Amazon’s massive Shakopee warehouse is gearing up for Prime Day on Tuesday and Wednesday, which will lead into what most predict will be a busier-than-normal holiday season for online retailers.
But as business picks up, Amazon and other distribution operations will also have the added responsibility of trying to keep their employees safe from contracting the coronavirus. Deemed essential operations, most of these centers have been open throughout the pandemic, putting in place measures meant to stem the spread of the virus.
Already, more than 200 of its employees in Shakopee, where it has a fulfillment center with more than 1,500 full-time employees and a smaller nearby sorting center, have tested positive. Some staff members recently walked off the job after a worker, who said she tested positive for COVID-19 during the summer, was reportedly fired for “time off task” violations.
Amazon has decided to self-report positive cases across its operations. Earlier this month, the company said nearly 32 out of every 1,000 Amazon workers in Minnesota, which includes its Whole Foods Market front-line employees, have tested positive or been presumed positive for COVID-19, the highest rate out of any state.
The case rate for Amazon workers across the country is lower than the case rate for the general population, according to Amazon’s data. However, in Minnesota the Amazon case rate is double the state case rate for the general population.
Last week, inside Amazon’s Shakopee warehouse, dubbed MSP1, there was a steady hum of activity as workers sorted and shipped packages at spaced out stations. The masked and gloved employees quickly dispersed a diverse array of items from deodorant to peanut butter.
To keep workers safe, the facility has instituted temperature checks with thermal cameras, digital “distance assistants” that alert workers on screens when they are too close, cleaning carts stocked with disinfectant spray and hand sanitizer and other safety measures including free onsite COVID-19 testing.
“Especially as you get into fun days like Prime Day, everybody wants to be here because it’s fun filling these orders,” said Scott Luedke, senior workplace health and safety program manager for Amazon who is based in the Twin Cities area.
The nearly 900,000-square-foot center — one of Amazon’s five operations facilities in Minnesota — employs one-third of the company’s more than 4,500 full- and part-time employees across the state.
The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) reported Amazon’s Shakopee facilities, including MSP1 and the nearby smaller sorting center, has had 225 total COVID-19 cases as of early last week. Last month, there were 33 cases, down from a high of 68 in May.
“Because Amazon draws its workforce from across the Twin Cities metropolitan area, these numbers appear to reflect the increase in cases across Minnesota [overall] that we are seeing due to community transmission,” said MDH spokesman John Schadl in an e-mail. “Amazon is following best practices, working collaboratively with local and state public health representatives, and providing free testing on site for employees.”
Earlier this month, Amazon said nearly 20,000 of its workers in the U.S. have tested positive or been presumed positive for COVID-19. It has pushed for other companies to share their infection rates.
Since the start of the pandemic, Amazon has added several safety measures. At the Shakopee fulfillment center, workers are prompted to answer a couple times if they have coronavirus symptoms and are screened for high temperatures at the door. It also has appointed “social distance ambassadors” that help remind people when they are too close to each other.
Marie Steele, who works as a picker, said she wasn’t worried about the Prime Day sale.
“I don’t think it’s that much different, because we are always busy, especially with the virus,” she said. “It’s just more days to work.”
Steele said she wipes down her station with disinfectant before she starts her day, and she has been taking her breaks outside or in her car.
“As for keeping safe from COVID, social distancing is number one,” said worker Martha Kaluwe. “I take responsibility for that.”
While there isn’t a mandate on how many times workers need to clean their stations or a requirement on COVID testing, Kaluwe has been proactively getting tested every couple weeks.
Not all workers have been satisfied with the company’s response to COVID-19, though.
In the spring, some workers walked off the job to advocate for an extension of unlimited unpaid time off for workers who don’t feel safe working during the pandemic.
Minneapolis-based workers advocacy group Awood Center filed a complaint over COVID-19 safety as well. In May, the Minnesota office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducted an inspection of the fulfillment center and gave no citations.
Still, calls for more transparency and deeper cleaning have persisted.
Amazon said it does a daily spraying of disinfectant at the Shakopee center. The site has also doubled its janitorial staff.
In late September, Farhiyo Warsame, who had worked for Amazon for nearly two years, was reportedly fired for “time off task” violations. In an interview with the assistance of an interpreter, Warsame said the incident occurred after she was transferred to a different department and wasn’t properly trained or supervised on what to do. She said Amazon should be “treating the employees fairly and listening to their voices.”
Earlier in the summer, Warsame said she thought she had symptoms for COVID-19, but she was told to still report to work. Days later, she tested positive for COVID-19.
“That means I could have spread it,” she said.
Recently, more than 35 workers walked out of the Shakopee warehouse in protest of Warsame’s dismissal.
“Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every team member,” said Jen Crowcroft, an Amazon spokeswoman, in response to questions on Warsame’s treatment. “While we cannot discuss individual performance, I can say, associate performance is measured and evaluated over time. We support associates who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve. If their performance does not improve, corrective action is taken up and to termination.”
A report last month done by Reveal, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, said overall that serious injury rates for Amazon workers in past years have spiked during the weeks of Prime Day and Cyber Monday. According to the report, MSP1 had a rate of 10.6 injuries per 100 workers last year; while not the worst, the rate was higher than the majority of other sortable warehouses that use robots.
Luedke said the company has made significant investments to make Amazon facilities safe for employees. It has been redesigning stations so workers are closer to the moving pods of items that they have to interact with and more popular items are being placed in easier to reach shelves in the pod. Workers were given stipends this summer to purchase composite toe shoes. Last year, the company started to replace wooden pallets with safe and lighter plastic pallets, he said.
“COVID got a lot of us working on COVID actions, but all of this other stuff didn’t stop,” Luedke said. “We are still working on ways to make our workplace safer.”
Staff writer Kavita Kumar contributed to this report.