For weeks, the company has frustrated workers and critics by declining to provide information about the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases at its warehouses, which have become crucial hubs for household supplies. Despite numerous confirmed cases at Amazon warehouses across the country, and around the world, the e-commerce giant has downplayed the significance of releasing site or aggregate data, making it difficult to get a clear picture of overall infections at its sites.
An Amazon spokesperson told CNN Business that the company does track the information at a site level but maintains that the aggregate number is not informative to workers because it would include resolved cases.
In a statement to CNN Business, Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski reiterated this point: “We see that in our quarantine rates as well … it shows that our hard work around social distancing is paying off.”
But the lack of public information has troubled both warehouse employees and state officials alike, who say the company isn’t providing information about the true scope of the public heath crisis on its workers who are the backbone of its core e-commerce business and have become a lifeline to consumers during the pandemic.
“It’s very scary. We need to be allowed to make decisions based on the number of cases at the facilities,” said Danielle, who works at an Amazon fulfillment center in Illinois, and asked to be identified by her first name only for fear of retribution.
Danielle, who has a family member with an underlying health condition, has not returned to work since the second week of March. “How can you not tell people how many cases you have at a facility?” she told CNN Business. “It should be important to management and leadership. They have kids and family, too.”
Another worker, who is employed at the company’s Staten Island facility and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, called the lack of disclosure “unbelievable” given Amazon’s reputation for tracking data on workers.
Amazon said it shares with employees when there is a confirmed case where they work, but workers say the communication has been inconsistent. In one text, viewed by CNN Business, the company confirmed that there have been “7 additional confirmed case(s)” while another text, from a different day, read “we have confirmed additional cases” with no number associated.
The Amazon spokesperson said the company did change its approach to not include numbers when confirming cases to workers for the same reasons it does not think the aggregate number is useful. The spokesperson added that it is communicating in-person with workers about fatalities rather than over text or voicemail.
“Safety is our top priority and we are committed to ensuring a clean and safe workplace. We’ve implemented over 150 significant process changes—from enhanced cleaning and social distancing measures to new efforts like disinfectant spraying,” said Levandowksi in a statement to CNN Business. “We’ve also distributed personal protective gear like masks across our entire operations network. We’ll continue to invest in safety, pay, and benefits for our teams who are playing an invaluable role in getting items to communities around the world.”
Amazon said it is using machine learning and data for coronavirus-related measures such as understanding where social distancing might be necessary at particular facilities.
With its ubiquitous presence online and offline, including 110 fulfillment centers across North America with 400,000 employees, Amazon has become an obvious focus for concerns about working conditions during the pandemic. But it is far from the only company facing scrutiny.
“It’s not just Amazon,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a worker safety expert at the National Employment Law Project, referring to other employers, including big meat plants, which have become coronavirus hot spots, that are not sharing the information.
“Hiding data from workers in the facility and the community seems all about putting the company’s own public relations profile above the lives and health of workers and the community. It’s about deflecting responsibility for the spread in the workplace,” said Berkowitz, a former senior official for the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Obama, adding that “if the company is not reporting it out — it is really hard data to find.”
David Michaels, former head of OSHA under the Obama administration and a professor at George Washington University, called it a “disappointing” move. “The point of a requirement is for the employer to understand better what is going on in a workplace,” he said. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not requiring employer information on case reporting forms.
The importance of coronavirus case data may only grow for workers as Amazon, like much of the country, transitions into a new phase of the pandemic. Amazon has started to tweak some of its coronavirus-related policies. The company ended its unlimited unpaid time off policy at the end of April. This week, it extended its $2 per hour increased pay for workers and double overtime pay through the end of the month.