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Amazon warehouse workers walk out over coronavirus

Amazon and Instacart workers walking off job

About two dozen Amazon workers in the company's Staten Island, New York, distribution facility walked off the job Monday to protest what they call the company's foot-dragging on protecting staffers from the novel coronavirus.

A worker at the Staten Island warehouse tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, last week, but Amazon has not closed the facility, which employs several thousand people, according to several workers and activist groups.

Workers at Monday's rally, which was streamed on Facebook, chanted "Shut it down!" and said that there were 10 cases of positive COVID-19 tests in the building. 

Amazon workers around the country have been agitating for weeks against what they say are insufficient protections against the coronavirus disease from the world's largest e-commerce company.

Workers in at least 11 Amazon locations nationwide have tested positive for COVID-19, according to media reports. The company's Queens, New York, warehouse — with the first confirmed case of a worker testing positive — was closed for several hours overnight, which workers said was insufficient time to deep-clean. 

A Shakopee, Minnesota, facility was also closed and cleaned.  A facility in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, was initially closed for two days but is now shuttered through April 1 after an order from Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.

Amazon has declined to say how many of its workers have tested positive for COVID-19 or how many of its locations have been closed for cleanings.

The company also disputed the number of participants in Monday's walkout in Staten Island, videos of which show about two dozen people gathered outside the warehouse. Organizers of the protest claim there were 50 participants; an Amazon spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch 15 people participated and claimed only nine of them were actually employed by the company.

Essential workers risk coronavirus exposure to serve their communities

Workers across the country have called Amazon's response to the pandemic slow and inconsistent. 

Rina Cummings, a worker at the Staten Island facility, known within Amazon as JFK8, said the company was slow to adopt "social distancing" measures that public health experts have recommended to stem the spread of the virus. Large shift meetings did not stop until mid-March, even though New York City had been discouraging large gatherings much earlier, Cummings said. Meantime, Amazon had told some of its office workers to work remotely on March 5.

In a statement to CBS MoneyWatch, Amazon called workers' accusations "simply unfounded."

"Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis," the statement said. 

"Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable," it continued. "We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances."

The company added: "The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day."

Amazon said it recently started conducting mandatory body-temperature screenings at JFK8, and juiced up its benefits for workers, including a pay raise of $2 an hour and a doubling of hourly pay for overtime.

However, Amazon has declined to give paid sick leave to workers unless they test positive for COVID-19 or are asked to self-quarantine, which workers say is a high bar to meet at a time when tests for exposure to the virus are hard to come by. Workers can also take unpaid leave, but many say they cannot afford to do so.

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"What they're offering is inadequate, and accessing it is difficult," said Dania Rajendra, head of Athena, a coalition of anti-Amazon labor and social justice groups. "It all adds up to a miserly approach to protecting the people who are making Amazon function."

Chris Smalls, an assistant manager who is leading the Staten Island walkout, told CNBC he witnessed at least one sick person reporting for work despite showing symptoms. Smalls is currently on a 14-day quarantine, with pay, because he came into contact with a sick worker, Amazon said.

Smalls and other workers are calling for the government to step in and shut down the Staten Island warehouse so it can be sanitized. 

"If Amazon cannot guarantee the safety of its facilities, it's time for our elected officials to act," Phillip Ruiz, a worker at JFK8 and a member of New York Communities for Change, said in a statement. "New York Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have the power to close warehouses during this emergency. They should follow the lead of Governor Beshear in Kentucky, who closed a contaminated facility [in Shepherdsville] while guaranteeing workers' full pay."

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