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Can Amazon Meet Customer Demand And Keep Its Workforce Safe?


You have probably seen the empty shelves in grocery stores. You've probably noticed it's not everything. It's the antibacterial wipes. It's the canned vegetables. Stores are restocking as fast as they can. But in the meantime, in has stepped a large online retailer - Amazon. But is the company keeping its workers safe? Now, before we start this next conversation, I should note that Amazon is one of NPR's sponsors. Jay Carney is on the line with me. He's Amazon's senior vice president of global corporate affairs. And he served as White House press secretary to President Obama. Mr. Carney, good morning.

JAY CARNEY: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

KING: We're happy to have you. I want to start by asking about your employees. There have been cases of COVID-19 in at least 11 Amazon warehouses. And employees say they're finding out about this from rumors or from reporters, not from the company. What's going on?

CARNEY: Well, first of all, I want to say that we have hundreds of facilities around the country and hundreds more around the world. And we have upwards of 500,000 warehouse employees around the world. We are taking every precaution we can to ensure the safety of those employees. We've instituted protocols around deep cleaning facilities, screens, doorknobs, any area that's touched heavily, providing the kind of protective gear that is available to all of our employees.

And when anyone does not feel well or is diagnosed with COVID, they are sent home to take care of themselves, to get medical attention and to receive paid time off. When a facility does have somebody who's been diagnosed, different actions are taken, depending on where that person worked and what kind of contact he or she had with other employees.

KING: Yes, let me ask you about this specifically, if you don't mind because this week Amazon closed a Kentucky warehouse until April 1 because some workers there have the virus. But then there are warehouses in other places - Staten Island, Queens - that have been reopened after just a few hours of cleaning. Why is that happening? Why are some warehouses being treated differently than others?

CARNEY: Because our warehouses' fulfillment centers and distribution centers are different in terms of the density of employees that work there, the distances between the employees where they work, the equipment that they work with. So judgments are made based on the guidance that we've received from the CDC and the WHO and other health professionals about, you know, contact and what's likely in terms of contact.

And then, you know, protocols around deep cleaning are followed. In the case where a facility could be reopened quickly, that would mean it's because the employee had limited contact with other employees or worked in a very small space.

KING: OK, it's not random, is what you're saying.

CARNEY: It's not random, no.

KING: This week there was a conference call with some employees of the company. I want to play a clip from a woman named Jana Jump (ph). She works at a fulfillment center in Indiana. Here's what she said.


JANA JUMP: A lot of my fellow Amazonians are scared and stressed. Amazon is one of the largest companies. And Jeff Bezos is one of the richest persons in the planet. It's outrageous and shocking that the only choice we have is to take time off without pay or be exposed to this virus. I hope that people really think about us before they order unnecessary items. In 1981, I signed a contract with the Navy that I would give my life. I don't remember signing that with Amazon.

KING: OK, what do you say to her and to other Amazon workers who say they're really scared right now?

CARNEY: Well, first of all, every employee receives - a full-time employee receives the same benefits I do. They receive paid time off, as well as unpaid time off. And if anyone is uncomfortable coming to work, of course they should take the time off they have available to them. The fact is we've also, as you've probably heard, announced that we're hiring 100,000 additional workers around the country. We've raised wages to a minimum of $17 an hour, which, as you know, is well more than double the federal minimum wage.

And that's in response to the demand that our customers have, who are millions and millions of Americans around the country who need essential items like household goods or medical supplies. And the workers we have who are performing that are really doing important, important work right now. And people can't leave their homes to get out to shop. And getting those items to their doorstep and doing it so that our employees are safe is very important.

KING: Jay Carney is Amazon's senior vice president of global corporate affairs. Mr. Carney, thank you for your time.

CARNEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.