This past Thursday, during possibly one of the most hectic news weeks of the year, Amazon published a blog post announcing their dedication to more comprehensive employee COVID-19 testing. While most of the post outlines the policies Amazon has implemented to protect its essential workers, several paragraphs in, the company reveals that by its count, 19,816 employees tested positive or had presumptive cases of COVID-19 between 1st March and 19th September.
It notes that test data was taken from all 1,372,000 of Amazon’s employees and claims that if the Amazon employee positivity rate had matched that of the general population, it would have been as high as 33,952 cases. But a state-by-state breakdown shows this isn’t necessarily the case. In Minnesota, the state case rate was just 1.58% during this period, while the Amazon employee case rate was 3.17%. For several other states, no Amazon case rate is shown because there are fewer than 1,000 Amazon employees in that state. The numbers did not include how many employees have died from COVID-19, though NBCNews reports that there have been at least 10 deaths.
This is the first time Amazon has publicly shared its COVID-19 count. Employees have been demanding transparency on positive COVID-19 cases since late March; it has remained one of the consistent demands of Amazon employees protesting and striking over working conditions during the pandemic. Such protests have come with consequences: In late March, Amazon employee Chris Smalls organised a walkout at a Staten Island warehouse where workers had tested positive, after asking for transparency on how many had tested positive and that the warehouse be closed for sanitation. He was fired not long after the protest. Amazon maintains that he was fired for violating quarantine and not in retaliation for the protest (which would be illegal in New York), but several lawmakers have questioned the validity of this claim. Later, a leaked memo from a daily meeting attended by Amazon leadership, including CEO Jeff Bezos, suggested focusing on Smalls as the face of the movement, calling him “not smart or articulate.”
Nevertheless, workers at Amazon and Whole Foods (which was acquired by Amazon in 2017) have continued to demand better treatment over the past several months. Claiming that Amazon has not been providing clear information on how many positive cases there are, employees have been taking it upon themselves to keep track. Until last week, Amazon had declined to provide specific data on how many COVID-19 cases they’ve counted despite requests from health officials and government officials.
Amazon wrote in its blog post that public disclosure of employee COVID-19 cases is “something few if any companies and no other major retailers have done.” In a statement to Refinery29 an Amazon spokesperson said, “We think it was the right thing to do to publish and we hope others will also begin sharing their data too.” The company also says that they have a policy of informing everyone in an Amazon building if there has been a positive case, and reiterates that all Amazon sites are “on a constant cleaning procedure” that includes sanitisation about every 90 minutes or so.
Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods grocery stores haven’t been the only workplaces pressured to be more transparent about their COVID-19 numbers. Meat processing facilities, for example, have been among the biggest COVID-19 hotspots. As of late July, over 10,000 workers at Tyson’s facilities were estimated to have contracted COVID-19, out of a total of 120,000 employees across the US. Facing increasing scrutiny as workers continued to get sick, Tyson began disclosing the results from facilities where mass testing had taken place.
Protocol on COVID-19 transparency and safety has been scattered across industries in part because of lax state and federal enforcement of standards. Workers and lawmakers have criticised OSHA for not doing enough to enforce safety regulations amid the pandemic. There has been a surge of COVID-19 workplace lawsuits filed by the families of workers who have died from the virus. Meanwhile, many industries, including the meat industry, have been lobbying Congress to include a broad lawsuit liability shield in the next COVID-19 package that would make it extremely difficult for plaintiffs to establish that the employer displayed “gross negligence.”