‘We would like to get in there’: Health officials frustrated as over 30 Amazon workers contract COVID-19

File photo: Amazon fulfillment center in Kenosha

MILWAUKEE – At least 32 workers at the Amazon campus in the nearby city of Kenosha have contracted coronavirus in the past two months, according to messages sent to employees and shared with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Amazon officials have not fully cooperated with public health workers trying to track cases, inform workers who might be at risk or offering testing and other safety measures, said Jen Freiheit, health officer for Kenosha County.

“We’re at the point now that since we’re not getting that, we’re going to look into what other measures we can take for Amazon, because we are not getting as far with compliance as we would like,” Freiheit said.

If Amazon officials do not cooperate with health officials, Freiheit said she would consider attempting to shut down the Kenosha facilities, located in Wisconsin, south of Milwaukee and north of Chicago.

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Amazon has not provided an official total number of cases at its Kenosha facilities to county health officials and declined to provide the number to the Journal Sentinel.

"We are supporting the individuals who are recovering," Amazon spokeswoman Jen Crowcroft said in a statement. "Our top concern is ensuring the health and safety of our employees."

The Journal Sentinel confirmed at least 32 cases at the Amazon facilities based on screenshots of text messages and voice messages sent by Amazon managers to employees as new cases were confirmed. Those messages were provided to the Journal Sentinel by workers.

Workers told the Journal Sentinel they believe the number of positive cases is higher.

Amazon management has refused to say how many workers have tested positive nationwide at its workplaces. But Jana Jumpp, who is on leave from her job at an Amazon facility in Indiana, has been tracking cases across the country with the help of workers.

As of Wednesday, Jumpp said she had confirmed 941 cases using screenshots of text messages and other verification methods. She was working on confirming another 94, she said.

Seven Amazon employees, including a 50-year-old who worked at a Waukegan warehouse, have died from the virus, she said, the same number reported last week by the Indianapolis Star.

Growing cases and not enough protection

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.

Workers concerned for their safety or needing to care for family members were temporarily able to take unlimited time off due to the pandemic, but that policy was suspended May 1. Workers can still request a leave of absence, but some have reported being unable to get through on the phone lines to apply or being told they don’t qualify, according to Jumpp and social media posts.

The first cases of coronavirus were confirmed at both facilities in late March, according to workers who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

A spokesperson for Amazon said the company started recommending workers wear masks April 4 and started requiring them April 16.

At the smaller facility, MKE5, Amazon did not provide enough masks for everyone until masks were required, according to a worker there who serves on a Bubble Brigade – a team that’s supposed to enforce social distancing and other safety measures.

Amazon officials said the company expects to spend $800 million in the first half of this year on COVID-19 safety measures, including personal protective equipment, disinfectant spraying, social distancing measures that slow down productivity and in-house testing.

But the MKE5 worker on the Bubble Brigade said safety measures haven't worked as well in practice as she had hoped.

For example, she is one of several employees now tasked with monitoring thermal cameras that measure employees’ temperatures as they enter. But she said she can't always catch everyone.

“If there’s several people coming through, sometimes they’re through before you can see them,” she said.

The worker, who falls into an at-risk category for coronavirus, said she volunteered to be part of the Bubble Brigade because she hoped it would be safer than other jobs where workers are in closer proximity to each other. But she said it’s hard to enforce safety measures without more support from managers, who she said often aren’t wearing masks.

“People continually take down their face masks and talk; they wear them on their neck,” she said. “When people go in the break room, they take off their face masks and we have a whole break room full of people without face masks.”

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A worker at the larger facility, MKE1, said the masks provided by managers are too large for many workers and often slide down. She also said it’s impossible to keep a safe distance of at least 6 feet away from other workers.

“With all the volume we’ve been getting, all the lines the packages come down get overpacked,” she said. “There’s been points where they’d have 17 people on one line shoulder to shoulder.”

Freiheit said she didn't know whether workers had proper masks or were properly distanced.

"That’s why we would like to get in there," she said.

Health officials unable to trace cases

At the Kenosha County Division of Health, Freiheit said she is aware of 14 to 16 cases, but she only finds out about people who live in Kenosha County and many employees live elsewhere. Staff members have been unable to get consistent numbers from Amazon.

Amazon officials have said the rates of infection in their facilities are at or below rates in surrounding communities.

In Kenosha County, about 0.5% of the population has tested positive for coronavirus.

Amazon officials would not say how many people work at the Kenosha facilities but said the company has more than 3,500 workers in Wisconsin, which also includes three Whole Foods stores and six other facilities.

A conservative estimate of 32 cases out of 3,500 workers puts the rate at 0.9%, higher than the county rate.

Freiheit, who has not been able to find out the total number of employees, said she can't tell how severe the outbreak is without having these numbers.

Health Department staff have also faced roadblocks with contact tracing, she said, the process public health workers use to track down people who may have had contact with coronavirus patients.

For every positive Amazon employee from Kenosha County, staff has asked Amazon managers for a list of employees who had contact with the person. In some cases, they have not received a list, Freiheit said.

In an open Facebook group for the facilities, employees discussed never being contacted despite working near other workers who tested positive.

A county health department offer to help with on-site safety measures was rebuffed, Freiheit said. The department has helped with worker protection at more than 260 businesses in the county, she said.

Freiheit would like to be able to test every worker at Amazon. She said her staff has extended that offer over the phone, but she’s never sure if they’re reaching the right manager at the facilities. She could get assistance from the Wisconsin National Guard to conduct testing, she said.

“If they’re open to it, I can immediately get the National Guard to come.”

Freiheit said ordering the facility to close would be a last resort if Amazon officials do not cooperate.

“I wouldn’t want to strong-arm anybody,” she said. “We want Amazon to work with us. We’re just having a difficult time even getting to that conversation.”

Amazon workers elsewhere are organizing

Workers are frustrated by the company’s response to the pandemic.

Initially, managers at the Kenosha facilities were telling workers exactly how many people had contracted the virus.

But after May 10, the texts to workers at MKE1 stopped specifying a number, causing workers to worry about how much the virus was spreading.

“We have additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 at MKE1,” read a text delivered Tuesday.

Jumpp said managers at other facilities also changed the way they report cases after May 10, when CBS aired a "60 Minutes" program about Amazon's treatment of employees.

Though many workers at the Kenosha facilities are unhappy with the communication and working conditions, they have not been as active in protests as workers at other Amazon facilities, who have walked off the job.

“Everybody’s afraid,” said a worker at MKE5. “They can make life real miserable for people doing any kind of activism.”

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for an investigation into Amazon’s dismissal of Chris Smalls, a worker who helped organize a worker walkout.

Smalls, who was not an organizer before the pandemic, said he’s now working to form an organization: The Congress of Essential Workers. He plans to ask Amazon workers to donate $1 per paycheck to the group for a strike relief fund and a food pantry for workers, with the ultimate goal of negotiating with Amazon executives over employee pay, benefits and treatment.

Smalls is now circulating a petition to extend hazard pay and unpaid time-off options for Amazon workers. The pay bump of $2 per hour is set to expire at the end of this month.

The worker at MKE5 said it’s hard to organize workers at Amazon.

“There’s talk of it all the time,” she said. “The problem is we’re all strung out, pushed to the limit, there’s just no energy left. They wear people out, wreck their knees, shoulders, backs and replace them.”

But, she said, “In my mind, if you were going to organize, this would probably be the best time to do it."

Follow Rory Linnane on Twitter@RoryLinnane.

Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/05/21/at-least-32-workers-amazon-kenosha-wisconsin-facilities-have-had-coronavirus/5236177002/

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