CBS 58 Investigates: Amazon’s efforts to protect its workers from coronavirus

CBS 58 Investigates: Amazon’s efforts to protect its workers from coronavirus

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KENOSHA, Wis. (CBS 58) – Coronavirus has exposed a fundamental tension in our economy: how to keep essential workers safe and businesses running.

Outbreaks in meat-packing and other food processing plants across the country dominated headlines this spring. Similar health and safety concerns have been raised at Amazon’s warehouses. Amazon allowed CBS 58 Investigates to tour its Kenosha fulfillment center to see what it’s doing to protect its workers from coronavirus.

In April, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sent a letter to shareholders describing changes across the company to keep workers safe. One of the first changes we saw is a thermal camera and mask check station right at the entrance. Amazon said that’s just one of many changes.

“To allow our associates to be safe and still operate our business and take care of our customers,” said MKE 1 General Manager Sage Greising.

Greising led our tour, describing changes Amazon has made along the way.

“Over 200 different process changes since COVID has come,” said Greising.

Greising said they’ve staggered employee start times to clear bottlenecks of people clocking in. They’ve added 800 cleaning supply stations and additional handwashing stations throughout the warehouse. But workers across the country have been critical of Amazon. In early April, some employees protested outside their warehouse in Detroit, Michigan.

You have people coughing and sneezing as you’re walking,” said employee Tonya Ramsey.

“I want DTW 1 to be shut down immediately for professional cleaning,” said employee Mario Crippen.

A week before the protest in Detroit, an Amazon employee in Kenosha filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Confirmed COVID-19 case with no intent to close building for worker safety or sanitation,” wrote the complainant. OSHA records show it spoke with an Amazon regional safety manager, sent a letter over with some guidelines, and closed the case.

“We put the associates' safety first and foremost,” said Greising.

OSHA is investigating two health complaints filed against the Kenosha facilities in June. The investigations are still active, but Amazon said it feels the safety steps it has taken during the pandemic meet the appropriate guidelines.

“We’re continuing to make changes as we learn new information to mitigate any risks at the site,” said Greising.

Since early June, the Kenosha warehouse has been part of an Amazon-created coronavirus testing pilot program. Employees can take a self test for the virus, but Greising explains for now, that testing remains voluntary.

“As the company continues to learn, we’ll evaluate those decision,” said Greising.

Testing has been a hot topic for the Kenosha County Health Department. Emails obtained by CBS 58 Investigates show the department wanted to bring in the Wisconsin National Guard to test all Amazon employees. One reason, the department has no idea how many positive cases there are or have been since many employees live outside of Kenosha County. The Health Department declined to speak to CBS 58 Investigates about its concerns.

Employees posting on social media believe they’re now up to at least 70 cases by tracking their internal alerts. Greising declined to tell CBS 58 Investigates the total number of positive cases the warehouse has seen.

“That’s a number we can’t share, but when we do find out we share that information with the local health authorities where the associate resides,” said Greising.

“I’ve worked here since June, or January, six days a week and get tested every two weeks and I have no virus, thank God,” said employee William Seals.

Amazon provided Seals to CBS 58 Investigates for an interview. He’s worked here for four and a half years and said he feels safe.

“I’m very impressed with what they’ve done for us,” said Seals.

Seals said the additional break rooms and cleaning supplies are helping. He also believes Amazon listens to its workforce.

“They’re very receptive to what we have to say, we have a special board that we bring up our concerns, and I see our leadership going up to that board every morning,” said Seals.

A former Amazon employee has been crowdsourcing the number of cases across the company. At last check, she’s counted 1,600 out of 400,000 warehouse workers.

Amazon said it's investing $4 billion on coronavirus initiatives to keep its workers safe and get products to its customers.

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