COVID-19 Latest News Opinion

Being an Essential Worker During Coronavirus

The week workers began to strike at an Amazon fulfillment center in New York was the week I started working for an Amazon fulfillment center in San Diego. I heard Amazon was hiring amid the rising demand for home delivered goods and groceries, so I applied to work in a facility near Point Loma in San Diego. Before murmurs of strikes began, I had already begun my application process, which included some online training and a trip to one of Amazon’s local logistics centers to complete tax documents. 

The day I went to the logistics center was March 19, 11 days before Chris Smalls, an Amazon fulfillment employee, led the strikes against Amazon in New York. Already on March 19, the Amazon logistics center in National City, San Diego was practicing social distancing. The process of filling out tax documents and taking my picture for my Amazon badge was supposed to take 20 minutes, but it ended up being well over an hour because of social distancing measures that forced applicants, like myself, to wait in a separate area of the warehouse in chairs stationed six feet apart. Since there had to be so much space between us as we waited, other applicants had to wait in line standing outside the building. There were many applicants, not enough space and not enough employees to help the process go quickly. The current employees were not just in charge of helping us with our paperwork; They had to spend half the time shuffling people around to ensure everyone stayed six feet apart.

Between March 19 and March 31, I completed more online training. Part of the training included information on Amazon benefits. During this portion of the training, one of the videos informed me that if I happened to contract COVID-19, I would receive two weeks worth of pay, despite not being able to work. I thought that was more than fair, considering the many Americans who lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19’s slash in the economy. The video went on to inform me about other benefits such as acquired sick leave and the option to open a 401k. In most companies, benefits of this kind are only open to full-time employees, but at Amazon, it does not matter whether you are full time or part time. Everyone receives these benefits.

My first day working at the fulfillment center was supposed to be a training day where the new hires shadowed current workers to learn the job hands-on; however, because of social distancing, they gave us our new badges and sent us home early. They wanted to limit the amount of employees interacting with each other. They told us that there were too many trainees and that we’d just have to learn alongside the veteran workers once we had our personal schedule in place. Nevertheless, they paid us as if we had worked the entire training shift.

On April 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially suggested everyone wear some sort of face covering in public to slow the spread of COVID-19. Prior to this, officials had discouraged individuals from covering their faces with masks so that the general public would not drain the already limited supply of medical masks from healthcare workers. 

By the time I started my personal schedule working for Amazon, Amazon employees had already been mandated to wear surgical masks and nitrile gloves while working. Not only that, but there was one worker whose only job was to walk around the facility and ensure all employees remained six feet apart from another. He was part of the “6ft Patrol” according to the back of his vest. Markings could be seen everywhere along the warehouse aisles, indicating six feet distance from the mark before it. The break room is also set up for social distancing. Signs inform employees that they must not move the layout of chairs and tables because they are strategically six feet apart from the next table and chair, in all directions. Facilities all over the country are also taking the temperatures of employees through a no contact, laser thermometer before employees walk in the door. 

All of these precautions are in line with the CDC’s recommendations and were implemented fairly quickly. Yet, some employees still don’t think Amazon is doing enough. Among the complaints of Amazon employees on strike is that they are not caring enough for the health of their workers and that they are not compensating them enough for the risk employees are putting themselves in while working. Quite frankly, I think these complaints are absurd. Amazon pays $15.25 per hour for those in the lowest positions. This is higher than minimum wage anywhere in the U.S., and it applies to warehouse workers in all 50 states, not to mention the benefits and job security all employees have despite the present uncertainties.

While yes, working out of the house can place employees in Amazon facilities at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 merely because they’re around people outside of their homes, the other option is staying home and being unemployed. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much you’re getting paid, health can’t be quantified. So it leaves essential Amazon employees with the option to either take extra precautions by quitting their jobs and shelter in place or to accept the fact that, right now, their jobs are an act of public service, which provides food and essential goods to those trying to remain home. Not everyone can afford to take the risk to continue working, which is completely understandable, but to say that Amazon does not have the health of their employees in mind on a daily basis is simply not true.