Life in the Time of Coronavirus

The Amazon Warehouse Worker Who Can’t Stay Home

A new series about how this pandemic affects our lives, our loved ones, our work, and our way of life

Life in the Time of Coronavirus is a new GEN series where we are interviewing people across the country who have had their lives upended or are experiencing the stress of the unknown.

This Amazon employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, is an inbound stow associate in her mid-20s working at a major California warehouse. Employee organizations in other warehouses have been negotiating for increased labor rights, with some recent successes, but her facility does not have such an organization.

IfIf I could stay home, I would, but I need this job. We have work gloves and hand sanitizer but nothing else to protect us from the coronavirus. Everything has been touched by 1,000 hands: Hands at the manufacturer, the distributor, the docks, the trucks; hands making up the pallets. Then I pick up each item and put it on my pod, and that pod goes to other sets of hands: the pickers, the packers, the shippers. We move fast, and we sweat when we work. The warehouse has no air circulation. One sneeze particle, and it’s just caught inside. What if my whole department, my whole warehouse, gets sick?

For my role, I stand in a station, and I receive items — toys, books, clothes, household goods, even dildos, I’ll be honest — in bins. I take each item and move it to a pod with shelves beside me. When I completely fill the pod, which is self-driving, it heads over to the outbound section. The customers want their stuff fast; our days are built around that desire. Before the pandemic, I worked from 6:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., 10-hour days, four days a week, except for peak holiday season, when I worked overtime: five days a week, 12 hours a day. I got paid $15.55 base pay, plus 60 cents extra for working overnight, so $16.15 per hour, and around $23 for overtime. We do get benefits, including dental, vision, and health insurance, and a 401(k). In normal times, I bring home about $1,900 a month.

Because of the coronavirus, demand has shot up. We’re now required to work five days a week, 10 hours a day. We’re short-staffed; half my team isn’t showing up. They’re scared, or they’re sick. I don’t know. Rumors have been circulating that 50 workers here are being tested for the coronavirus. I know at least one is positive. A single mom told me, “I can’t risk getting sick.” She was worried that if our city went on lockdown, she wouldn’t be able to get back to her kids. She stopped coming. I live with my extended family: little babies, older people. Every day, I wonder: What could I bring back to them?

I often say I live at Amazon half the week, but now it’s most of the week. I sleep all day and wake up at 3 or 4 p.m. Eat, drive to work, arrive around 5:30, get water, try to use the bathroom. The bathroom situation is a constant challenge. In a 10-hour shift, I get two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch break. And then I get 30 minutes of “time off task” — to do whatever I need to. But a normal bathroom trip can take seven to 10 minutes round-trip, depending on the station you’re assigned to that day, so you can really only manage three trips over the whole shift. I have to drink a lot to stay hydrated, because the work is physical, and I’m trying to wash my hands thoroughly. Sometimes I don’t go to the bathroom when I need to because I’m close to getting a write-up. I can’t chance it. If you go over your “time off task,” for whatever reason, you get a write-up. Six write-ups, you’re fired.

You can also get a write-up for not going fast enough. I’m required to move each item from my receiving area to a pod shelf in 12 seconds at most, with five seconds in between each motion. If my weekly rate is not above 80% of what is required, I get a write-up. Six write-ups: Fired. I have to keep a working flow, going at top speed, sometimes moving big items really fast, always thinking I could lose my job. I probably stow 600 items in a pod. Then I start again.

Last year, I was injured on the job. On my doctor’s recommendation, I requested that I be allowed three extra seconds to move each item. Management would not accommodate me. They put me on unpaid leave for a month. I couldn’t pay my phone or credit card bill. I pushed myself and headed back before I was fully recovered. Because I was rusty, I didn’t make rate. I got two write-ups immediately. I’m still in pain from the injury, by the way. Some days are worse than others.

Now things are especially crazy. Regular items come in, but they’re sorted to the side; we’re only sending out essentials — and board games, I noticed recently. I guess people are really stuck inside. But mostly it’s diapers, medicines, rubbing alcohol, Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer, face masks, gloves. We don’t sell these items in singles anymore. Customers want packs: a four-pack of Lysol wipes, a five-pack of hand sanitizers, big cases of Vitamin Water and baby wipes and tissues. So much stock is sold out. Workers are stressed: above capacity and understaffed. And we still have to hit our rates. Even though they’re exhausted, lots of people are going to keep working. I would assume someone who really needs the pay would probably come even if they’re ill.

The company has made some changes, I guess. Full-time employees like me usually get 48 hours of paid leave annually and no paid sick time, but now if we test positive for the coronavirus, we get two weeks paid sick time. Normally, we only get 20 hours unpaid time per year, but now we are allowed to take more time without it being counted against us. They’ve also called off team meetings to reduce contact and moved apart tables — though people still sit together in the common spaces. They cut down on the number of microwaves in the lunch area and placed the remaining ones six feet apart, but there are tons of employees, and so many people still use them. And they’re raising our pay by $2 an hour. Two dollars. What if I get exposed? What if I can’t recover? An extra two dollars an hour to risk my life? I mean, I’ll take the money, but I do feel like my life is worth more. I wouldn’t want to overdo it, but I would like $22 an hour to risk my life. Maybe $25.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Author, journalist. Nosy by nature.

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