Profits Before People – is Amazon Putting Business Before the Health and Well-being of Staff During COVID-19?

The news that Amazon workers in 6 different warehouses across the US have tested positive for Coronavirus in the past few days has raised many questions both across the globe and at Talent Works.

Amazon is no stranger to controversy. Exposés over the last few years have raised questions about multinational tech company’s employer brand and treatment of employees; with suffering from burn out accepted as the norm and a huge lack of basic respect and care for employees. However, their treatment of staff during a global pandemic has caused further concern for the most profitable retailer in the world. Is it right that a company puts business continuity and profit over the health and wellbeing of its staff?

What’s the problem?

Amazon has been criticised for failing to protect its warehouse workers during the Covid-19 crisis. Amazon workers in the US have noted crowded workspaces (where keeping the recommended 2 metres apart is not manageable), no testing, a lack of cleaning supplies and speed of work which means they are unable to stop and sanitise their stations correctly. Delivery drivers are touching packages that have been handled by multiple members of staff, and don’t always have access to hand sanitiser or wipes. “We’re all going to get sick eventually,” said a worker at a facility in Washington. “The vibe with co-workers is that we are all probably going to get it. It’s just a matter of time.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean just the Amazon workers could get sick, but their families and the people they live with too. It’s reported that everyone who has Coronavirus could end up responsible for infecting up to 59,000 others if they don’t self-isolate. Amazon has claimed that employees who test positive for the virus will get 2 weeks paid leave to do this, however, testing isn’t available, and many workers can’t afford to risk time off without pay if it turns out they don’t have the illness. 

For those that can afford to take the risk, it’s creating a staffing shortage due to increased demand. Therefore, Amazon has announced it is looking to hire 100,000 new workers. However, without the correct safety measures and equipment in place for warehouse workers or delivery drivers, is this safe? Or are they potentially increasing the spread of a dangerous illness through the world’s most in-demand service? If workers don’t have a safe and clean environment to work in, is it wise to be bringing more people in? It seems Amazon isn’t fulfilling the needs of safety equipment and in fact is expecting vast numbers of staff to work in cramped conditions in order to fulfil a significant influx of orders.

Is Amazon a Vital Service?

We can agree that in the wake of a pandemic, Amazon offers its customers a vital service. There’s no surprise that there is a huge surge in orders to be processed. Leaving our homes puts both us and the people around us in danger; so ordering essentials such as toilet roll, disinfectant, medication and even basic food products online can help to minimise the spread of Covid-19. For those that are particularly vulnerable, Amazon could be considered a life-saving service. The warehouse workers and delivery drivers could be as essential as healthcare professionals in our current climate. Which is why we understand that they can’t close completely and must make provisions to provide for everyone which means an increase in staff is inevitable.

However, does this justify the company putting its people (and everyone they come into contact with) at risk of a potentially deadly virus? Should it be doing more to keep its people and any potential recruits safe?

Think back to the good old days before the internet (if you can). These essentials wouldn’t have been available at the touch of a button (or asking Alexa), we’d have had to go to the shop. Those that are vulnerable would have to rely on kind-hearted neighbours and family members to help. We wouldn’t have even dreamed that we could tell a device to order toilet roll and it would be at our door in less than 24 hours.

Then there is the question of whether the general public is using Amazon purely for essentials. With a website that sells almost everything we can imagine, it’s impossible to guarantee that customers are only purchasing what they need to survive. Because why wouldn’t you throw a scented candle in the mix if you already have toilet roll in your virtual basket?

What measures are being taken?

Amazon announced that it was temporarily halting deliveries of nonessential items to its warehouses to meet demands for medical supplies and essentials; however, workers have said they’re still shipping phone cases, decorations and low priority goods. It’s one thing to stop them coming in, but they haven’t been ceased from going out which is causing more of an issue.

When the world is facing its biggest crisis since world war II, is it really necessary to put thousands of employees at risk for a new phone case? Or is the company thinking more of its profits than its employees’ safety?

What should come first?

We hope that all employers can agree that in the current climate, health and wellbeing come before all else. Your people are, of course, your most valuable asset. After all, a business is no good if its staff are unable to work. Any organisation which doesn’t take care of its staff will suffer from a poor reputation and high attrition rates for years to come. Now is a time for empathy and understanding. During a global crisis, we should all be looking out for each other. We’re all worried and feeling fearful of the things we cannot control; so, it’s time to put both the physical and mental wellbeing of employees first, no matter what.

Of course, taking care of your employers and adopting a company culture which is empathetic will only work in your favour in the long run, as your employer brand will soar. 

Many organisations globally are facing boycotts and social media slander because they’re failing to protect staff and are refusing to offer significant sick pay, but because of its convenience and sheer size, Amazon seems untouchable. However, it will be interesting to see if Amazon sees similar repercussions to other businesses who have ill-treated staff during Covid-19, or if the retail giant truly is invincible.