Labor group says Amazon massively underreported Covid cases contracted at work

Amazon had at least 20,000 employees test positive for Covid-19 last year. But it reported that only 27 of those cases were contracted while the employees were at work.

Labor group says Amazon massively underreported Covid cases contracted at work
© Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images Orders move down a conveyor belt at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, on February 5, 2019.

The company’s reporting amounts to a “hidden pandemic,” according to a coalition of four unions interested in establishing representation for Amazon workers.

“The company systematically failed to record Covid-19 cases in its warehouses, recording only 27 work-related illnesses for all of 2020 in the category that includes Covid-19 infections,” said the report from the Strategic Organizing Center, which is made up of the Teamsters union, the Service Employees Union, the Communication Workers of America and the United Farm Workers of America.

The group notes that Amazon put out a statement to employees on October 1, 2020, in which it said that 19,816 US employees had tested positive for Covid through September 19 of that year, prior to the late-year surge that increased the number of cases nationwide.

The labor group has sent a complaint to Assistant Secretary of Labor Douglas Parker, urging the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to investigate Amazon’s “disturbing pattern of misleading or grossly incomplete information provided to authorities around Covid-19 cases in its warehouses.”

“Amazon, the nation’s second largest private employer, put workers’ lives at risk by depriving OSHA of information about Covid-19 cases in its facilities, undermining the agency’s ability to identify workplace hazards and to hold the company accountable for unsafe conditions,” the group said.

Amazon did not challenge the number of cases cited by the group, but called its report an intentionally misleading effort to paint a false picture of the statistics that Amazon filed with OSHA.

“OSHA has acknowledged that assessing whether a Covid case was caused through exposure in the workplace vs. in the community is difficult,” said Amazon’s statement. “OSHA has provided employers with guidance about when to record cases as workplace related exposure and we have worked to follow this guidance throughout the pandemic. Additionally, we also communicate regularly with our employees and local health authorities.

“While we know we aren’t perfect, we’re working hard every day to listen to the experts and keep our teams and communities safe, which has included incurring more than $15 billion in costs for things like extensive contact tracing, on-site vaccine clinics and testing, and hundreds of process changes and health measures,” said the company.

The report that Amazon provided to employees in October last year said that the 19,816 positive tests were among the 1.4 million front-line US employees of Amazon and Whole Foods.

The company’s report also stated that an analysis comparing its employee infection rate to the infection rate among the general population showed that the Amazon infection rate was 42% lower than what would have been found in the overall US population during the same period. Amazon said it controlled for both age and geographic distribution of workers when doing the analysis.

But the main point that Amazon made in the October notice to employees is that it couldn’t say where those who tested positive had become infected.

“A positive test does not mean someone became infected as a result of their employment with Amazon — these individuals can be exposed in many ways outside of work,” the company said.

Amazon has faced complaints from both employees and some public officials that it is not doing enough to protect workers from the transmission of Covid while on the job. New York Attorney General Letitia James filed suit earlier this year charging that “throughout the historic pandemic, Amazon has repeatedly and persistently failed to comply with its obligation to institute reasonable and adequate measures to protect its workers from the spread of the virus.”

Specifically the AG charges that Amazon has failed to comply with requirements for cleaning and disinfecting workplaces where infected workers had been, as well as not notifying potential contacts of infected workers. James also said Amazon’s demands for productivity from its workers did not allow them sufficient time to “engage in hygiene, sanitation, social-distancing, and necessary cleaning practices.”

Amazon has denied it is not doing what is necessary to protect its workers, but the company has lost efforts to block James from pursuing the case in court.

Amazon, as the nation’s second largest private sector employer, and one of its fastest growing, has become a top target of unions hoping to win the right to represent workers at various facilities.

The union coalition making the complaint to OSHA Tuesday does not include the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is looking to represent the workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. That union, which lost an initial organizing vote at that Amazon facility in April, had a National Labor Relations Board regional director order a new vote Monday due to findings of misconduct by Amazon during the earlier vote. Amazon said it will fight that organizing effort once again.

The coalition also doesn’t include an independent union seeking to organize workers at the Staten Island, New York, facility cited in James’ complaint.

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