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Amazon ending unlimited time off policy for warehouse workers

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Essential workers risk coronavirus exposure to serve their communities 03:02

Starting Friday, Amazon's "unlimited time off" policy for workers is coming to an end, and warehouse employees who want to stay home out of concerns they will catch COVID-19 will have to apply for a leave of absence.

Since the coronavirus started spreading widely in the U.S., some Amazon workers have called on the company to offer paid leave to everyone and to be proactive about shutting down fulfillment centers where workers fall ill. Many feel exposed because of the nature of their jobs, which can require coming into contact with hundreds of people every day.

The company has expanded paid leave to those who are told to self-quarantine and has raised pay by $2 an hour, for a starting wage of $17 an hour. But it has resisted making paid time off universal, saying that workers afraid of getting sick or needing to care for ill family members can take unlimited unpaid time off.

Now, that time-off policy is coming to an end, and many warehouse workers are concerned they'll be forced to come back to work before they're ready.

Amazon will only approve personal leaves of absence for emergencies and circumstances related to COVID-19, a company spokesperson said, while workers who are ill should go on a medical leave of absence.

"Workers aren't even clear on the rules," said Hafsa Hassan, who works in an Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota. Hassan was one of about 50 workers who walked out of the Shakopee center on Sunday, concerned, she said, over the end of the time-off policy and three of their colleagues who had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said: "[W]e are providing flexibility with leave of absence options, including expanding the policy to cover COVID-19 circumstances, such as high-risk individuals or school closures. We continue to see heavy demand during this difficult time and the team is doing incredible work for our customers and the community."

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The spokesperson also noted that Amazon would extend its $2-an-hour pay increase and double overtime until May 16. Amazon is also hiring 175,000 additional workers to handle its huge increases in business during the pandemic.

However, some workers are taking the end of the unlimited-leave policy as a sign to go back to work or risk losing their jobs. One worker said she was unable to apply for leave after trying multiple times, while others said they weren't sure if they would be eligible.

Rachel Belz, who works in a fulfillment center in West Deptford, New Jersey, said she's been home on unpaid leave since late March because she worries about infecting several high-risk people she lives with, including her young son. Where she lives, school is canceled until May 15, she said.

Belz hasn't been able to apply for a leave of absence, despite trying multiple times, she said on a call organized by several workers' rights groups.

"I was not able even to complete the form and answer the questions that it requires to formally file for a leave of absence," she said. "If you're expecting people at a high volume to apply for this, you need to work out these kinks."

Unsafe at work?

Compounding the issue of time off is the contention of many workers that warehouses are hotbeds of sickness. Workers said that cleaning wipes, hand sanitizers, gloves and masks remained scarce, and that they did not have enough time between tasks to clean their workstations.

Jordan Flowers, who works in a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, said his facility only made hand sanitizer available in the main break room, meaning it takes time to walk over to get it. He also said that worker crowding continues in some departments, and that he's seen "eight people on top of each other" on some days.

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"I know people who are taking their own cleaning supplies in, encouraging their coworkers to bring in their own cleaning supplies," said Belz of the West Deptford warehouse. The conditions are exacerbated as Amazon hires more and more people to keep up with the demands on its delivery system, making the facilities even more crowded, she said.

Amazon denied that it had shortages of cleaning products. "Disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer are already standard across our network, and the procurement teams have worked tirelessly to create new sources of supply to keep these critical items flowing," a company spokesperson said in a statement. "In fact, we've sourced millions of additional units of items like disinfectant wipes, gloves and hand sanitizer for our teams and also reconfigured buildings to include additional hand-washing and sanitary equipment stations." 

Employees who complain too loudly about working conditions say they risk losing their job. In recent weeks, Amazon has fired five workers who have criticized working conditions in its warehouses, including two at its Seattle headquarters.

New York state's attorney general, Letitia James, cautioned Amazon in a message last week that its safety measures could be lacking, and that it may have broken labor laws in firing a Staten Island, New York, worker who spoke out about conditions. (James' office confirmed the existence of the letter, which NPR first reported.) Amazon previously said it fired warehouse workers for breaking the company's social distancing guidelines.

Work versus health

Billie Jo Ramey, a worker at an Amazon fulfillment center in Romulus, Michigan, said she worried about returning to work after having been sick for almost a month with symptoms resembling COVID-19.

"I'm in no shape to go back. I live with friends of mine who are at high risk of catching the virus. I don't want to go back to work," she said. "I have to make a choice to go back in or stay home and not get paid."

Ramey, who is also a United for Respect member, added that several people she lives with have severe health conditions. "Do I qualify for special leave? I have no idea," she said.

Workers who go on leave remain employees, but they aren't guaranteed their position back when they return unless specifically required by law, CNBC reported

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