Employees pull carts containing online orders at the Amazon.com Inc fulfilment centre in Robbinsville, New Jersey. (Photo: Bess Adler/Bloomberg)

Amazon confirms first COVID-19 case in US warehouse

Employees pull carts containing online orders at the Amazon.com Inc fulfilment centre in Robbinsville, New Jersey. (Photo: Bess Adler/Bloomberg)

Amazon.com Inc revealed an employee working at one of its Queens, New York shipping facilities has contracted coronavirus (COVID-19), the first infection reported in a US delivery network that’s become a lifeline of essentials for consumers sheltering at home.

Amazon temporarily closed the warehouse near LaGuardia Airport — sending workers home with full pay — so it can be cleaned and sanitised. The confirmed case was in an Amazon “delivery station”, much smaller than a so-called fulfilment centre where thousands of employees work with robots to pack and ship orders. Amazon did not disclose how many people work at the Queens facility.

The US giant’s delivery network has been overwhelmed by unrelenting demand from shoppers looking to stock up on supplies and heeding Government advice to avoid stores and public gatherings. On Monday, it announced it would be hiring 100,000 workers and temporarily boosting pay by US$2 per hour to keep up. It is only accepting shipments to its warehouses of essential goods like groceries, medical supplies and pet food from independent merchants selling items on its websites.

“We are supporting the individual who is now in quarantine,” an Amazon spokeswoman said in an e-mailed statement. Since the early days of the virus outbreak being identified, Amazon has “implemented proactive measures to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance, and adding distance between drivers and customers when making deliveries”.

The online retailer has to balance meeting consumer demand while keeping workers safe, a difficult task when things like hand sanitiser and wipes are tough to find. Some Amazon delivery drivers working on California’s central coast said they were each given a single disinfecting wipe to clean large vans at the beginning of their shifts on Tuesday, forcing them to prioritise where to best make use of the tiny wipe on a big vehicle.

The challenge Amazon faces in keeping its front-line workers healthy and willing to work has already become apparent. After a handful of COVID-19 cases were reported in at least three Amazon depots in Europe, unions there this week called for the company to cut shifts and close the facilities for cleaning. At Amazon’s main logistics hub in Italy, where two workers were diagnosed with the disease, absenteeism has hit 30 per cent in recent weeks, people familiar with the matter have told Bloomberg News.

Amazon set up a US$25-million relief fund to pay workers for up to two weeks if they get sick with the virus or miss work due to quarantines. News of the confirmed case in Queens was reported earlier by The Atlantic.

— Bloomberg