By Melba Newsome

When the California state college system shut down its campuses and moved classes online due to the coronavirus in March, rising junior Chad Ellis returned home to Charlotte, where he expected to finish his classes and hang out with friends and family.

Then, mega e-tailer Amazon announced plans to fill 100,000 positions across the U.S at fulfillment and distribution centers to handle the surge of online orders. A month later, the company said it needed another 75,000 positions just to keep up with demand. More than 1,000 of those jobs were added at the four Charlotte-area fulfillment centers. Amazon also announced it would raise the minimum wage from $15 to $17 per hour through the end of April.

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Ellis, a marketing and communications major, applied and was hired right away to work in the fulfillment center on Charlotte’s west side near the Charlotte Douglas airport. He was thrilled to earn extra spending money while he was home and doing his schoolwork online. The work was easy but tedious: folding and taping boxes, filling orders and sorting packages. However, it didn’t take long for his glee to turn into worry for him and his parents.

“On the second day after I got there, a girl who had COVID was throwing up in the bathroom,” said Ellis “She didn’t want to go home and was still trying to stay at work. They finally just took her out.”

Amazon workers all across the country have complained about unsafe working conditions that left them vulnerable to the coronavirus. As consumers tried to minimize their own risk by shopping for everything from toilet paper to televisions without leaving home, Amazon workers were confronted with a choice: Does working for Amazon provide a lifeline or a life risk?

The coronavirus begins to spread

By mid-April, there were seven known cases of employees in Amazon’s Charlotte-area warehouses testing positive for COVID-19. At the time, spokeswoman Alyssa Bronikowski told the Charlotte Observer that the company was “following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site.”

An April 2 statement on the company website laid out its newly implemented safety measures, including maintaining social distance at centers, increased cleanings at facilities, and making masks available to all employees. The facilities also implemented daily temperature checks for all employees. Anyone with a temperature above 100.4 degrees would be sent home.

While it sounds good, Ellis says it didn’t really work that way in practice. Each day, when he arrived for his 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift, he was immediately instructed to don his mask. If he didn’t have one, Amazon would provide one. To enter the warehouse, he passed through a system that automatically checked his body temperature. But once on the packing line, nobody bothered to enforce safety precautions.

“Plenty of people had masks, but they weren’t wearing them. And once they did get past the front line of checking in, nobody was checking to make sure,” said Ellis. “I was working next to a woman who had a mask but wore it below her chin. I was like ‘seriously, what is the point?’”

Since masks mainly guard against potentially spreading infection to others, Ellis was annoyed that, while he was diligent about protecting others, many of his co-workers didn’t reciprocate.

The OSHA database for open and closed valid COVID complaints include dozens of grievances about safety conditions at Amazon warehouses in North Carolina:

“Three employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and the employees are not being told which department they worked in.” 

“Within the pass [sic] week or two, 6 people on site have caught the coronavirus. The areas where the employees work at don’t really get cleaned.”

“Although they have put tape on the floor, it is hard for employees to keep apart, and there is no sanitization of their work areas.”

“Workers continue to test positive for Covid-19. Numbers have gone up, management has not provided any PPE or any cleaning to protect workers and continues to make new employees enter.” 

Asked for comment about the number of safety issues, Amazon spokesperson Courtney Norman responded by email on July 14. “Nothing is more important than [the] health and well-being of our employees, and we are doing everything we can to keep them as safe as possible.

“We’ve invested over $800 million in the first half of this year implementing 150 significant process changes on COVID-19 safety measures by purchasing items like masks, hand sanitizer, thermal cameras, thermometers, sanitizing wipes, gloves, additional handwashing stations, and adding disinfectant spraying in buildings, procuring COVID testing supplies, and additional janitorial teams. This includes two weeks paid leave for any COVID diagnosis or quarantine, and launching a $25 million fund.”

Workers often fail to follow protocol

Ellis is quick to concede that many employees take a casual approach to safety and social distancing.

“The rule was that only two people could sit at a table in the break rooms but people would be outside barely socially distancing, not wearing a mask,” says Ellis. “Generally, they were next to each other, eating and talking.”

Ultimately, the repeated text notifications about new coronavirus infections and lack of clear information led to his resignation.

“They would send out alerts whenever a new person was diagnosed with coronavirus. I got so many — more than 12 different notifications — that another person has been diagnosed,” recalls Ellis.

“Hello, Charlotte Four,” they read. “We recently learned of an additional confirmed case of COVID-19, who works at Charlotte Four. The affected individual was last on [date]. Your health is our top priority, we will continue to follow CDC guidelines, local health authority and private medical expert guidance. If someone is determined to have been in close contact, we proactively reach out individually to advise of possible exposure. If you feel sick, stay home. Questions? Contact HR.”

Because the infected employees were not identified, workers like Ellis had no way of knowing if they had close contact with him or her and were, therefore, at risk.

“I asked my manager ‘what are you gonna do with all these new cases popping up?’ and his answer really didn’t satisfy me,” he said. “He said once the number goes past a certain point, they will probably shut down the warehouse or do a deep cleaning. I think even two or three cases in one facility should be enough to shut down.”

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Melba Newsome is an award-winning freelance writer with more than 20 years' experience reporting on news and features. Her feature credits in many prominent publications including the New York Times, Bloomberg...