Amazon is assembling a lab for Covid-19 testing

(CNN)Amazon is famed for its data-driven approach to management and decision-making. It measures worker “rates” to determine productivity; collected extensive local data as part of its search for a second headquarters; takes pains to predict what customers want next based on prior purchases; and frequently issues press releases dense with random stats about product sales. But when it comes to the total number of coronavirus cases in its warehouses, Amazon’s view is, as one executive recently put it, that information isn’t “particularly useful.”

For weeks, the company has frustrated workers and critics by declining to provide information about the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases at its warehouses, which have become crucial hubs for household supplies. Despite numerous confirmed cases at Amazon warehouses across the country, and around the world, the e-commerce giant has downplayed the significance of releasing site or aggregate data, making it difficult to get a clear picture of overall infections at its sites.
An Amazon spokesperson told CNN Business that the company does track the information at a site level but maintains that the aggregate number is not informative to workers because it would include resolved cases.

    “The actual — sort of total number of cases — isn’t particularly useful because it’s relative to the size of the building and then the overall community infection rate,” said Dave Clark, Amazon senior vice president of global operations, in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday. He said that while the company knows the number, “I don’t have the number right on me at this moment because it’s not a particularly useful number.” Last month, Amazon’s top spokesperson, Jay Carney, similarly dodged the question in a CNN interview, saying “I don’t have a specific number.”
    Additionally, as Clark said on “60 Minutes,” the company sees “cases popping up at roughly a rate generally just under what the actual community infection rates are.”

    In a statement to CNN Business, Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski reiterated this point: “We see that in our quarantine rates as well … it shows that our hard work around social distancing is paying off.”
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    But the lack of public information has troubled both warehouse employees and state officials alike, who say the company isn’t providing information about the true scope of the public heath crisis on its workers who are the backbone of its core e-commerce business and have become a lifeline to consumers during the pandemic.
    “It’s very scary. We need to be allowed to make decisions based on the number of cases at the facilities,” said Danielle, who works at an Amazon fulfillment center in Illinois, and asked to be identified by her first name only for fear of retribution.
    Danielle, who has a family member with an underlying health condition, has not returned to work since the second week of March. “How can you not tell people how many cases you have at a facility?” she told CNN Business. “It should be important to management and leadership. They have kids and family, too.”
    Another worker, who is employed at the company’s Staten Island facility and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, called the lack of disclosure “unbelievable” given Amazon’s reputation for tracking data on workers.
    Amazon said it shares with employees when there is a confirmed case where they work, but workers say the communication has been inconsistent. In one text, viewed by CNN Business, the company confirmed that there have been “7 additional confirmed case(s)” while another text, from a different day, read “we have confirmed additional cases” with no number associated.
    The Amazon spokesperson said the company did change its approach to not include numbers when confirming cases to workers for the same reasons it does not think the aggregate number is useful. The spokesperson added that it is communicating in-person with workers about fatalities rather than over text or voicemail.
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    In a letter sent to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Amazon-owned Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, more than a dozen attorneys general called on the companies to release a state-by-state breakdown of confirmed Covid-19 cases at its facilities as part of broader demands concerning worker health and safety. The company said it intends to respond to the letter but it is unclear if it will answers the call for data.
    To fill the information gap, workers and advocacy groups are racing to crowdsource the number of cases to monitor the spread of the virus across Amazon facilities. Some workers are sharing voicemails and text messages from the company concerning cases at the facilities where they work in private Facebook groups and with CNN Business. Meanwhile, a newly launched tracking map, built by United for Respect, allows workers to report cases for anyone to see. The labor advocacy group has similarly created a map to track Walmart cases.
    “A number of our associates have had diagnosed or suspected cases of Covid-19, and they are using our expanded paid leave options to get well. Sadly, we have also had associates pass away, and we feel their loss deeply,” a Walmart spokesperson said in a statement. Walmart, the country’s largest employer, said in April that “less than 1% of our workforce” have confirmed cases.
    “Safety is our top priority and we are committed to ensuring a clean and safe workplace. We’ve implemented over 150 significant process changes—from enhanced cleaning and social distancing measures to new efforts like disinfectant spraying,” said Levandowksi in a statement to CNN Business. “We’ve also distributed personal protective gear like masks across our entire operations network. We’ll continue to invest in safety, pay, and benefits for our teams who are playing an invaluable role in getting items to communities around the world.”
    Amazon said it is using machine learning and data for coronavirus-related measures such as understanding where social distancing might be necessary at particular facilities.
    With its ubiquitous presence online and offline, including 110 fulfillment centers across North America with 400,000 employees, Amazon has become an obvious focus for concerns about working conditions during the pandemic. But it is far from the only company facing scrutiny.
    “It’s not just Amazon,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a worker safety expert at the National Employment Law Project, referring to other employers, including big meat plants, which have become coronavirus hot spots, that are not sharing the information.
    To be sure, other companies have not been forthcoming with site-level case data and solid numbers have only emerged, in some instances, after a city has forced widespread testing or after pressure from the press.
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    “Hiding data from workers in the facility and the community seems all about putting the company’s own public relations profile above the lives and health of workers and the community. It’s about deflecting responsibility for the spread in the workplace,” said Berkowitz, a former senior official for the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Obama, adding that “if the company is not reporting it out — it is really hard data to find.”
    OSHA issued guidance last month that it would not enforce record-keeping requirements for employers except for those in the health-care industry, emergency response and correctional institutions, unless there is “objective evidence that a COVID-19 case may be work-related” and is “reasonably available to the employer.”
    David Michaels, former head of OSHA under the Obama administration and a professor at George Washington University, called it a “disappointing” move. “The point of a requirement is for the employer to understand better what is going on in a workplace,” he said. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not requiring employer information on case reporting forms.
    Starting in March, Amazon hired 100,000 new workers in a matter of weeks to meet surging demand from customers, and announced plans to hire another 75,000 last month.
    Still, there continue to be reports of confirmed coronavirus cases at Amazon facilities, including seven coronavirus-related deaths of Amazon warehouse employees that the company has confirmed to CNN Business.

      For Amazon to downplay the value of data strikes some as hypocritical. Brad Lander, a New York City council member who helped support the push against Amazon’s HQ2 search and is working to pass an Essential Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York City, remembers the company requesting reams of data from cities and states. Now, he says, “it is morally repugnant that Amazon would refuse to release data to its own workers or to the public from a public health standpoint.”
      The importance of coronavirus case data may only grow for workers as Amazon, like much of the country, transitions into a new phase of the pandemic. Amazon has started to tweak some of its coronavirus-related policies. The company ended its unlimited unpaid time off policy at the end of April. This week, it extended its $2 per hour increased pay for workers and double overtime pay through the end of the month.
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