Amazon Struggles to Find Its Coronavirus Footing

From The Wall Street Journal:

On a mid-March midnight shift, one of Kristy Granados’s co-workers coughed and said he felt nauseated.

As he took a break, workers at the Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Charlotte, N.C., shared worries that they could catch the coronavirus, Ms. Granados said. Most didn’t have masks or supplies to disinfect workstations, even as cleaning products streamed past them on conveyor belts. On some recent days, about half the workers hadn’t even shown up, she said.

Her co-worker soon returned to his station, and Ms. Granados continued preparing packages, concerned but also mindful her work was likely essential for the millions of people who had turned to online shopping for groceries and thermometers. She never found out what was ailing him.

“We’re playing a vital role to get people the supplies they need, whether it’s the elderly or people with health issues,” said Ms. Granados, who is 41 years old. “A lot of people are depending on us.”

The coronavirus is pulling Amazon, America’s largest online retailer, in many directions. Chief Executive Jeff Bezos is counting on front-line workers like Ms. Granados to bring essential goods to millions of homebound Americans. So far, it has been a bumpy ride.

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Amazon order volumes match those of the holiday season. Usually, the company has months to prepare. Before the pandemic hit, it has had just weeks, and the strain is showing in shortages, delays and worker unrest, including some walkouts, no-shows and Covid-related sickness.

At times, Amazon has had to operate warehouses with half the typical number of workers, according to employees. On Tuesday, employees at Whole Foods Market, a grocer owned by Amazon, organized a “sick out” at its stores and called on management to provide hazard pay and other benefits.

While the coronavirus is straining Amazon’s retail operations, it is boosting some of its other businesses. Companies are relying on its cloud-computing arm, Amazon Web Services, as their employees work from home, and customers are streaming home-entertainment content on Amazon Prime.

. . . .

In some areas that have emerged as hot spots for the virus, including San Francisco, Chicago and New York, items such as Lysol disinfecting wipes and office supplies useful for working at home haven’t been available or cannot be delivered for a month or longer. Many customers in those areas haven’t been able to place grocery orders.

“Leaders across Amazon are meeting every day to consider the evolving situation and are consulting with medical experts to ensure the safety for our sites, employees and customers,” an Amazon spokeswoman said via email. She said the company has a unique role to play in getting needed goods to families in a time of social distancing and that the company is “working around the clock to bring on additional capacity to deliver all customer orders.”

Amazon has been processing from 10% to 40% more packages than normal for this time of year, according to an employee tally at one delivery center. The company’s website had 639,330,722 visits for the week of March 9, according to data from Comscore, up 32% from the year earlier.

From Feb. 20 to March 23, Amazon’s sales of toilet paper increased 186% from the year-earlier period, according to analytics firm CommerceIQ, which said that before the coronavirus hit it had forecast a 7% increase for the period. CommerceIQ said sales of cough and cold medicine grew by 862%, compared with a forecast growth rate of 110%, and children’s vitamins by 287%, compared with a forecast rate of 49%.

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Mr. Bezos is focusing almost exclusively on Amazon’s coronavirus response. Although he and President Trump have been frequent antagonists, Mr. Trump has praised the company for keeping deliveries going in a time of need. The company recently announced plans to hire 100,000 new workers in the U.S. to deal with the crisis.

“This isn’t business as usual, and it’s a time of great stress,” Mr. Bezos said in a memo to employees on March 21. “It’s also a moment in time when the work we’re doing is its most critical.” Through a company spokesman, Mr. Bezos and other Amazon executives declined to be interviewed.

. . . .

Although Amazon does disaster and business-continuity planning, it didn’t model for a pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter. Most of its planning revolved around responding to a major earthquake in Seattle, former executives said. All critical executives at the company carry satellite phones they test every quarter to make sure they could run operations, the former executives said.

. . . .

Employees have tested positive for Covid-19 or been placed in quarantine in at least 15 Amazon locations in the U.S. used for storing, sorting or delivering packages, from California to New York, according to the company. Facilities with at least one confirmed case can be temporarily closed for cleaning and reopen once that process is complete, Amazon said. In states with more stringent guidelines, warehouses can be closed for longer.

Absences have been one reason for delayed shipments. Amazon went from being able to deliver some orders in hours or days to needing weeks for certain in-demand products. Social distancing efforts have contributed to delays, said a person familiar with the matter.

That was an impetus for Amazon’s U.S. hiring spree, a figure that would represent a 20% increase in its workforce in the country.

Amazon, which is responsible for more than one-third of e-commerce volumes in the U.S., has long faced complaints from warehouse workers about working conditions and their position in the employee hierarchy. The company, which is the nation’s second-largest employer, in recent years has taken steps to boost hourly wages and improve employee-training opportunities.

Now, front-line workers find themselves with more leverage. Facing a daily threat of coronavirus infection at work has galvanized some.

Since the emergence of the coronavirus, workers have pushed for and received a raft of concessions. On March 9, Amazon announced it would relax its time-off policy for warehouse employees, allowing them unlimited unpaid time off that now extends through April.

Two days later, it revised its stance to offer paid sick days to fulfillment center workers possibly infected, and said subsequently that employees who show any symptoms could be eligible for paid sick leave. Amazon raised pay for all employees in fulfillment centers, transportation, stores and deliveries in the U.S. and Canada by $2 an hour through April, bringing its lowest hourly rate to $17 per hour for those employees.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG has not been a fan of what workers unions have become in the late 20th and 21st centuries. He doesn’t think unions would be of any substantial assistance in helping Amazon and its employees to deal with all the strains of responding to the current Coronavirus infections.

Additionally, from PG’s viewpoint (which could be wrong), he doesn’t see a great many large organizations, private or public, that seem to have a very good Coronavirus footing.