A slew of employees at Amazon fulfillment centers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, have COVID-19. But local health officials say Amazon won’t let them inside to offer testing or check for safety in an escalating saga pitting the most powerful retailer in the world against regional bureaucrats trying to keep tabs on a deadly pandemic.
Amazon, Jeff Bezos’ e-commerce empire, has boomed in recent months as locked-down Americans leaned even harder into e-commerce. But as they worked through the crisis, employees at the company’s fulfillment centers have come down with coronavirus and died, driving some of their colleagues to protest conditions at the warehouses.
At least 32 employees caught the virus in Kenosha, workers at the city’s fulfillment centers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week. Despite the outbreak, the county’s health officials say Amazon is being uncooperative with efforts to trace the virus’s spread.
“To date, the Kenosha County Division of Health has struggled to receive coordinated cooperation from Amazon regarding the handling of COVID-19 cases within the company’s Kenosha campus,” Kenosha County Health Officer Dr. Jen Freiheit said in a Thursday statement. “The Amazon campus is made of up two facilities, MKE1 and MKE5, each with their own independent organization structure, which makes it difficult to coordinate a full outbreak picture with the organization as a whole.”
An Amazon spokesperson countered some of Freiheit’s claims in statement on Friday.
“Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our employees and we welcome a visit from the Kenosha County Health Department to see the investments we've made in safety, including enhanced daily cleaning, temperature checks, mandatory masks, and social distancing measures,” the spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “In addition, we’ve started our first COVID-19 testing pilot at a handful of sites, and plan to make this available to employees at MKE1 and MKE5 soon.”
Part of the problem is geographic, Freiheit explained: MKE1 and MKE5 are located within 20 minutes of Wisconsin's border with Illinois, where many employees live, outside of Freiheit’s jurisdiction.
“Due to many employees living in or being tested in Illinois, which is on a different public health reporting system, the Division of Health has been unable to accurately track cases in the facility, or to inform employees who may be at risk,” Freiheit said. “Without being in the facility, we remain unaware of whether employees have proper face coverings, and whether they are properly distanced from one another.”
The Amazon spokesperson said that when employees test positive for the virus, the company alerts health officials in the county where the worker lives, regardless of the state.
Freiheit previously told the Journal Sentinel that if Amazon does not cooperate with testing and tracing measures, the health department could take more active measures against the fulfillment centers.
“We’re at the point now that since we’re not getting that, we’re going to look into what other measures we can take for Amazon, because we are not getting as far with compliance as we would like,” Freiheit said.
She added that shutting down the centers was a possible option.
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And on her public statement on Thursday, she added that “Kenosha County, with potential partnership with the Wisconsin National Guard, stands ready to offer testing to all employees of the local Amazon facility.” (Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the possibility of a shutdown.)
In a Thursday press conference, Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said Amazon was required to report its COVID-19 cases.
"These individual workplace cases and clusters are required to be reported and posted as a public health investigation," Westergaard said. "In every such investigation, we are available and our role is to help local health departments."
Meanwhile, in an open Facebook group for workers at the two Kenosha centers, employees sounded off about COVID-19 cases at the warehouses.
One worker blasted Amazon as being “not forthcoming” in its dealings with health officials. “The number of cases is irrelevant. What is relevant is the ones we do have need to be contract traced so the infections can be limited. Not rocket science,” she wrote.
Some expressed satisfaction with Amazon’s anti-COVID measures, saying the spate of cases likely spread outside of the workplace.
Others indicated that Amazon was enforcing masking rules on the floor, but that compliance was more patchwork in other parts of the building.
“What I don’t get is it all goes out the window once it comes to the break room???” one employee wrote in the Facebook group. “Like I can’t tell you how many times I got pulled up like I was talked to like a child for working hard and my nose being exposed for a second but boom come break lunch time you don’t need your mask? Defeats the purpose.”
A standoff between the company and the local health department could mean the loss of a job in an already-precarious time for employment, others noted.
“If the health dept. shuts Amazon down,” one worker wrote, “do we still get paid?”