When Tim Bray quit his Amazon job in May, the Vancouver-based vice-president did not go quietly. He resigned “in dismay,” he wrote in a widely viewed blog post, amid safety concerns for workers.
The former engineer at Amazon Web Services said he quit after his employer fired whistle-blowers “who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of COVID-19.”
Mr. Bray, who worked at the company since 2014, said white-collar, knowledge workers, many of them engineers like him, are treated well at Amazon – in contrast to what he was hearing about working conditions among the warehouse workers.
“The whole warehouse business, particularly in North America, where we have very weak labour laws, leaves those people in a highly disempowered situation,” he said in an interview.
More than half a year later, Amazon warehouse workers are still contracting COVID-19 on the job – and still raising concerns over health and safety issues in their workplaces. The pandemic is adding to long-standing concerns – among them, pressure to work quickly to meet stringent productivity quotas while maintaining physical distancing, which some workers say became more difficult with last year’s hiring spree as lockdowns drove online shopping demand to new heights.
Across the United States, nearly 20,000 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, Amazon said in October. In California, a months-long state investigation is under way into how Amazon has treated its warehouse workers during the pandemic, while in France, unions successfully sued the company last year over concerns about overcrowding and a lack of health measures.
In Canada, it’s not known how many Amazon workers have been infected because the company won’t say – contending the numbers lack context – and most public-health authorities refuse to reveal the information. It’s also difficult to assess Amazon’s health and safety record through the pandemic and how it compares with its peers because complaints and orders are generally not publicly posted by ministries of labour.
Some employers are more transparent – Walmart Canada told The Globe and Mail in December that nearly 700 workers had tested positive in the month, while some grocery chains have been publicly reporting cases. Workplaces that have remained open, such as warehouses and factories, have been a major driver of transmissions in the second wave of the pandemic, though officials have released few details.
Local media reports show Amazon workers have contracted the virus in Ottawa, Bolton, Mississauga and Brampton in Ontario, as well as at facilities near Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. Alberta, the only province that provided information on case numbers, said 89 workers at Amazon warehouses have been infected so far.
To understand the safety pressures and risks that the pandemic has fuelled inside Amazon’s warehouses in Canada, The Globe spoke with warehouse workers in Ontario and organizations supporting them; it reviewed complaints related to COVID-19 made to ministries of labour, along with order summaries, and examined worker injury claim data from previous years.
In Ontario, at least three dozen COVID-19-related complaints to the Ministry of Labour against Amazon reveal an array of concerns. Among them: employees not being informed after workers test positive; a lack of physical distancing; health concerns brought to management but not addressed; a lack of access to hand sanitizers and lack of enforcement of proper mask use.
Two Ministry of Labour orders in November said the employer should provide information and instruction to workers on COVID-19-related procedures to protect them from transmission, and that the company should develop measures to protect workers from COVID-19 hazard exposures. These have since been complied with.
The Globe spoke with three current and one former warehouse worker about working conditions at Amazon; it is not naming the workers because of their fear of reprisals. All described a lack of access to washrooms (saying they were far away and there was little time allotted to use them), difficulty distancing from other workers, workplace injuries and unforgiving expectations of productivity. Amazon’s Canadian operations, which employ 23,000 workers, are not unionized.
“There’s no social distancing,” especially beyond the entrance, further into the warehouses in places where labour inspectors don’t typically go, said one employee who works at an Ontario warehouse.
With people working quickly – even running – to pick items off shelves, “it’s really busy – even if you try to keep your social distance … you can’t. If I have to go in this aisle and there’s already three people – if I wait for these three people, it’s going to be about 10 minutes. At the end of the day, I’m going to get the written warning” for working too slowly, the person said, adding that they don’t have time to go to the washroom during shifts.
When workers have tested positive, there’s been little communication, said the employee, who has worked in one of the company’s Peel Region warehouses for the past year. “They don’t say what department or where; night shift, day shift, they don’t say.
“They’re really taking advantage of workers because everybody is so desperate for a job, especially at this time,” the employee said.
A second worker said text messages from the company fail to provide any information about where the infected person worked, how many people tested positive or what shift they were on.
“Every week, two or three times we receive a mail [saying] we have a new COVID case at our location, so please be safe,” said the worker, who estimates they have received 50 to 70 such messages. “But they don’t mention numbers … nothing about the shift … no details.”
In an e-mailed response to questions from The Globe, Amazon said the health, safety and well-being of its employees is a top priority. “We’re committed to growing our operations and investing across the country responsibly at a time when many people are relying on us to create great, safe jobs,” said Sumegha Kumar, director of operations.
The company said it is “going further than most” and shares with “associates” (or employees) – via text message, e-mail or through the company’s employee portal – every time it gets a new confirmed case and when the person was last in the building.
The company says it has invested $45-million in its Canadian facilities to change operations and implement 150 process changes on COVID-19 safety; among these measures, it has bought five million masks and 43 million disinfectant wipes, and has “social distancing ambassadors” who have spent 185,000 hours on safety-related tasks and audits at sites.
Amazon would not, however, say how many workers have fallen ill with COVID-19, despite repeated requests from The Globe since Oct. 2; it said site-specific figures “lack a significant amount of context” such as what the overall infection rate is in the community where the site is located. Instead, the company said it focuses on communicating with local public-health authorities and to its employees whenever there’s a new case.
Amazon was already the world’s largest online retailer before the pandemic and the public-health crisis has only boosted its global sales. Posting record profit last year, the company is rapidly expanding across the globe. At the same time, Amazon has come under growing scrutiny for its labour practices, in particular, the safety of its workers during the pandemic.
In Canada, the company currently operates 13 “fulfilment centres,” or warehouse/distribution centres, and two sorting centres, with most operations in Ontario and British Columbia; it has plans to build more.
Ontario’s Peel Region, west of Toronto, is an epicentre of COVID-19 infections in the province. Amazon has four facilities in the region; many of the warehouse hires are racialized new immigrants, of whom many are South Asian, along with young people including international students with precarious work status, according to Gagandeep Kaur, organizer at the Warehouse Workers Centre, a Brampton-based organization that supports workers in the sector.
The majority of people she’s hearing from work at Amazon, and she says they’re calling with significant stress and anxiety.
Workers are worried “that if there is an infection, that they might take it home with them. The anxiety levels are very, very high,” she said. Fears of reprisals by the employer “discourage people from reporting any unfair or unsafe work,” she added.
Under provincial occupational health and safety acts, Canadian workers have the right to know about health and safety matters in their workplaces, including about potential hazards, and they have the right to refuse unsafe work. But one Amazon worker, who became so scared of contracting the virus they have taken a leave of absence, said even discussing COVID-19 concerns in the facility with fellow employees or supervisors could result in warnings or termination. “There’s too much stress for people there,” the person said.
A worker who stayed said they’re scared of getting the virus at work. “I put my life in danger, because I have no other choices.”
Productivity rates, say the workers with whom The Globe spoke, are punishing. Another worker who left an Ontario warehouse in March because of fear of exposure to COVID-19 said the point system – where workers are fired if they accrue too many points for being late or missing a shift – puts too much pressure on workers. “It’s getting worse there, day by day.”
Amazon said it provides “additional time for associates to practise social distancing, wash their hands and clean their work stations whenever needed,” though it didn’t specifically say whether it has reduced productivity expectations.
The workers said the company has not lowered its targets because of the pandemic, to allow for less rushing. All four workers have sustained workplace injuries.
Baldev Mutta, chief executive officer of the Brampton-based Punjabi Community Health Services, is also fielding calls from concerned Amazon workers. Many are newcomers to Canada and he says health messages aren’t being translated, with insufficient efforts to ensure messages reach everyone.
Without precise numbers, it’s hard to know whether more measures are needed to better protect warehouses workers. The provincial ministries of health and labour said they could not provide numbers on how many Amazon workers have tested positive, and referred The Globe to local public-health units. Peel’s public-health unit would not disclose this information, citing privacy concerns for patients. The Globe asked the office of Ontario Premier Doug Ford for Amazon case counts; it referred the paper to the provincial ministries of labour and health.
In Ontario, of the thousands of COVID-19-related complaints made to the Ministry of Labour, Amazon ranks in the top 20 for employers and has one of the highest number of complaints for any warehousing company, according to ministry data from March to December.
Before the pandemic hit, Ontario, B.C. and Alberta data show Amazon had higher-than-average injury rates. The company had 430 allowed injury claims in Ontario alone last year, according to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.
As for cause of injury, the data show, the most common factor was overexertion.
With data analysis from Danielle Webb and a report from Stefanie Marotta
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.