‘People are afraid’: Amazon warehouse workers in New York walk off the job; Instacart and Whole Foods employees to follow

(NEW YORK) — A group of workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York City walked off the job and went on strike Monday afternoon, demanding the company shut down and thoroughly clean the sprawling facility after they say multiple employees there have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Fear of the rapidly spreading virus, which has killed nearly 800 people in New York City, has also prompted threatened work stoppages at the online grocery shopping and delivery service Instacart and a planned “sickout” by workers at Whole Foods, a subsidiary of Amazon.

“People are afraid to work. People are there working and they’re putting their lives at risk because there are a number of (coronavirus) cases that they are not aware of,” Chris Smalls, a management assistant at the Amazon fulfillment center in New York’s Staten Island borough who is organizing the walkout, told ABC News.

Smalls said the company is not being honest with employees about the number of colleagues who have tested positive for the virus in recent days and that management has only confirmed that one worker at the warehouse has come down with the virus.

“That’s a bold face lie because I sent home the third case directly,” Smalls said, adding that he knows of a total of seven cases at the facility that employs more than 4,000 people.

Smalls said the company placed him on quarantine on Saturday because he came in close contact with a worker who tested positive.

He said he sent the infected worker home on Tuesday when she was showing symptoms of illness. He said the worker was tested on Wednesday but was allowed to return to work until her test results came back positive on Thursday.

“She already had time to spread it. Her friend caught it. Her friend was the third case,” Smalls said. “She tested positive and she’s a supervisor in the pack department and the pack department is right before the items go out door to the customers. It’s dangerous.”

People are there working and they’re putting their lives at risk because there are a number of (coronavirus) cases that they are not aware of.

Smalls estimated that 50 to 100 employees planned to walk off the job and form a picket line outside the warehouse, making sure they practice safe social distancing.

“We’re trying to get the building closed down and sanitized. That’s all we’re asking for,” Smalls said.

In a statement to ABC News, Amazon said it has been working to keep employees safe at the Staten Island fulfillment center, adding that claims made by Smalls that the company is putting workers in jeopardy are “simply unfounded.”

“Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis,” Amazon’s statement reads. “Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable. We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances. The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day.”

Amazon employees working in the grocery and delivery services have been classified as essential workers by government officials across the country.

The company says it’s upping hourly wages from $17.50 to $23 to workers at the Staten Island warehouse and paying double overtime to those who show up to work. The company is also offering extended leave to full-time employees who prefer to stay home during the crisis.

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