- Amazon is an indisputably essential business right now, delivering necessary supplies as the world shutters inside for social distancing.
- Amazon warehouses are under increased scrutiny as workers in at least 10 of them have tested positive for coronavirus.
- Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told workers, in a public letter on Sunday, that he’s ordered millions of masks but that there’s worldwide shortage so he can’t get any as these masks are being prioritized for doctors.
- But the question is, if fashion designers like Christian Siriano can produce 500 masks a day, can’t Amazon, which owns several clothing brands, not find a facility to produce an immediate batch of masks to help better protect its most at-risk employees?
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Amazon has never been more important to its customers and possibly the world, than right now. As millions of people shelter in place, they are relying on the company to deliver their daily necessities.
Amazon’s hourly workers are on the front lines and working heroically. Their notoriously difficult jobs have now become even more high-pressured as Amazon attempts to hire another 100,000 people to to keep up with demand.
While Amazon says its warehouses are observing social distancing requirements and the company has increased cleaning at facilities, warehouse workers in at least 10 of its US warehouses have now tested positive for the virus.
Some employees are speaking out as part of Athena, a coalition of organizations critical of Amazon. One employee, organized by Athena, told Wired that some employees don’t have enough sick time to stop them from coming to work sick, among other complaints. Employees who need more time than their allocated paid time off days can take unpaid leave, the company has said.
Amazon told employees earlier this month that it was relaxing its attendance policy in that it would not count unpaid time off for March, (which Amazon otherwise limits) and it won’t tag the employee with attendance points if they miss a shift, reports CNBC. Amazon uses points to track employee infractions.
The situation is causing the company to attract increased scrutiny. On Friday, Ilhan Omar and Bernie Sanders sent a letter demanding that Amazon come up with a safety plan for workers.
Jeff Bezos insists that he’s now “wholly focused on COVID-19 and how Amazon can best play its role,” Bezos wrote on Sunday.“I want you to know Amazon will continue to do its part, and we won’t stop looking for new opportunities to help,” he wrote.
Bezos has built a career doing the impossible, but the facemask shortage has apparently stumped him
The type of things he’s thinking about is providing the World Health Organization with technical services on Amazon’s cloud and possibly, helping to distribute COVID-19 test kits globally. Those are worthwhile actions, and Amazon is to be commended.
But in the same letter Bezos explained why Amazon has not yet provided employees with face masks, and he threw his hands up when it comes to why the company can’t get them. Bezos said the company has ordered millions of face masks that it intends to give to warehouse employees, drivers and contract workers such as its contract drivers. But due to the global shortage of face masks, and the fact that shipments are being prioritized for medical personnel, the company is simply unable to get them.
“It’s easy to understand why the incredible medical providers serving our communities need to be first in line. When our turn for masks comes, our priority will be getting them in the hands of employees,” he wrote.
In other words, he wants employees to know that Amazon is trying to buy an enormous amount of masks, but since his employees are not doctors and nurses, they must wait until the hospitals needs are met. Even though Bezos is doing nothing but think about coronavirus, he’s apparently not been able to come up with any way around this problem.
What would Christian do?
But can the richest man in the world, who commands vast resources for procuring and delivering every product in the world, really not obtain surgical masks for his employees when they are increasingly being exposed to this deadly virus? And let’s remember, these employees on the front lines might, in turn, expose their own loved ones to the virus.
Consider this: Fashion designer Christian Siriano told MSNBC’s Chris Cuomo on Thursday that he and his studio of 10 people are producing 500 surgical masks a day. And they are washable and resuable. These are not the isolation-ward quality N95 masks but are the type of surgical mask seen on the faces of ordinary people worldwide in other countries like the UK and Japan.
Los Angeles Apparel has converted its 150,000-square-foot factory to produce masks with an aim of making 300,000 masks a week, in addition to making 50,000 gowns, the New York Times reports. A Burbank, California maker of skydiving suits, LiquidSky Sports, has switched to making masks as well, at about 1,000 a day with 8 people, reports the LA Times.
Let’s point out that Amazon already produces its own line of apparel. It has several brands including, for instance, Amazon Essentials, which makes socks, robes, T-shirts, sweats, and workout wear.
Amazon also owns a number of other fashion apparel brands including men’s wear, women’s wear. Amazon doesn’t discuss the production details of these brands but let’s assume for a moment that Amazon doesn’t own the clothing factories itself outright, but hires contract manufacturers to do the work.
Given that Amazon has ceased stocking all non-essential products for the time being, would it really be outside of Bezos’ power to tell its considerable clothing manufacturers to retool themselves to make masks for its employees?
And if 10 people can produce over 1,000 masks a week and one major factory could make 300,000 in a week, couldn’t Bezos get masks to his highest at-risk employees, if he put his mind to it, in a week as well?
Unlike his aeronautics company Blue Origin, this problem isn’t rocket science.
Amazon did not respond to our request for comment. However, in answer to questions about worker protections, Amazon told other publications, like Wired:
“Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with local authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and teams. We have also implemented proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance in the FC, and adding distance between drivers and customers when making deliveries.”
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