This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.
Workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Eagan say they are terrified to report to work after six co-workers recently tested positive for COVID-19. They say the retail giant isn’t doing enough to protect them, and fear the disease will break out beyond the warehouse walls into their communities.
The company has been slow notifying employees when someone tests positive for the virus and has threatened ill workers with penalties if they call in sick, several workers told Sahan Journal.
“We are all at risk,” said Faduma Mohamed, a warehouse worker with asthma who is home now on medical leave. Her son also has asthma, and she said she fears bringing COVID-19 home.
On her last day at work two weeks ago, Faduma said she trained an employee whose mother she later discovered had tested positive for COVID-19. She found out when the mother called co-workers to tell everyone who interacted with her son to self-quarantine.
‘Doing all we can’
Amazon provides masks, but the workers said hand sanitizers are often empty and it’s hard to maintain proper social distancing at the facility. They believe their jobs are at risk if they decide to stay at home.
In a statement, Amazon spokesman Timothy Carter said the “allegations are simply unfounded.”
“Like most global companies, we’ve had employees affected by this, and we’re doing all that we can to protect our employees and take the proper precautions as stated in WHO [World Health Organization] guidelines,” he said.
“Our top concern,” he added, “is ensuring the health and safety of our employees, and we expect to invest approximately $4 billion from April to June on COVID-related initiatives to get products to customers and keep employees safe.”
Carter did not respond to written questions about the number of workers testing positive for COVID-19 at Amazon’s Shakopee and Eagan locations, or how often Amazon notifies employees about positive cases.
‘My safety is at risk’
Most of the seven workers who spoke with Sahan Journal are mothers who have limited proficiency in the English language and live in high density apartment buildings. Working at Amazon is their main source of income.
They work four and half hours a day every week, but the employees said the workload could be equal to eight hours of work. They have no medical benefits or paid time off.
“We have small kids,” said one Amazon Eagan worker, who asked not to be identified for fear the company might retaliate. “My mom has a high blood pressure who lives with me. I cannot quit because I need the job. My safety is at risk.”
The worker said employees who miss shifts because they fear the disease’s spread at work lose critical “attendance points.”
Amazon gives employees 20 attendance points every three months. If someone doesn’t come to work without prior approval, they will lose four and half points, the full hours of their daily shift. If they run out of points within those three months, the workers would get fired.
One worker collapsed at the facility on Thursday morning with a severe headache as the warehouse was being disinfected while employees were working, one employee who spoke to the woman told Sahan Journal.
The woman was taken to the cafeteria, and later returned to the workplace.
Spread in Shakopee draws scrutiny
Eagan employees say that after they complained, managers at the facility began sending mass text messages to all workers when a worker tested positive for the disease.
“We told them, ‘People are getting sick, and you are not telling us. We have underlying health conditions,’” said Nimo Hirad, who has high blood pressure.
In the text message sent to workers reviewed by Sahan Journal, Amazon said it has staggered shifts, implemented mandatory social distancing, and is taking the temperatures of workers when they start their shifts to keep the disease in check. It’s also requiring everyone to wear face masks.
Workers say while the face masks and temperature checks are happening, warehouse managers are not enforcing the social distancing measures as they should.
Amazon’s massive order fulfillment center in Shakopee has also drawn scrutiny locally and nationally over its treatment of employees in the COVID-19 era.
Even as Amazon implements new procedures, a Minneapolis-based workers’ group has criticized the e-commerce giant of inadequately protecting workers at the Shakopee facility.
Awood Center has filed a complaint with the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration after the company allegedly failed to disclose a likely COVID-19 case at the Shakopee operation.
The company has sent workers four text messages since May 9 notifying them about “additional confirmed cases of COVID-19” at Shakopee.
Tim Bray, a senior engineer and vice president at Amazon, recently quit over the firing of workers who protested health conditions inside Amazon’s warehouses in Minnesota and across the country.
“It’s evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture,” Bray wrote in a blog post. “I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.”
Bray cited the case of Bashir Mohamed, a former employee of the Shakopee facility who told recently CNN Business: “They fired me to make others scared. I was the top target.”
Amazon is drawing a deeper look now from Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who are now demanding answers from the company on why it fired the workers.