Inside a massive warehouse a few blocks from the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Doral, hundreds of Amazon employees gather and sort thousands of packages, readying them for delivery throughout Miami-Dade County. It's a brutal working environment, according to a seasonal temporary employee we'll call "Joanna."
"It's not a cushy job," says Joanna, who spoke with New Times on the condition that her real name not be published because she fears losing her job for talking to the media. "You are constantly unloading trucks, moving boxes, and running from one end to the other. Even though there are team leaders yelling at you to put your mask on and maintain social distance, it's still very hard to do."
Joanna, 36 years old and a Miami native, is one of more than 13,000 Floridians employed by Amazon, which has built up a large footprint in the Sunshine State over the past decade. In addition to the fulfillment center at 3200 NW 67th Ave. where Joanna works, the second-largest retailer (behind Walmart) operates a half-dozen more distribution facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward, including a gargantuan 800,000-square-foot warehouse at Opa-locka Executive Airport that employs more than 1,500 workers.
As the multibillion-dollar online shopping center reaps ever-more new business amid the coronavirus pandemic, employees like Joanna are sharing their experiences about COVID-19 outbreaks at distribution centers. In April, the Miami Herald reported that eight workers had tested positive, as well as two employees at the Amazon fulfillment center where Joanna is stationed.
Joanna earns $15 an hour working three five-hour shifts a week. She says more than two dozen employees have gotten COVID-19 since she began working at the Doral distribution center in the spring.
The coronavirus roulette wheel landed on her number for the first time during the second week of July.
"When I came back from break, they checked my temperature and it was over 100," she says. "They took my temperature again two more times and it was still over 100. They told me I couldn't come back in, but that I would get paid for the rest of my shift."
She says she was told that regardless of whether she developed symptoms, she wouldn't be allowed to return to work for 14 days. Amazon did not require her to get a test for the virus, but she opted to get one anyway. Nevertheless, she says, "While I was at home, I got an email alert that they had confirmed me for coronavirus. That was ridiculous because I had not even gotten my test results back."
During her Amazon-compelled quarantine, Joanna worried she wouldn't be paid for the time she was missing. "I really don't know how the company functions because I went so many days without anyone contacting me," she confided at the time. "It's absurd. It created more anxiety about my job security and if I will get paid for the time I have been off, because I felt fine."
On July 21, despite the fact that her test results had not come back from the lab, Joanna returned to work. Amazon paid her for the shifts she'd had to miss.
But eight days later, the company placed her in quarantine again, informing her that she'd come in contact with a fellow worker who'd tested positive.
Far From a Path to Wealth
Joanna's ordeal came at a time Amazon is scaling up again in South Florida. The company cut a deal with Miami-Dade County in July to pay $22 million for a vacant site near Homestead where Amazon plans to build a fulfillment center bigger than its Opa-locka behemoth. The company is rumored to be eyeing another distribution facility that could be built on land owned by the Homestead-Miami Speedway, according to The Real Deal. More recently, Amazon announced it was looking to hire 1,300 workers. "These are great jobs for people looking for variety," reads a company press release. "Hundreds of additional locations are opening by the end of the year to serve customers during what is expected to be their biggest peak season ever."
But landing an Amazon gig is far from a path to wealth.
A widowed single mother, Joanna had turned to Amazon after she was laid off from her full-time job in March. Her seven-year-old daughter receives death benefits from Joanna's late husband, but that doesn't cover the bills. In fact, shortly after signing on with Amazon in May, Joanna realized she'd have to pick up extra shifts whenever she could in order to make ends meet.
At the warehouse, she says, supervisors constantly patrol the 130,925-square-foot facility, screaming at employees to keep their masks on and maintain a six-foot distance from one another. Per company protocol, markings have been taped on the floor to delineate proper social distancing. Employees are able to clock in via cellphone, employee meetings no longer take place on the warehouse floor, and shift schedules and break times are staggered to limit the number of people entering and exiting the facility.
Despite the precautions, the working environment and the pressure to process packages as quickly as possible has allowed coronavirus to spread in the fulfillment center, Joanna says.
"It's disturbing when you are regularly getting emails about confirmed COVID cases," she tells New Times. "I get about four of those a week. It's scary because we are touching and sweating on people's packages. It's not safe.
"Amazon makes the best attempt possible to keep employees safe," she goes on. "But at the same time, it isn't [safe]. It gets really sweaty in there. And it's hard to breathe with the mask on because it's so hot. Safety precautions go out the window."
Amazon workers nationwide have shared stories of unsafe working conditions inside fulfillment centers. Some have mounted protests to raise awareness that their employer's safety precautions are not enough to prevent warehouse outbreaks. As of mid-May, eight Amazon employees had died from COVID-19. (Amazon spokesman Owen Torres says the company will not comment on how many of its employees have died from the disease.)
As part of a public-relations campaign in late May, Amazon sent media outlets pre-edited news stories, prepared scripts, and B-roll packages that promoted its protocols to combat COVID-19 spread at its warehouses. A pro-Amazon segment reportedly aired on 11 TV stations nationwide, including NBC Miami.
And according to media reports, Amazon has punished workers who speak up. The company terminated at least a half-dozen employees who protested about working conditions and reprimanded six more. Christian Smalls was fired from his post as an assistant manager at a Staten Island, New York, fulfillment center after he helped stage an employee walkout to protest how Amazon was cleaning the facility after a worker tested positive. He claimed the firing was retaliatory.
In August, Smalls led dozens of protesters to the New York City apartment building where Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns a condo. The demonstrators held up signs calling on Congress to "Tax Bezos" and admonishing Amazon to provide better safety and fair pay for warehouse workers. Meanwhile, the pandemic has helped Bezos solidify his position as the richest man on Earth. Amazon reported that sales soared to record highs between April and June, netting the company $5.2 billion in profits.
Amazon denied going after outspoken workers, maintaining that the terminated employees were fired for repeated violations of internal policies on social distancing, internal communications, and conduct issues.
Torres tells New Times the company invested more than $800 million in the first half of this year implementing COVID-19 safety measures that involve making sure workers have a sufficient supply of masks, hand sanitizer, thermometers, sanitizing wipes, gloves, and handwashing stations. Amazon has placed thermal cameras inside its fulfillment centers. The company also sprays disinfectants in its buildings, procures COVID testing supplies, and has brought in additional janitorial teams.
"Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our employees," Torres says. "And we are doing everything we can to keep them as safe as possible."
Yet as Bezos' personal fortune hovers around the $200 billion mark, Amazon has eliminated some of the perks it had been handing out to frontline workers when the pandemic first reached U.S. shores.
In June, the company ended a temporary wage hike of $2 an hour for employees like Joanna. It also mothballed its policy of allowing workers to take unlimited unpaid time off if they didn't feel safe coming to work.
After the company eliminated the hazard pay, Amazon gave each employee a thank-you bonus of $250. Says Joanna: "After taxes, it was $178. It's crap."
One Month, Two COVID Scares
A day after Joanna returned to work following her initial COVID scare, her test results came back negative. Things returned to normal: five-hour shifts, three days a week. "For the most part, I was scanning packages and conducting temperature checks [on fellow workers]," she says.
But on July 29, one of her team leaders sent her home.
"I had only been at work for an hour when he told me they were sending me home because I had come in contact with another employee who has corona," Joanna says. "Yet they couldn't disclose how or when I supposedly came into contact with this person."
On August 5, eight days into her second quarantine, she got her latest test results: positive for COVID-19.
"I feel 100 percent fine," she told New Times that day. "I have no body aches and I don't feel sick."
According to emails she provided to New Times, Joanna was the third employee in a one-week span to test positive for COVID-19. (Amazon will not comment on or confirm the number of employees who have contracted COVID-19 at its Florida facilities, including the Doral fulfillment center, according to Torres, the company spokesman.)
"We were recently notified that an individual who works at DMI3 has received a COVID-19 diagnosis," one of the emails reads. "And consistent with our processes, the site continues to undergo enhanced daily cleanings.... If someone is determined to have been in close contact, we will proactively reach out to them individually to advise them of their possible exposure."
The email instructed employees not to enter the building if they feel sick or had come into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus.
Among other perks, workers at Amazon who put in more than 20 hours per week are eligible for medical insurance, including an employer-subsidized option; vision and dental insurance; a 401(k) plan; company stock; and pregnancy and paternity leave.
As a seasonal temporary employee, Joanna receives none of that.
Prior to her COVID interruption, she says, she was on the verge of moving up to a permanent part-time position that would have entitled her to five weeks of paid time off and vision and dental insurance. Instead, she's unsure of her job status.
It's Like the Twilight Zone
Joanna was supposed to return to work in mid-August, but for more than a month after being sent home, she continued to receive notifications from Amazon that she cannot come back. While she hasn't been retested, she believes she is virus-free.
"It's such a mess," she says. "There's a glitch in the Matrix and I feel like I am in limbo."
She says that when she called the company's Employee Resource Center, the representative who spoke with her could only tell her what she's already been told: that she'd been in close contact with an employee who'd tested positive.
"My guess is that they just got test results on people whose cases coincided with the last shifts I worked," she says. "One representative left me a message that I had been approved for extended leave, but then when I called back, another representative told me that I had not been approved."
Meanwhile, Amazon's automated employee-communications system was sending seemingly conflicting messages about her status at the company. A September 9 email she shared with New Times stated that she'd been flagged for "job abandonment" for missing two shifts and failing to notify the company. "Please reply to the email ASAP with details regarding your absence," the message reads. "If you do not plan to return please utilize the Self Service Resignation option and we will move forward with submitting a resignation on your behalf."
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She says she has spoken with the Employee Resource Center about a dozen times but still isn't clear about her status. She received a paycheck for the initial two weeks of her second quarantine but as she understands it, she won't get paid for the remainder of the time she has had to spend at home.
"Even the people I spoke to at the Employee Resource Center were confused about what is going on," she says. "It's like the fucking Twilight Zone."
Torres, Amazon's spokesman, says employees placed on a 14-day quarantine are paid for the time they miss. "All Amazon employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two weeks of [paid] time off to ensure they can get healthy without worrying about lost pay."
Joanna was scheduled to return to work this week.