An Amazon employee says working at the distribution giant’s Ottawa warehouse during the pandemic has been a nerve-racking experience, citing examples of safety measures that were allegedly ignored and dozens of workers who have tested positive for COVID-19.
The employee, who tested positive for the virus in late 2020, is one of 500 people who work at Amazon’s distribution centre in Ottawa’s rural east end. CBC News has agreed to protect the source’s identity because they fear losing their job 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 demand at the warehouse has grown since the pandemic began, placing more pressure on workers to avoid safety protocols — particularly with regard to physical distancing.
The fear of getting COVID was very real. I was terrified of it and I was terrified of giving it to my partner.– Employee at Amazon’s east Ottawa distribution centre
“You know, working closer together, you have to lift more heavy things together…. Not everybody wears a mask properly,” said the worker, who showed CBC photos taken from inside the warehouse.
In one photo, an employee’s mask is resting below his mouth. In another, two employees are sitting close together.
Amazon employees aren’t represented by a union. The worker said many have been too afraid to speak to management about making changes for fear of losing their jobs.
“Since the whole thing began, it’s been kind of nerve-racking for me,” they said.
In Brampton, Ont., three Amazon distribution centres were temporarily partially closed in order to control COVID-19 outbreaks.
The three closures were ordered under Section 22 of Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act. Peel’s public health unit said it will close workplaces that have five or more cases over two weeks, saying the shutdowns are designed to protect employees, their families and the wider community.
The Ottawa warehouse has not been shut down.
A dozen employee COVID-19 alerts in January
Amazon sends a text alert to employees when someone in the warehouse tests positive for COVID-19. CBC was shown 35 text alerts — some reporting multiple cases in the Ottawa warehouse — sent between April 2020 and March 2021.
A dozen alerts were sent in January alone, during what was considered the province’s third wave. Several alerts were for more than a single case.
Ottawa Public Health (OPH) declined to confirm the 35 cases. It does not publicly identify businesses where outbreaks occur. 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.
OPH told CBC positive cases do not always amount to what it defines as an outbreak, so won’t always be listed on its dashboard.
OPH said “all workplaces to date have complied with IPAC [Infection Prevention and Control] recommendations and closed voluntarily if required without the use of legal action.”
Details of the alleged unsafe work conditions are not surprising to Gagandeep Kaur, an organizer at the Warehouse Workers Centre, which advocates for Amazon employees.
Kaur said warehouse jobs tend to be low-paying and lack job security, and the people who work there often come from immigrant communities where she said good jobs are hard to come by. She said even before the pandemic those workplaces had safety issues.
The pandemic has pushed demand for online products, which in turn has pushed workers to produce more, she said.
Amazon focused on ‘communicating transparently’
Amazon would not say how many of the 500 employees at the east Ottawa centre have tested positive since March 2020, saying in a statement to CBC that “site-specific case figures lack a significant amount of context.”
The company said it instead focuses on “communicating transparently to local health authorities and … to employees whenever there is a new case.”
When asked why it hasn’t shut down this warehouse after employees tested positive, Amazon said it works closely with OPH when new cases come up, but that “we have not had a reason to — or have been directed to — consider any other action than continuing to invest in and maintain our safety 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 work or business, and compliance with case and contact-tracing investigations.
In its statement to CBC, an Amazon spokesperson said “nothing’s more important” than employees’ health and safety, and the company is doing everything it can to support them.
Though Amazon didn’t say what measures were in place at the east Ottawa centre, the spokesperson said the company has invested $11.5 billion worldwide in safety measures, including “masks, temperature screening, plexiglass shields, sanitizing products, additional cleaning teams, and even an on-site testing program.”
The company has a strict zero-tolerance policy for anyone violating COVID-19 procedures, which are enforced on every shift, the statement read.
‘I was terrified of it’
That wasn’t the experience of the employee CBC spoke with, however. The employee said at one point they took a leave of absence because they “didn’t feel safe enough to work in the place.” But they tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to work and said they think they contacted the virus at work.
“The fear of getting 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 getting COVID anyway.”
Kaur said if Amazon won’t choose to close down its warehouses after positive outbreaks, OPH needs to follow Peel’s lead and step in.
“These are the workers who have supported us all through this crisis, risking their lives every single day to fulfil the needs of the rest of the society,” Kaur said. “I think as a society we owe them, and government must do something.”