Kent, Washington – After months of controversy over his response to coronavirus, Amazon does everything possible to convince the public that its facilities, especially the warehouses where it stores different products, from toys to hand sanitizer, are safe during the pandemic.
The internet commerce giant began airing television commercials in which its warehouse and delivery employees appear wearing masks and more protective gear. It has done its best for local news stations to broadcast segments highlighting improvements made to ensure security. He has invited journalists to visit his wineries to verify that this is the case.
Amazon is spreading its security message after a period that Jeff Bezos, CEO of the company, described as “the most difficult time we have faced.” When the coronavirus began to plague the United States, Amazon struggled to balance the rapid increase in its orders with the health concerns of the million employees and contractors who work in their warehouses and delivery operations.
At hundreds of its facilities, employees fell ill with COVID-19 and many blamed the company. At the height of this crisis, an Amazon executive reported that he had resigned in protest at the firing of employees who dared to express dissatisfaction regarding safety within the workplace during the pandemic.
Although Amazon has implemented changes to ensure security, many employees and officials indicated that the implementation of the measures was late and not uniform.
However, employees note that for some weeks, conditions inside the warehouses have begun to improve. In addition, the company, which operated in a state of emergency during March and April, has resumed a more regular work rhythm.
Amazon recently invited a group of journalists to a logistics center in Kent, Washington, just over thirty kilometers south of Seattle, where the company has its headquarters. The New York Times agreed to tour the facility to see the changes described by Amazon and workers across the country.
Plexiglas, tape and stations with disinfectant
This plant, which opened in 2016, occupies an area of almost 93,000 square meters. This small structure, which has practically no windows, is located within an industrial park surrounded by parking lots. Inside, a vast network of conveyor belts running through the warehouse connects areas where employees place products on robotic shelves with others where they select items from the shelves. There are also workstations where other workers pack merchandise and get it ready for shipment.
In a normal shift, between 600 and 800 employees are inside this plant. Naturally, in much of the warehouse there is very little human interaction because the work areas are so far apart.
However, some high traffic areas have changed. The human resources office put up plexiglass walls that allow employees to speak face to face, but with a layer of separation. Throughout the logistics center there is a tape that marks two-meter sections to maintain social distance. There are several stations with disinfectant, which were previously uncommon.
The most drastic transformation is seen at the entrance of the building, a wide access area with high turnstiles. Before, employees passed the turnstiles and began their shift. Now, upon arrival they must pass through an area with thermal cameras, operated by colleagues, where they take their temperature. In a small stall surrounded by Plexiglas, an employee stands with a stack of face masks, which he distributes with long tongs.
The testing laboratory
After the temperature measurement area, they come to a glass-walled room that was previously used for training activities. Now, that place is part of an Amazon pilot program whose purpose is to identify warehouse employees with COVID-19, financed with a portion of the $ 4 billion that the company announced it plans to spend in the coming months in response to the virus.
When employees enter the makeshift testing center, they scan their company ID card. So with a forceps they give them a test kit for the virus. The small plastic bag, marked with a biohazard symbol, has a swab and a test tube-like container inside. Employees can choose from several areas with tables where they can apply the test according to the instructions. They then seal their test kit and place it in a green container.
An employee of Concentrates, a company dedicated to providing health services in the workplace, is on-site to provide the necessary medical guidance for self-administered testing.
Amazon said more than 1,000 of the warehouse’s employees, which number more than 3,000, have been tested for the coronavirus.
A buzz of activity
Workers still move from one side to the other. They eat their lunch in the break room and go out to smoke. They are signs that everything is returning to normal.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Amazon focused on prioritizing the shipment of vital products, such as hand sanitizers and diapers. But the Kent store also packed products to please other shoppers’ tastes, such as outdoor lights, blenders, and car wash supplies, among others.
Amazon hired 175,000 temporary employees, of which around 1,000 work at this center., as a replacement for others who stayed home during the first phase of the pandemic in order to cover demand, which was very similar to the season of greatest activity during the festivities. Now, most of those employees already have a permanent position.
Emilie Deschamps, an employee authorized by Amazon to express her opinion in public, began working at the warehouse last October. He commented that the biggest change was not physical, but the way Amazon has adjusted rest times so that they are staggered and fewer people are concentrated. The company also now gives them additional time to wash their hands, he explained.
“Honestly, everything has been fine so far,” he said.