Examining Amazon's treatment of its workers

While Amazon proves to be a valuable resource for many Americans, particularly in the time of COVID-19, workers at the company are calling for safer conditions and better benefits.

Examining Amazon's treatment of its workers
Examining Amazon's treatment of its workers 13:17

Amazon is the second largest private employer in the country, headed by the richest man on Earth. As the coronavirus pandemic has upended American life as we know it, many of us at home have relied on Amazon as a lifeline. Its workers have been called heroes.   

But the company has come under fire for the way it treats those workers on the frontlines of delivery. In his latest earnings' report, a week and a half ago, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos committed an additional $4 billion, at least, for COVID expenses, including more protections for his employees. He said it would require not just money, but invention and humility. Figuring out how to make this happen falls in great part on the shoulders of Amazon's head of operations, Dave Clark.

Lesley Stahl: Amazon is seen as an essential service through this pandemic. But you have been very slow to install your workers' protections. And it's hurt your reputation. You've been seen as a company that puts profits ahead of people.

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Dave Clark

Dave Clark: I could not disagree more strongly with the premise that we're late to this party. I think-- quite to the contrary. I think we've been early on the curve to this than most employers, particularly major employers in the U.S.

As head of operations at Amazon, Dave Clark is in charge of over a million people, 1000 buildings, and shipping your packages. All while keeping Amazon's workforce safe, whether its employees filling orders at the warehouse, or drivers showing up at your front door.

But since March, some of those workers have started staging protests, walkouts, and sick-outs in New York, Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago.

The protestors want the company to only ship essential items to limit their potential exposure, they want hazard pay and better sick leave. So now Dave Clark is adding damage control to his portfolio. 
 
We talked with him remotely as he took us on a tour of a warehouse near Seattle, showing us where some of the $800 million the company says it has spent on worker protections thus far has gone. For example, they have installed thermal cameras in many of their locations, to take employees' temperatures.

Lesley Stahl: They can take someone's temperature that fast? 

Dave Clark: It can 

They then take a mask. 

Next, a visit to an onsite testing lab. Amazon is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a way for employees to self-administer a coronavirus test, using saliva or a nasal swab. 

But this is still a work in progress. Right now the swab is sent offsite for analysis, results can take as long as five days. 

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A cleaner sprays disinfectant inside an Amazon warehouse

This is the main work floor where items are sorted and boxed. We saw people in hazmat suits spraying surfaces with a misting disinfectant. 

Lesley Stahl: And this goes on all day?

Dave Clark: Some sites this happens once a week, and some sites this occurs throughout the day every day.

Lesley Stahl: Is once a week enough?

Dave Clark: Again, it depends on the area.

Amazon says it is now trying to enforce social distancing by videotaping all its employees and using artificial intelligence to study their movements. Clark says the company's extensive camera system is also being used for contact tracing in order to identify workers who came in contact with a sick colleague and send them into quarantine. In addition, these portable washing stations have been rolled in.

Dave Clark: We've deployed these all across all of our sites. They have disinfecting soap, water, paper towels. 

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 In the future: A robot is being built to emit UV light to kill viruses on surfaces.

Amazon also shared video of something they are working on for the future: a robot that emits a certain type of UV light to kill the virus on surfaces. It could be used one day in warehouses, and at Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon. 

Lesley Stahl: So here's a question of great interest to an awful lot of us. Are you worried that you might be transmitting coronavirus through your boxes, through cardboard or plastic?

Dave Clark: No. we do not see risk there for customers or employees. 

Lesley Stahl: You have installed, by what you're saying, over 150 safety measures. And yet, COVID cases keep popping up. Now, why do you think that is? 

Dave Clark: We see COVID cases popping up at roughly a rate generally just under what the actual community infection rates are, because our employees live and are part of those communities.

Lesley Stahl: So you're saying that if these new cases keep popping up that it's not bc they're getting it or spreading it in your facilities? 

Dave Clark: That's correct. 

But employees have complained they're in jeopardy at the warehouses, because social distancing isn't always enforced. Throughout March and April, workers shared through texts and social media images of crowding, the work-floor, and break-room.

Lesley Stahl: So how many positive cases have you discovered at Amazon?

Dave Clark: The actual-- sort of total number of cases isn't particularly useful because it's relative to the size of the building and then the overall community infection rate.

Lesley Stahl: So you-- you don't know or you're just not gonna tell us how many cases have been discovered?

Dave Clark: I-- I don't ha-- I mean, we know. I don't have the number right on me at this moment because it's not a particularly useful number. 

But warehouse workers we spoke to would like to know. They say they aren't given enough information to assess their own risk. 

Amazon worker tracks coronavirus cases 04:19

Amazon says it notifies all workers through texts and robo-calls every time a specific warehouse has a confirmed case, but workers told us they don't feel these robocalls are useful, because they don't tell all employees in which department or shift the sick person worked. And some of these buildings can fit 40 football fields in them.

ROBOCALL: We want to let you know we have 11 additional confirmed cases of Covid 19 at AVP1 in the Hazelton region. 

Hazleton, Pennsylvania, is where we found the largest cluster of COVID-19 in the Amazon network. Workers there tell us they've counted well over 70 cases in their warehouse, but they're petrified to complain for fear of losing their jobs. 

The whole community of Hazleton, a small town with a large working class hispanic population, has seen a spike of infections, partly due to the local Cargill meatpacking plant that had to close down for two weeks for sanitizing. 

Lesley Stahl: Hazleton, Pennsylvania, your warehouse there seems to be a hotspot, a major hotspot. Why not shut down that facility and sanitize? Sanitize that building.

Dave Clark: We sanitized that building 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have misting crews in there every day. We have janitorial cleaning every day.

Lesley Stahl: Why the reluctance to shut down a plant where there are-- many cases? I mean, this isn't just Hazleton.

Dave Clark: It's not a reluctance-- it's just not effective. If I-- if I believed that shutting down the plant was the answer to keeping our people safe, we would do it. But it's not.

The CDC recommends that when a plant has a case it should close down that worker's area and try to wait for 24 hours before disinfecting. Calls for closing Amazon facilities for deep cleaning are being heard all around the country. 

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Chris Smalls

Lesley Stahl: So you organized a protest on March 30th. What specifically were you asking for at that point?

Chris Smalls: Simple demands. All we wanted was the building to be closed down and sanitized.

Chris Smalls, an assistant manager in Staten Island, New York, was the first to organize a walkout in the United States. He says workers were getting sick, and management was not doing enough.  
 
Lesley Stahl: Tell us what happened to you after the protest.

Chris Smalls: I was terminated two hours later--

Lesley Stahl: You were fired.

Chris Smalls: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: Yeah.

Chris Smalls: I was fired. 

Lesley Stahl: Are you the only Amazon employee who spoke up, protested, who's been fired?

Chris Smalls: No, I'm not. There's been a few, quite a few.

Lesley Stahl: We have encountered some fear among people at Amazon because they have seen that protest leaders have been fired just for complaining.

Dave Clark: Well, I can tell you we have a zero tolerance policy for retaliating against people or for any number of issues. I've been here 21 years and I've never seen anybody fired for complaining or raising a concern.

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Protesters outside an Amazon facility

Dave Clark says Chris Smalls was fired because he violated the company's quarantine policy. But an internal memo leaked to Vice News describes Amazon's head lawyer David Zapolsky planning to discredit the protest movement by smearing Smalls. 

Lesley Stahl: It's written right down in this document that you were gonna go after him. 

Dave Clark: Well, I think-- it's unfortunate-- I think it's unfortunate because-- you know, I think his frustration got the better of him in that comment.

Lesley Stahl: Well, the state of New York is looking into why he was fired. And there have been other protesters as well who've been fired. He's not the only one. There is a little list here.

Dave Clark: Yeah, and, again I think if you go through each one of those individuals what you're going to find is some sort of substantive policy violation-- or safety violation that occurred in the process.

But a top Amazon engineer quit last week, writing in a blog that the protestors are whistleblowers, and firing them is, "evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture." 

And on Wednesday, nine senators called on Amazon to clarify these terminations.  

Lesley Stahl: Well, I think there's been some commentary that you are beginning to build a labor movement. And that that's at the heart of this. This is your main goal. Is that fair?

Chris Smalls: It wasn't my main goal, but now it is--

Lesley Stahl: Now it is?

Chris Smalls: Yeah, it is. 

Lesley Stahl: A union agitator, ya know?

Chris Smalls: Hey I understand but It's necessary. If they're not gonna take care of their employees somebody has to.

Chris Smalls and others are calling on Amazon to extend benefits during the pandemic, like more generous sick leave, and extra pay. 

Lesley Stahl: Many of your workers are putting their health in jeopardy. and a lotta people see them as heroes. Don't they deserve hazard pay? This is hazardous--

Dave Clark: Well, I see them as heroes too. And we have put in place. Th-- we're paying $2 extra an hour, paying double time for overtime. 

Lesley Stahl: The $2 raise and more for overtime is set to expire on May 16th. Are you gonna let it expire or are you gonna extend it?

Dave Clark: There's no decision to be made at this point whether to end May 16th or continue.

He says that everyday there're big decisions like this he has to make, as head of operations, to keep the packages coming and address the criticism. 

Dave Clark: If anybody walked into this with a perfect playbook for how to execute-- continuing to-- to send essential goods to people in the middle of a pandemic, I'd love to see it. You know, do I wish we were perfect from day one? Of course. Do I feel like we put people in unnecessary risk? No.

Produced by Shachar Bar-On and Natalie Jimenez Peel. Field producer, Kate Morris. Broadcast associate, Maria Rutan.

  • Lesley Stahl
    Lesley Stahl

    One of America's most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.