Amazon extends unpaid time off policy for warehouse workers

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Amazon is extending its unlimited unpaid time off policy for warehouse workers amid the coronavirus outbreak, the company announced Friday.

The company is allowing workers to request unpaid time off through May 16. It’s also extending its double overtime pay for workers in the U.S. and Canada through the same date. 

Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said the company extended these policies for workers to ensure both the health and safety of its employees, adding in a statement: “We continue to see heavy demand during this difficult time and the team is doing incredible work for our customers and the community.”

Amazon first announced in March that it would provide unlimited unpaid time off for warehouse workers at its facilities. It later extended that policy through the month of April, as cases of the coronavirus continued to rise in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

Unlike employees at Amazon’s corporate offices, many fulfillment center employees and delivery drivers cannot carry out their job duties while working from home. Amazon’s sprawling fulfillment network, which powers the one-day and two-day delivery customers have come to expect, employs more than 250,000 workers at more than 110 sites across the country.

The coronavirus outbreak has put the fast-paced, high-demand nature of Amazon warehouses to the test, as facilities across the country have reported positive cases of the virus and some workers have opted to stay home out of fear of catching the virus on the job. 

Two Amazon warehouse workers who asked to remain anonymous said they’ve taken unpaid time off for more than a month because they were concerned they’d get sick and bring the virus home to their families. One of the employees, who works at an Amazon facility in Massachusetts, said that if unpaid time off was no longer an option, she was prepared to take a leave of absence or quit her job, which would be the “worst case scenario.” 

“The last thing I want to do is leave my job because I genuinely love working for Amazon, but I have a toddler and a very ill father that I have to look out for,” the worker said. “I wouldn’t want to risk exposure of this virus to them.” 

Amazon has previously said it has gone to “great lengths” to keep facilities clean and make sure employees are following necessary precautions, such as washing their hands, using hand sanitizer and practicing social distancing. It has also started taking employees’ temperatures when they report to work and has supplied them with face masks. In addition, Amazon has announced several benefits changes for workers, including raising pay for warehouse workers and delivery drivers by $2 per hour through the month of April and doubling overtime pay.

Still, Amazon employees who spoke to CNBC argue that these efforts aren’t enough to keep them safe. Their concerns have continued to grow in recent weeks. Workers staged a nationwide protest this week to demand that Amazon take greater steps to protect them from catching the virus, such as closing facilities where there are positive cases and committing not to retaliate against associates who speak out, referring to several workers who were fired after they criticized Amazon’s treatment of workers. Amazon says they were fired for violating internal policies.  

Phil Ruiz, who works at a Staten Island, New York facility, known as JFK8, said he participated in this week’s protest. Ruiz said he wants Amazon to provide retroactive pay for workers who take unpaid time off, as well as close down facilities with positive cases. 

Ruiz said that as long as the number of positive cases continues to rise, he will continue to stay home. And it looks like that may be the case for the near future, as JFK8 workers were notified Thursday of seven new cases at the facility, according to a document obtained by CNBC. That’s after workers were notified on Tuesday of several new cases at JFK8. 

“They’re offering us double overtime, but what’s the money to us if this virus could potentially kill us,” Ruiz said. “The money doesn’t mean nothing if you’re dead and buried in the ground.” 

An Amazon worker at a facility in Joliet, Michigan said they would prefer to go to work and get paid but have been taking unpaid time off since March 12 because they’re concerned about their safety. The employee said going to work could also potentially put their stepdaughter, who is immunocompromised, at risk of catching the virus.

“I cannot risk it,” the worker, who asked to remain anonymous, told CNBC. “I need the job to provide for my stepdaughter, but you’re giving us no choice when you don’t keep the facilities clean.” 

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