The Coronavirus Outbreak

By Kate Conger

Democratic senators sent a letter to the company asking for more details after it fired four employees who raised health concerns about its warehouses.

A protest outside an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island last week.
A protest outside an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island last week.Credit...Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

Democratic senators on Thursday questioned whether Amazon retaliated against whistle-blowers when it fired four employees who raised concerns about the spread of coronavirus in the company’s warehouses.

In a letter sent to Amazon, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a frequent critic of the e-commerce giant, and eight other senators asked Amazon to provide more information about its policies for firing employees.

“In order to understand how the termination of employees that raised concerns about health and safety conditions did not constitute retaliation for whistle-blowing, we are requesting information about Amazon’s policies regarding grounds for employee discipline and termination,” the letter said.

The letter was also signed by Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, as well as Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, Edward J. Markey, Richard Blumenthal, Kamala Harris and Tammy Baldwin. It asked Amazon if it tracked unionization efforts in its warehouses and whether it tracked employees who participated in protests or spoke to the news media.

The letter increased pressure on Amazon and its chief executive, Jeff Bezos, who has been called to testify before Congress in an antitrust investigation and has been a frequent target for criticism from President Trump. A number of senators and representatives have already written to Mr. Bezos expressing concern about warehouse safety.

An Amazon spokeswoman said: “These individuals were not terminated for talking publicly about working conditions or safety but, rather, for violating — often repeatedly — policies, such as intimidation, physical distancing and more.”

She added that while Amazon supported employees’ right to criticize or protest working conditions, “that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies.”

“We look forward to explaining in more detail in our response to the senators’ letter,” the spokeswoman said.

Cases of the coronavirus have been reported in more than 100 Amazon warehouses, and several workers have died. State and local officials in Kentucky and New Jersey have asked Amazon to close facilities where workers have fallen sick.

Despite the sophistication of Amazon’s vast e-commerce business, it depends on warehouse workers to keep shipments flowing, and many of those workers fear their warehouses are contaminated by the coronavirus.

Mr. Bezos said during a call with Amazon investors last week that the company expected to spend $4 billion on safety measures and other expenses related to the coronavirus during the current quarter.

In March, Amazon fired Chris Smalls, a worker in its Staten Island facility who had organized a protest to demand stronger safety protocols there. Amazon said Mr. Smalls had violated a quarantine order to attend the protest.

In an email to other Amazon executives, the company’s top lawyer, David Zapolsky, called Mr. Smalls “not smart or articulate.” Mr. Zapolsky, who also suggested that Amazon portray Mr. Smalls as the leader of a movement to unionize Amazon workers, apologized for the remarks after they were published by Vice News.

Two weeks later, Amazon fired two designers, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham. Ms. Costa and Ms. Cunningham had pressed the company to reduce its carbon footprint, and had announced an internal event for warehouse workers to speak to tech employees about their workplace conditions shortly before they were fired. Amazon said the two employees had repeatedly violated corporate policies.

“Warehouse workers have been under incredible threat,” Ms. Cunningham said in an interview Wednesday evening. “We wanted to give space for warehouse workers to be able to talk openly and honestly about the conditions they were facing and why they felt so unsafe.”

In late April, Amazon fired Bashir Mohamed, a warehouse worker in Shakopee, Minn. Mr. Mohamed said he had raised concerns about workers’ inability to remain socially distant inside the warehouse. Amazon said Mr. Mohamed had violated several policies, including one that required workers to follow social distancing guidelines.

  • Updated April 11, 2020

    • If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.

    • The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.

    • Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.