmed that employees at more US warehouses have tested positive for the virus, with 14 facilities now affected.

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
4 min read
Amazon Fulfillment Center

At an Amazon warehouse in Thornton, Colorado, in March 2019.

Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

A group of 14 US lawmakers on Friday urged Amazon to boost its efforts to protect its employees during the coronavirus outbreak, adding to a long list of groups raising concerns about Amazon workers' health during the crisis.

"No employee, especially those who work for one of the wealthiest corporations in the world, should be forced to work in unsafe conditions," the lawmakers, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar, wrote in a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos. Both lawmakers have criticized Amazon in the past for their treatment of warehouse workers.

The letter, which asked Amazon to respond to a series of detailed questions about its efforts to keep workers healthy, comes a week after a similar letter was sent to the company by a group of four senators. In its responses to both letters, Amazon strongly defended its work to protect its employees and delivery drivers.

Also on Friday, Amazon confirmed employees in four more US warehouses tested positive for coronavirus, putting the number of US facilities with publicly known cases at 14. Amazon operates over 500 logistics facilities in the US. The four additional locations are in Houston; Edison, New Jersey; Romulus, Michigan; and Shelby Township, Michigan. 

Amazon has been in the spotlight, even more than usual, during the coronavirus pandemic, as it's worked to respond to a surge of orders from people asked to stay home while also trying to keep its hundreds of thousands of employees from getting sick. Along with these lawmakers, union groups and Amazon's own employees have called for better protections during the pandemic.

Over the past week, local and national news outlets have reported about a handful of Amazon warehouse workers across the country testing positive for the coronavirus, a problem that could disrupt the company's ability to complete its deliveries.

Some of those facilities were shut down for cleaning, and some employees who were in close contact with the infected employees have been quarantined. In Shepherdsville, Kentucky, a warehouse was closed until April 1, after several employees there tested positive.

In Amazon's letter to the four senators, which was provided by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker's office on Friday, Amazon detailed its many efforts to help its employees during the health crisis.

"Any accusations that we are not properly protecting our employees are simply unfounded," Brian Huseman, Amazon's vice president of public policy, wrote. "Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items that they need in this crisis."

Kristin Lynch, a spokeswoman for Booker, said Friday that the senator was "encouraged" by some of the quick reforms Amazon has taken following the initial letter to the company. She added that the senator was disappointed that Amazon still refuses to temporarily shut down warehouses where workers have tested positive for coronavirus. She added that Amazon didn't address whether it will pay for employees' coronavirus tests.

"The safety and well-being of Amazon's employees must be paramount, and given the nature and scope of Amazon's business, the safety and well-being of the millions of Americans who are Amazon customers are also at stake," she said in an emailed statement.

Last week's letter was sent by Booker and Sens. Sanders, Sherrod Brown and Bob Menendez.

In his letter, Huseman listed the work Amazon has done to help its employees, which includes increased cleaning and sanitization at all sites, such as disinfecting door handles, touchscreens, handrails and other frequently touched surfaces. Amazon also eliminated stand-up meetings and staggered start times and break times in warehouses to make it easier for people to physically distance themselves from one another.

Hourly pay and overtime pay has been raised. Up to two weeks' pay is offered for any employee diagnosed with the coronavirus or in quarantine, and hourly workers have been offered unlimited unpaid time off through April.

Huseman wrote a response letter back to Omar, which was sent out via Twitter later on Friday. In that letter, he said Amazon is considering broadening paid time off to allow employees to use this time after self-reporting coronavirus symptoms or exposure. That change could be beneficial to workers, since getting a test is still difficult in the US and several employees have complained that the paid time off policy as it stands is too strict.

Amazon isn't the only company struggling to keep its services operating and employees healthy, with Walmart, UPS and major grocers starting new protocols to keep stores and delivery vans clean. BuzzFeed on Thursday reported on Starbucks employees' concerns their company wasn't doing enough to protect them.

Read the Huseman letter to the four senators below:

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