Amazon executives guided local health officials through one of two facilities in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Wednesday after a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story noted officials had not been allowed inside despite serious safety concerns and mounting cases of COVID-19.
Executives also agreed to start privately testing Amazon employees for coronavirus, though not as quickly as health officials would like, said Jen Freiheit, health officer for Kenosha County in Wisconsin.
“They talked about a slow ramp up to testing,” Freiheit said. “We would like to get all their employees tested immediately so we can contain the virus.”
The Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network, has confirmed at least 37 cases of coronavirus at the two Amazon facilities in Kenosha, based on voice and text messages sent from managers to employees. Multiple workers shared the messages with the Journal Sentinel.
A spokesperson for Amazon declined to share the total number of cases with the Journal Sentinel. Freiheit said executives have not shared the number with her, either.
As a growing number of employees tested positive over the past two months, Freiheit said she and her staff were unable to get consistent information and cooperation from Amazon officials.
Employees also grew frustrated with the lack of transparency and action to protect workers.
Del Roy Guenther, who has since quit his job working for Amazon in Kenosha, posted on Facebook after testing positive for coronavirus: “Amazon needs to shut down and sanitize… How many people need to catch this for them to care.”
After a Journal Sentinel story May 21 brought national attention to the facilities in Kenosha, Freiheit said things took a turn.
“After your story, it certainly caught some attention – which wasn’t the intent, but it worked. They called us,” said Freiheit said. “We had calls with several executives from the regional area and some higher executives.”
The executives agreed to give her a tour at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. She brought two other health officials and the mayor.
In the hours leading up to the tour, several workers said managers made changes.
“I heard from my boss: ‘Mayor’s gonna be here, make sure our areas look good,'” said one worker, who asked not to be named for fear of losing his job. Workers were told not to talk to the press, he said.
The worker said normally he regularly sees people not wearing masks properly and standing too close to each other, including upper managers.
“This is how people get sick. You have people shoulder to shoulder handling boxes,” he said. “As far as we know we haven’t had anyone die but it’s going to happen.”
On Wednesday, managers set up new cleaning stations, slowed the workload in order to space out workers, and closed down certain areas, workers said.
“I just don’t want people to think it has always been like this,” said another worker, who also asked not to be named. “They only started doing these things last night and this morning.”
Freiheit said even if some things were changed for their visit, she hopes some of the changes stick.
“Our ultimate goal was they put measures in place and we saw that,” she said.
Freiheit said all the workers she saw were wearing masks properly and keeping their distance from each other. But she said she didn’t have the opportunity to talk with any workers.
Freiheit had also hoped to call on the National Guard to quickly test all employees – about 10,000 total at both facilities. Amazon executives have not agreed to that but did say they would start testing their employees by working with a private lab.
In a text to employees Thursday morning, the testing is described as a “small-scale pilot of self-administered nasal swab testing,” set to begin Friday.
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Freiheit said it’s important to quickly test all employees in order to understand how widespread the virus is and to rapidly contain it. Freiheit said Amazon executives told her they would consider her request.
“We’ll keep pressing,” Freiheit said.
Amazon operates two facilities on its grounds east of Interstate 94 in Kenosha: MKE1, a 1 million-square-foot fulfillment center where workers receive products and send off packages; and MKE5, a sorting center that’s half that size.
Kenosha officials toured MKE1. Freiheit said she plans to “continue the dialogue” about getting into MKE5.
Meanwhile, workers remain concerned about the ending of some policies Amazon had instituted for the pandemic. A former Amazon employee in New York is circulating a petition to extend a $2-an-hour pay bump and unpaid time-off options.
Workers concerned for their safety or needing to care for family members were temporarily able to take unlimited unpaid time off, but that policy was suspended May 1. Workers can still request a leave of absence, but some have reported being unable to apply or being told they don’t qualify.
“People are coming in sick because they don’t have hours (off) anymore,” one worker said.
The worker said he’d like to see employees work together for changes at Amazon facilities, but it’s hard when they’re afraid of losing their jobs.
“When you get hired, from your orientation they tell you that organizing is a bad idea,” he said. “There would be a lot of people if quietly asked who would say that would probably be a good idea.”
Follow Rory Linnane on Twitter at @RoryLinnane.
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