Inside an Amazon warehouse

Fully Charged
Bloomberg

Hi all, it's Matt Day. This week, Amazon.com Inc. cut its delivery operations in cities slammed by protests, as a video of an Amazon van being looted made the rounds on Twitter and drivers said they fear becoming a target. It's a bout of fresh upheaval for a company that has dealt with plenty over the last several months, and comes just as the e-commerce giant believes it's getting a handle on fulfilling orders during a pandemic.

In mid-March, my colleague Spencer Soper and I wrote about the first cases of Covid-19 at Amazon's facilities. We reported that some workers said their employer did too little to protect them. At the time, we asked for a tour of a warehouse, but Amazon declined the request.

Since then—more than 1,100 workers were infected with the virus, according to employee tallies, there have been scattered worker walkouts, and Amazon has made a host of adjustments to its processes. Now, the company apparently feels that its warehouses are ready for outside scrutiny.

So on a sunny Friday in Kent, Washington, just south of Seattle, Spencer and I showed up for a for a tour of the company's BFI4 warehouse. Other journalists who closely track the company received similar invitations. Amazon's mission: to prove that the warehouses are safe.

The BFI4 warehouse is a vast white rectangle sprawling over 885,000 square feet, a footprint that would cover the size of 15 football fields. At the entryway, next to the entry turnstiles, jugs of hand sanitizer greet visitors, and guests file in past a thermal scanner. I have no idea what my temperature was, but a staffer reading the results from inside a transparent plastic box gave me a thumbs up and waved me in. A couple steps beyond, another Plexiglas-enclosed worker stands ready to hand out masks. Just inside, a room previously used for special events and the company's workforce training programs is now a Covid-19 testing clinic. 

Inside the warehouse, the Covid-19 signage is ubiquitous. Reminders to keep your distance plaster the walls, along with messages of thanks from customers, and descriptions of the workplace packaged as rallying cries: "Together, we'll deliver." Strewn across most of the floor, there's color-coded tape marking 6-foot intervals.

As we walked through, the workers we saw were indeed socially distant. Everyone wore masks, except for the people in the break room eating. And in heavily trafficked hallways, employees charged with enforcing Covid-19 measures were on hand to remind their colleagues to stay 6 feet apart. We didn't see inside any trucks being unloaded, but workstations we passed appeared to be far apart.

It's not clear this adherence to the rules is universal. Some employees at other facilities tell us maintaining distancing is difficult for some tasks. One employee at a New York City-area warehouse expressed alarm recently in an interview after seeing a group of managers with masks hanging around their necks passing around a container of breath mints. (Amazon says people who violate mask and distancing policies risk termination.)

In Kent, Spencer and I talked to Julieann Nickepwi, a mother of nine who lives nearby, as she placed items on the warehouse's shelves. She has been working at the facility for six weeks after being laid off from her prior job cleaning passenger planes at the airport, and was hired as part of a surge of 175,000 new employees Amazon brought on to meet demand, and fill in for other workers sheltering at home.

"They're doing a really good job," she said of the safety measures implemented by the company. She said she prefers the controlled environment of the warehouse to the airport, where she was "freaking out."

Nickepwi was also among the workers making an extra $2 an hour in hazard pay because of the virus. But that pay bump ended Monday. Kelly Cheeseman, the Amazon spokeswoman giving the tour, likened the temporary wage hike to the incentives the company offers during the frenzied holiday season—called "Peak" in Amazon speak. "We're out of that 'Peak' of Covid," Cheeseman said.

Still, the company hasn't exactly returned to normal. Online orders are flowing as much of the country avoids in-person commerce, and in Washington state the unemployment rate soared to 15% in April. Inside the warehouse near a corner, there's a company recruiting office. In front of it, there was a socially distant line of about a dozen, reaching to the door and then out onto the sidewalk, full of people waiting for their chance to work at Amazon. Matt Day with Spencer Soper

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