JEFFERSONVILLE — There have now been 26 cases of COVID-19 and one death confirmed among employees of the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Jeffersonville, the Clark County Health Department confirmed early Monday afternoon. Of these, 10 are Clark County residents.
Health officials say there has been no evidence of a spread within the employee pool, and that several of the 26 positive cases had been not working for some time before they were identified, due to the company temporarily allowing unpaid time off for workers concerned with the virus.
Officials also say the cases are a small percentage of the overall workforce of more than 1,000. But two months after the first case was identified, some employees say they don’t feel the company is doing enough to protect them.
The first positive case of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus at Amazon was identified at the start of April, just over two weeks after the first cases were identified in Clark and Floyd counties. Over the course of the next month and a half, the health department received nine complaints related to conditions in the workplace in light of COVID-19.
The first was filed April 2, and simply stated there had been a case confirmed. A follow-up from the health department shows that the patient had been identified as a trainee who was there for the first two days, not returning on the third due to illness. The employee’s spouse had not tested positive at the time, but both of their badges were deactivated and Amazon management said temperature checks would begin the following day.
In subsequent complaints, which span through May 15, four cite lack of social distancing, six express concern over the lack of personal protective equipment or cleaning practices and three cite worry over not knowing who the affected employees are.
In a complaint dated April 16, the complainant stated that people at Amazon are “Not following social distancing guidelines and no masks for the employees,” it reads.
Another from the following day states that “...No one knows who is sick and who is not,” it reads, in part. “Not social distancing, no PPE (personal protective equipment) to wear while at work. No sanitizing of any of the picking supplies and the pickers (a position in Amazon) are in contact with 300-400 people per shift.”
The notes of the health department’s follow-up were listed in the complaints. For this one, the investigator wrote that “They have had some problems keeping sanitizer available, but they have now bridged the gap by using a local distillery for supplying sanitizer,” it reads.
“They have two teams spot checking for social distancing throughout the day, for a total of 20 checks per day. They now in the last two weeks have required all associates to wear [masks.] They have suspended productivity requirements, therefore allowing only one ‘picker’ in an aisle at a time. They do notify close contacts based on names confirmed with the local health department.”
According to the health department notes within the complaints, Amazon began taking employees’ temperature each day starting in early April, and also began to require masks be used.
Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel said in an interview last week that from the start of COVID-19, most of his questions about local businesses and safety have centered around Amazon, given the size of its workforce. But he said the company’s safety department has been working well with the health department, and that he feels like they’re doing what they can to make the facility safe.
“I will say that their public safety department has worked with us really well,” Yazel said. “Whenever we have a case or an issue, they’ve been really responsive.” He added that “if you take how many people work there and their number of cases, they’re actually below the expected population number for that facility. It’s really hard to find fault with what they’ve done so far.”
But an employee the News and Tribune agreed not to identify for job security reasons said more could be done.
The employee confirmed that body scanning for temperature is now happening every time a staff member leaves or enters, that masks are provided and that there are signs posted to wash hands.
“All that is good and well,” the employee said. “It’s the six-foot distancing that’s impossible. Just by the nature of the setup, the work, you’re going to be closer than six feet multiple times per day.”
The staff member said social distancing is observed and practices more around areas like the main entrance but once in work stations, and especially at supervisor stations, “that’s where a big amount of people [are standing too close,” the employee said. “When you have all those people converge on the scene at the same time, you can’t stay six feet apart.”
The nature of the work also means that plastic totes carrying products cycle to workers at stations all throughout the facility during shifts, the employee said. They are provided Clorox wipes to clean their own stations, but this employee has not witnessed any “deep-cleaning,” and feels that the workplace is dusty, dirty, and that the totes leave hands grimy if gloves aren’t used.
“In down time I might see a person sweeping, people taking out trash, but detailed cleaning, absolutely not,” the person said.
Early into the pandemic reaching Southern Indiana and Amazon, the company gave employees the option to temporarily stay home from work if they were concerned about the spread of the virus. The time off would be unpaid, but it wouldn’t result in “points” against that person’s employment.
The staff member who spoke to the News and Tribune for this story estimated that at least 20% of staff took advantage of this option to some degree; that employee took a few days off but could not afford to take more with no pay. An extension is needed, the person said. Amazon’s staff includes a wide spectrum of employees, including those who are older or have underlying health issues — things health officials have said could make the virus much more damaging or even deadly.
“People do feel uncomfortable and they do need their jobs,” the employee said.
Another big concern among employees has been what some say is lack of transparency in the cases. Mass text alerts are sent out regularly when there are new ones, which include when the positive person last worked on site.
“I keep getting texts saying ‘we’ve got another case, we’ve got multiple cases, the last time they were in the building was this,’” the employee said. “But what department were they in? I don’t expect them to give names but at least the department.
“I feel like they’re taking the right steps, but I feel like they’re contradicting themselves on things such as we need to know what department so we can know if we’ve been in close contact with the individual. That would be helpful to know.”
In response to complaints about who has the virus, the health department’s notes on one report from April 6 that “Because of HIPAA, the individual or individuals who are identified as being positive for COVID-19 names will not be released uniformly,” it reads. “However, management will be permitted to discuss with employees who they know are a direct contact over 10 minutes.”
Yazel, the health officer, said he feels the company is doing what it can while remaining open as an essential business as designated by the state.
“It’s hard because...Amazon is essentially an essential business and we have to work with the best we can within those constraints,” Yazel said. “There are other factories...that have those same setups where you just can’t maintain operations and socially distance so we just try to get the to be creative and encourage good infection control practices and essentially in layman’s terms, just do the best they can.”
AMAZON’S RESPONSE TO COVID-19
Owen Torres, Amazon spokesperson said in an email that when a COVID-19 case is confirmed, all staff from that building are notified via text or call, and that any associates who had close contact are notified and asked to stay home and self-quarantine for two weeks with pay.
He added that Amazon has spent over $85 million redirecting employees to safety related tasks such as cleaning, and that the company has provided so far more than 100 million masks, 34 million gloves, 48 million ounces of hand sanitizer, 93 million sanitizing sprays and wipes, 31,000 thermometers and 1,115 thermal cameras for temperature-taking, added 2,298 hand-washing stations and more than 5,765 janitorial staff members.
“Our top concern is ensuring the health and safety of our employees, and we expect to invest approximately $4 billion from April to June on COVID-related initiatives to get products to customers and keep employees safe. This includes spending more than $800 million in the first half of the year on COVID-19 safety measures, with investments in personal protective equipment, enhanced cleaning of our facilities, less efficient process paths that better allow for effective social distancing, and developing our own COVID-19 testing capabilities, etc.”