(Bloomberg) — Amazon.com Inc.’s global logistics chief Dave Clark, in an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, said the spread of Covid-19 in the e-commerce giant’s warehouses is no worse than what’s happening in America at large. But when pressed, he declined to provide a total number of cases, making it impossible to independently confirm the company’s assertion.
Clark said the Amazon knows how many cases have afflicted its warehouses but declined to share the total because, he said, “it’s not a particularly useful number.” His comments echo what company spokespeople have been saying for several weeks, prompting workers and officials to press executives to be more forthcoming about illness in their ranks. The latest demand came Tuesday from attorneys general in 12 states and Washington, D.C., who called on Amazon to reveal a state-by-state breakdown of the number of Amazon and Whole Foods workers “who have been infected with and died from Covid-19.”
Public health officials can take swift action when they believe a business is putting workers at risk of exposure. In March, the Kentucky governor temporarily closed an Amazon warehouse that processes returns due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19, and local authorities in Colorado briefly closed a Walmart store near Denver that was linked to the deaths of three people. The coronavirus has ripped through the meat-packing industry, infecting 1% of its workforce and causing at least 20 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Large retailers like Walmart haven’t publicly disclosed coronavirus case totals either, prompting Senator Cory Booker to send the company a letter demanding information about the number of cases, among other things.
Fear is widespread among Amazon workers. In recent weeks, some of the company’s U.S. warehouses have suffered a high rate of absenteeism despite the measures Amazon has taken to make the facilities safer, according to workers interviewed by Bloomberg. Employees have protested and called for the company to be more transparent about not just the number of cases but the deaths of their colleagues, at least six of whom have succumbed. Clark, the public face of the company’s response, has dismissed the protests as the work of a few employees who don’t represent the majority.
Representative Josh Harder, a Modesto, California, Democrat, recently complained to Bezos about Amazon’s lack of transparency. He cited a report that a warehouse worker whose children have compromised immune systems only found out about a positive Covid-19 case at her workplace after asking human resources. In a letter to the Amazon CEO, Harder wrote: “Employees need this information to make vitally important decisions impacting themselves and their families.”
Amazon had an opportunity to communicate more fully when it reported earnings last month. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos extolled his company’s efforts to protect workers, such as purchasing 100 million masks and 31,000 thermometers. He didn’t mention the number of cases. Amazon’s top spokesman Jay Carney dodged the question during an interview on CNN, saying he didn’t have the figure handy. Clark’s 60 Minutes interview went the furthest in explaining why Amazon is unwilling to share the number: because case counts aren’t useful when not compared to the size of the workforce in each Amazon building, or the prevailing infection rate in the surrounding community.
“Our rates of infection are at or below the communities we’re operating in at almost all of our facilities,” Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski said in a statement. “Anytime there is a confirmed diagnosis we alert every person at the site. This alert to employees is a direct text message noting when the person with the confirmed diagnosis was last in the building—even if it’s been a month or more.”
Still, trust in management, a common sore spot for the company’s warehouse workers, has taken a beating in recent weeks. Employees say information about positive cases is sent by text and voicemail to workers in each facility. News about deaths has been shared verbally, with warehouse managers informing small groups. In Amazon’s massive warehouses, some of which employ thousands of workers spread across multiple shifts and weekly schedules, the result has been significant delays in workers being told someone they previously worked with has died.
As an outbreak at a warehouse in Hazle Township, Pennsylvania, worsened, managers initially told employees how many of their colleagues had contracted Covid-19. In recent weeks, though, managers have stripped out the number and issued a drumbeat of automated text messages informing workers of “additional confirmed cases.” Says one employee: “As serious as this situation is, they’re still lying to us. We need protection, of course, and communication. Truthful communication. It’s not a hard thing to do.”
Deaths of the six Amazon workers have leaked out in various media reports. They include one each in Staten Island, Waukegan, Illinois, Hawthorne and Tracy, California, as well as two employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market. A company spokeswoman says the company chose to verbally notify workers about the deaths given the sensitive nature of the subject. The Staten Island warehouse worker, for instance, was last at the warehouse April 5, tested positive for Covid-19 on April 11 and went into quarantine. Amazon later learned of his passing from family members and began sharing the information verbally with small groups of colleagues.
Rob Duston, a partner with Saul, Ewing, Arnstein & Lehr, who has represented companies in labor disputes, says employers are in a difficult spot. For one thing, federal health authorities and workplace regulators have given companies little guidance on what to tell employees about coronavirus cases in their ranks. Privacy laws prevent companies from disclosing personal health information in such a way that a specific employee could be identified without that person’s consent, he says. While companies have wide latitude to tell workers about coronavirus cases so long as they don’t share personal information, informing them that an unnamed colleague is sick or has died often does little to assuage their concerns because they still don’t know if they’ve been exposed.
“The constant media attention is resulting in a huge number of employees refusing to work,” Duston says. As an employer, “I could be doing everything that the CDC and local health authorities ask, but I may want to limit the publicity. One of my concerns is why is there publicity of every single infection, or death, of a worker? Is that going to further add to that fear?”
Amazon has taken many steps to make workers safer and has been paying them an extra $2 an hour. Still, its communication strategy risks workers first learning of a death from other sources and feeling betrayed, says Kelli Matthews, who teaches public relations at the University of Oregon and has advised companies on how to deal with fatalities.
“The worst-case scenario is that someone would find out any other method but direct from the company,” she says. “If you’re reading the article before you’re hearing it from the company, it really damages trust and the relationships that employees should have with an employer.” She sees a missed opportunity. “If you’re burying your head in the sand, saying we have done the required reporting and that’s all we have to do, people will fill that void,” she says. “In incidents where they don’t want to talk about it, they seem like a big corporate monolith.”
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