Amazon employee describes lax enforcement of COVID-19 precautions at Ottawa warehouse
An Amazon employee says working in the retail giant’s Ottawa warehouse during the pandemic was a nerve-wracking experience, citing examples of safety measures allegedly ignored and dozens of workers who have tested positive for COVID-19.
The employee, who tested positive for the virus at the end of 2020, is one of 500 people who work at Amazon’s fulfillment center in rural eastern Ottawa. CBC News has agreed to protect the identity of the source because they fear losing their jobs for speaking to the media.
While Amazon told CBC News it has a strict zero tolerance policy for anyone violating COVID-19 procedures and works closely with Ottawa Public Health, the employee said the request to the warehouse had increased since the start of the pandemic, putting more pressure on workers to avoid safety. protocols – especially with regard to physical distancing.
The fear of contracting COVID was very real. I was afraid of it and I was afraid to give it to my partner.– Employee at Amazon’s distribution center east of Ottawa
“You know, working more together you have to lift heavier things together … Not everyone wears a mask properly,” said the worker, who showed CBC photos taken from inside the room. ‘warehouse.
In one photo, an employee’s mask rests under his mouth. In another, two employees are seated against each other.
Amazon employees are not represented by a union. The worker said many were too afraid to talk to management about making changes for fear of losing their jobs.
“Since it all started, it’s been a little scary for me,” they said.
In Brampton, Ontario, three Amazon distribution centers have been temporarily partially closed in order to control COVID-19 outbreaks.
All three closures were ordered under section 22 of the Ontario Health Protection and Promotion Act. Peel’s public health unit has said it will close workplaces that have five or more cases over two weeks, saying the closures are designed to protect employees, their families and the community at large.
The Ottawa warehouse has not been closed.
A dozen COVID-19 alerts from employees in January
Amazon sends a text alert to employees when someone in the warehouse tests positive for COVID-19. CBC received 35 text alerts – some reporting multiple cases in the Ottawa warehouse – sent between April 2020 and March 2021.
A dozen alerts were sent out in January alone, during what was considered the province’s third wave. Several alerts concerned more than one case.
Ottawa Public Health (OPH) declined to confirm the 35 cases. It does not publicly identify companies where outbreaks are occurring. According to the health authority’s COVID-19 dashboard, there have been at least nine outbreaks in warehouses across the city, with 54 total positive cases in January.
SPO told CBC that positive cases don’t always match what it defines as an outbreak, so they won’t always be listed on its dashboard.
SPO stated that “all workplaces to date have complied with PCI [Infection Prevention and Control] recommendations and voluntarily closed if necessary without recourse to justice. “
The details of the alleged unsafe working conditions are not surprising to Gagandeep Kaur, organizer of the Warehouse Workers Center, which defends Amazon employees.
Kaur said warehouse jobs tend to be poorly paid and lack job security, and people who work there often come from immigrant communities where she says good jobs are hard to find. She said that even before the pandemic, these workplaces had safety concerns.
The pandemic has driven demand for products online, which has prompted workers to produce more, she said.
Amazon focused on ‘transparent communication’
Amazon would not say how many of the 500 workers at the eastern Ottawa center have tested positive since March 2020, saying in a statement to CBC that “the site-specific case numbers lack context.”
The company said it is instead focusing on “transparent communication with local health authorities and … with employees whenever there is a new case.”
When asked why it didn’t close that warehouse after employees tested positive, Amazon said it worked closely with OPH when new cases arose, but “we didn’t no reason – or were urged to – consider any other action than to continue to invest in and maintain our security procedures. “
Zero tolerance policy
The public health agency said decisions to close a workplace depend on several factors, including the level of risk to the public, the nature of the job or business, and compliance with case-finding investigations and contacts.
In his statement to CBC, an Amazon spokesperson said “nothing is more important” than the health and safety of employees, and the company is doing everything it can to support them.
Although Amazon did not say what measures were in place in east-central Ottawa, the spokesperson said the company had invested $ 11.5 billion globally in security measures, including “masks, temperature control, plexiglass screens, disinfectants, additional cleaning crews and even an on-site testing program.”
The company has a strict zero tolerance policy for anyone violating COVID-19 procedures, which are applied every shift, the statement said.
“I was afraid of it”
It wasn’t the experience of the employee CBC spoke with, however. The employee said at one point that he took time off because he “didn’t feel safe enough to work there.” But they tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to work and said they believed they had contacted the virus at work.
“The fear of contracting COVID was very real. I was terrified of it and I was terrified of giving it to my partner,” they said. “Then we ended up catching COVID anyway. “
Kaur said if Amazon does not choose to close its warehouses after positive outbreaks, OPH must follow Peel’s lead and step in.
“These are the workers who have supported us throughout this crisis, risking their lives every day to meet the needs of the rest of society,” Kaur said. “I think as a society we owe them, and the government has to do something.”