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From the archives 2020

Warehouse workers say their safety concerns are being ignored. Here’s their cautionary tale for reopening.

by Wallace McKelvey of PennLive | The Patriot-News |

Workers’ stories demonstrated how warehouses would have to be radically altered to allow for the type of distancing needed to ensure their safety — a change that seems unlikely.
TIM TAI / Philadelphia Inquirer

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In mid-April, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration ordered all businesses allowed to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic to increase safeguards for their employees.

But within the cavernous expanses of Pennsylvania’s warehouses — a booming industry that employs tens of thousands of workers — some say they’ve yet to see much difference. They face an increasingly stark choice: Quit, risk losing their job by speaking out, or resign themselves to the fact that they’re at high risk for the virus.

“Reopen?” said one employee at an Amazon fulfillment center in Luzerne County, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media. “We never closed. Plain truth: No one cares about us.”

The workplace safety order that took effect April 19 — a full month and a half after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania — requires employers to provide masks, stagger work times, and “enforce social distancing of at least 6 feet” to prevent worker illnesses. As of Monday, cases topped 50,000 with 2,458 reported deaths.

Asked about worker concerns last week, Wolf said it’s up to employees to make their concerns known, and up to their employers to rectify issues. But workers said their complaints were largely ignored by managers and federal regulators. What’s more, the state hasn’t proactively enforced the safety order.

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And yet, as Pennsylvania begins the reopening process, success will in part hinge on how well workplaces follow social distancing and other safety protocols. Workers across the state in businesses that never shut down — including warehouses, meatpacking plants, and other facilities — are sounding the alarm about how that might go without more oversight.

“I’m thankful I have a job, but it was stressful enough already,” said a worker at an Apple fulfillment center in Cumberland County run by Syncreon. “Now there’s a threat of exposure [to COVID-19]. It’s flat-out greed.”

Interviews with eight warehouse workers from three different companies — Amazon, Hudson’s Bay Company, and Syncreon — described similar stories of a slow response to the pandemic, a lack of transparency from their employers, and, in some cases, ongoing deficiencies in providing safety equipment, promoting proper distancing, and sanitizing workspaces.

They spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal. In a few cases, workers said they were warned they would face disciplinary action or lawsuits if they spoke publicly.

Amazon employees noted that, as part of their training, they were warned not to speak publicly about the company. They described a culture in which management threatens reprisal against anyone who criticizes the company. In recent weeks, Amazon fired a New York warehouse worker who staged a protest and two white-collar employees who circulated a petition denouncing the treatment of workers during the pandemic.

In a statement, Amazon said it has a “zero tolerance policy for retaliation” but that “we firmly believe that … direct communication is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce.”

Following early cases at warehouses and meatpacking plants in the Lehigh Valley and northeast Pennsylvania, workers say they’ve struggled to learn the true rate of infection among their coworkers.

At Amazon’s AVP1 fulfillment center near Hazleton — which was under federal investigation because of an early spike in cases — workers say management stopped sharing that information. They started their own unofficial tally, which at last count was 64 and growing.

“Why [am] I going to expose myself for people getting stupid things like sexual dolls, grills, bed frames, exercise machines?” said one Amazon employee, who took unpaid leave from a warehouse outside Scranton. “I put my life first.”

An Amazon spokesperson, Rachael Lighty, declined to provide specifics on worker infections, but rejected the employees’ claims. She said the company has “worked closely with health authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and teams.” The company employs 10,000 people at more than a dozen fulfillment centers and offices statewide.

A Hudson’s Bay Company spokesperson said its warehouses follow all health guidelines, noting that “associates are under no pressure to work if they are uncomfortable.” Syncreon did not respond to requests for comment.

To Marielle Macher, a workers’ rights advocate and executive director of the Community Justice Project, these complaints are commonplace.

“We’ve been hearing really horrific stories from warehouse and meat processing workers,” she said. “It really is just impossible to truly socially distance.”

Indeed, workers’ stories demonstrate how warehouses would have to be radically altered to allow for the type of distancing needed to ensure worker safety — a change that seems unlikely.

An employee of Syncreon’s warehouse near Carlisle, which stores and ships Apple electronics, described an area recently dubbed “Corona Alley” by some workers. It’s one of several choke points where between five and 10 workers move packages between two sets of pallets.

“It’s a madhouse,” he said. “People on top of people.”

The employee said the company took steps to encourage social distancing in its break room but other areas remained all but impossible to correct.

At a warehouse near Pottsville run by Hudson’s Bay Company that ships orders for fashion retailer Saks Fifth Avenue, an employee said management provided personal protective equipment. But the company would have to fully redesign the facility in order to allow for the advised six feet of distance between workers on the conveyor belts.

“Time is of the essence,” said the employee, who believes the facility should shutter until it’s safe to reopen. “No one’s going to stop and sanitize everything they’ve touched and somebody’s always going to be coming up against one another in close quarters.”

Even in the best of times, these workers faced significant workplace hazards and little recourse for their complaints with rates of illness and injury on par with coal mining and farming, according to national data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly all of them are at-will employees lacking union protections.

The state has no single entity designated to handle workplace complaints, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has historically been overburdened and underfunded.

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Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesperson for Wolf, said workers who believe their employers aren’t following the order can file a complaint online through the Department of Health and with their local police department. The health agency has the authority to send letters and issue fines, she said, and local and state police can issue warnings or citations that come with a maximum fine of $300.

Department of Health spokesperson Nate Wardle said the agency has sent letters but couldn’t provide figures or copies.

Workers said they have complained to little effect.

“Believe me — we’ve complained and complained and complained,” said an employee at AVP1, who pointed to the lack of enforcement behind Wolf’s order closing all non-life-sustaining businesses. “What does it mean? What will they actually do?”

So far, the state police have issued just one citation against a nonessential business for violating Wolf’s March 19 shutdown order. That business was warned twice. Since the safety order took effect April 19, troopers have issued 25 warnings and no citations.

The Hudson’s Bay Company employee said she repeatedly called both the Department of Health and OSHA with complaints about working conditions. When she called OSHA, she said a regulator commiserated with her plight but said the agency wasn’t going to send an inspector.

“Nobody was really going to be checking to see if the businesses were following the CDC guidelines,” she said. “If you’re in a workplace that didn’t close, you didn’t have anybody to turn to.”

Some local officials are taking enforcement of workplace protection into their own hands. That includes Hazle Township in Luzerne County, home of AVP1.

“We knew early on from the enormity of the situation that the state and federal government wouldn’t have people available to check,” said Jim Montone, who chairs the township’s board of supervisors. “We’re trying to be proactive and help the people who work there.”

Montone said the township is dispatching code enforcement officers when they receive a workplace complaint but he concedes they don’t have much power to ensure equipment like masks are provided. They’ve found cooperation nonetheless, he said.

OSHA confirmed that it received three complaints from AVP1, which were deemed “resolved” after regulators corresponded with Amazon. The agency can issue fines for violating workplace safety rules but has thus far shown deference to employers dealing with the pandemic.

“OSHA standards haven’t changed,” U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson Emily Weeks said in a statement.

Weeks said employers are required to protect workers from recognized hazards, including the coronavirus. That could entail steps like cleaning, disinfection, and engineering controls, like partitions to separate workers from one another and from customers.

As of April 23, the most recent data available, the agency had received 2,609 coronavirus-related complaints nationally, she said. All complaints are investigated and, of those received, 1,527 had been closed.

Still, many workers have taken unpaid leave out of fear of infection due to what they see as an absence of proper precautions and lack of information about the spread of COVID-19. Some warehouses, including Amazon’s, allowed workers with pre-existing conditions to use paid time off or unpaid leave.

Amazon’s unpaid leave policy, however, expired April 30. Communications from management shared by employees indicated that anyone who didn’t return to work after that date would be terminated.

The Hudson’s Bay Company employee took leave from her job in mid-April out of concern for her health as several of her coworkers came down with COVID-19. But that wasn’t the end of the ordeal.

Although her employer allowed her to take leave, she’s spent untold hours on the phone navigating the state’s unemployment compensation backlog.

When her leave expires, she plans to simply return to work although she doesn’t feel any safer.

“Honestly, the reason I want to go back to work is so I don’t have to deal with unemployment and all the worries,” she said. “It’s just easier.”

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