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Amazon warehouse closed by coronavirus: What it means for you

Amazon workers load boxes onto a conveyor belt in a warehouse in France.
Amazon workers load boxes onto a conveyor belt in a warehouse in France. (Image credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO/Shutterstock)

UPDATED with comment from Amazon.

Amazon may be shipping the coronavirus to your home.

That's the word from some Amazon warehouse employees in Europe and the United States, who told The Washington Post earlier this week that Amazon was sending people home only after they started coughing, and that the company's measures to disinfect the warehouses were "totally insufficient."

As if on cue, a worker at an Amazon sorting facility in Woodside, Queens, New York, tested positive for COVID-19 yesterday (March 18). All workers were sent home with full pay, Amazon spokeswoman Rena Lunak told The Atlantic.

That's the first reported case of a U.S. Amazon worker coming down with the disease, but there have already been other cases in Spain and Italy, where warehouses have been kept open even after workers tested positive.

A risk to customers?

Coronavirus can survive up to 24 hours on cardboard, studies indicate, so you might want to leave those Amazon shipments unopened for a day or two after they arrive in your home. The virus can persist up to three days on plastic or stainless steel. 

Shutting down warehouses entirely would cripple Amazon's delivery system, even as demand ramps up when millions of people are being forced to stay home during the coronavirus crisis. Just days ago, Amazon announced in a blog post that it's temporarily prioritizing the shipment of basic household items and medical supplies over other products. 

'An atmosphere of fear'

On Tuesday (March 17), an association of New York-area Amazon workers called Amazonians United NYC demanded that all warehouse workers get paid sick leave, childcare subsidies and hazard pay. 

Right now, only workers who test positive for the coronavirus get paid leave; all other Amazon warehouse workers apparently won't get paid if they stay home.

Amazon "needs a comprehensive plan to ensure the safety of all of its workers and the larger public," the group said in an online petition that was signed by more than 1,500 Amazon employees from around the world.

While Amazon told The Atlantic that the Queens sorting facility had been "temporarily closed ... for additional sanitation," Luismi Ruiz, an Amazon warehouse worker in Spain, told The Washington Post that his facility was still open even though two employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and others were in quarantine.

"It's an atmosphere of fear — huge fear right now," Ruiz told the Post.

The worst-case scenario

In response, Amazon told the Post that it gives warehouse workers enough break time to wash their hands. But New York warehouse worker Jonathan Bailey disputed that, saying that bathrooms are often a long walk from pull stations and that practicing good hygiene would force workers to miss their quotas and risk being written up by a supervisor.

"If a worker is to cough or sneeze, there is no way for them to practice good sanitary habits," the worker told the Post. "It's going to affect your stow rate." (Bailey also spoke to The Atlantic.)

To meet the huge demand in ship-to-home orders spurred by the coronavirus crisis, Amazon on Monday said it would hire 100,000 new workers in the U.S. and raise hourly wages in the U.S. and Europe. Some warehouse workers in Europe feared more staff would only increase the risk of coronavirus spreading through Amazon warehouses.

However, even that might not be the worst-case scenario, Dale Rogers, a professor of supply-chain management at Arizona State, told The Atlantic. 

If Amazon delivery drivers started testing positive, Rogers said, "that could be catastrophic." 

UPDATE: Amazon responds

Amazon spotted our story and sent us the following statement, along with a link to a company blog post that outlines Amazon's coronavirus-related policies.

"We are supporting the individual who is now in quarantine. Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with local authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and we're following all guidelines from local officials about the operations of our buildings. 

We have implemented proactive measures to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance, and adding distance between drivers and customers when making deliveries. Based on guidance from the CDC, the World Health Organization, and the Surgeon General, there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through packages. 

In addition to our enhanced daily deep cleaning, we temporarily closed the Queens delivery station for additional sanitation and sent associates home with full pay."