KENT, Wash. — After months of being embattled over its response to the coronavirus, Amazon is working to convince the public that its workplaces — specifically, the warehouses where it stores everything from toys to hand sanitizer — are safe during the pandemic.
The giant internet retailer has started running television ads that show that its warehouse and delivery employees have masks and other protective gear. It has pushed out segments to local news stations touting its safety improvements. It has asked journalists to visit its warehouses to see for themselves.
Amazon is spreading its safety message after a period that Jeff Bezos, the company’s chief executive, has called “the hardest time we’ve ever faced.” As the coronavirus swept through the United States, Amazon struggled to balance a surge of orders with the health concerns of the one million workers and contractors at its warehouses and delivery operations. In hundreds of its facilities, workers became ill with Covid-19.
While Amazon has rolled out safety changes, many workers and officials said the measures were unevenly deployed and came too late.
But in recent weeks, workers said, some conditions inside the warehouses have improved. And the company, which was in emergency response mode in March and April, has resumed a more regular rhythm of business.
Amazon recently invited reporters into a fulfillment center in Kent, Wash., 20 miles south of Seattle, where the company is based. The New York Times agreed to tour the facility to see the changes that Amazon and many workers around the country had described.
Plexiglass, Tape and Sanitizer Stations
The facility, which opened in 2016, stretches across more than one million square feet. The squat, largely windowless structure sits in an industrial park surrounded by parking lots. Inside, a vast web of conveyor belts crisscross the building, moving between areas where workers stow products into robotic shelves and areas where the workers pick items up from the shelves. There are also work stations where people package the items up for shipping.
On a typical shift, 600 to 800 employees work there. Much of the building naturally has little human interaction because the work areas are spaced far apart.
But some high-traffic areas have changed. The human resources desk has put up walls of plexiglass so people can still talk face to face, with a layer of separation. There is tape throughout the warehouse marking out six-foot increments for social distancing. Sanitizer stations are common; before they were rare.
The most dramatic transformation is at the building’s entryway, a wide lobby area with tall turnstiles. Workers would previously pass through the turnstiles and start their shift. Now when they arrive, they are channeled past thermal cameras, manned by colleagues, to take their temperatures. At a small stand enclosed in plexiglass, a worker stands with a stack of masks, which are handed out using long tongs.
After workers pass through the temperature checks, they see a glass-walled room that previously was used for training. The room is part of an Amazon pilot program to test warehouse employees for Covid-19, part of the $4 billion that the company has said it plans to spend in the next few months to respond to the virus.
When workers enter the makeshift testing center, they scan their company badge. They are handed, via forceps, a test kit for the virus. The small plastic bag, which is marked with a biohazard symbol, contains a swab and test tube-like container. Workers can go to one of several areas with tables to follow instructions on how to administer the test. Then they seal their test kit and place it into a green bin.
An employee of Concentra, a company that provides workplace health care, is on hand to give the medical oversight needed for self-administered tests.
Amazon said more than 1,000 of the roughly 4,000 workers at the facility have been tested for the coronavirus.
A Thrum of Activity
Workers still come and go. They grab lunch in the break room and have a smoke outside. Those are signs that business is getting back to normal.
In the early stages of the pandemic, Amazon focused on prioritizing the shipping of critical products, like hand sanitizer and diapers. But the Kent warehouse also packed products to meet shoppers’ other whims — outdoor lights, blenders, car washing supplies and more.
Amazon has hired 175,000 temporary workers — including about 1,000 at this warehouse alone — to stand in for employees who stayed home during the early phase of the pandemic and to help meet demand that rivaled its peak holiday season. Now the majority of those workers have been given permanent roles.
Emilie Deschamps, a worker who Amazon authorized to talk publicly, joined the warehouse last October. She said the biggest change was not physical, but rather, how Amazon had adjusted break times to stagger them and reduce congestion, she said. The company also gave people extra time to wash their hands, she said.
“Honestly, it’s been OK so far,” she said.
Even with work stations spaced far apart, employees still pass closely by each other at times, just as you might see at a grocery store or sidewalk.