Amazon is trying to build up the testing capacity to screen warehouse employees for COVID-19.
The goal is to prevent the coronavirus from creeping into warehouses that employ thousands of Amazon workers, many of whom are already fearful of catching the illness. To prevent an outbreak, the company has already been distributing masks and requiring all employees undergo a temperature check before entering the premises.
“A next step might be regular testing of all employees, including those showing no symptoms,” the company said in a blog post on Thursday. “Regular testing on a global scale across all industries would both help keep people safe and help get the economy back up and running.”
The only problem? The world’s current screening capacity for COVID-19 is still low. In the US, the tests are largely being reserved for health workers and those with severe coronavirus symptoms.
Amazon employees working in the new testing lab.
Amazon is hoping this will change as governments, companies, and health organizations work together to address the pandemic. But in the meantime, it’s begun building up its own “incremental testing capacity” with the help of company research scientists, program managers, and software engineers.
“We have begun assembling the equipment we need to build our first lab and hope to start testing small numbers of our front line employees soon,” the company said. “We are not sure how far we will get in the relevant timeframe, but we think it’s worth trying, and we stand ready to share anything we learn with others.”
Rolling out the testing will be no easy feat. The company operates more than 110 fulfillment centers in North America. And already, Amazon warehouse workers have been catching the virus, which is sparking fears the company’s facilities could end up exposing scores of Amazon employees to the illness.
The situation has sparked protests from affected workers, who claim Amazon is failing to protect them from the risk of infection. They’re demanding Amazon supply more protective gear, provide guaranteed paid sick leave, and thoroughly clean warehouses hit with coronavirus cases before resuming operations.
US lawmakers have also begun to question the company’s practices following reports that Amazon planned to smear a fired worker for organizing a walk out. “Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” US Senator Cory Booker and four others wrote to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in a letter on Wednesday.
In its defense, Amazon says it’s made over 150 “significant process changes” at company facilities to help prevent workers from catching the illness. However, labor groups representing the affected Amazon employees say the e-commerce giant has been overstating its efforts to protect workers. They go on to claim Amazon is still prioritizing profits over human lives.
“While the world slows down during this pandemic, Amazon warehouse workers are still risking their lives to grow Jeff Bezos’ profit,” tweeted Athena, a coalition of groups that’s been helping Amazon workers organize. “This absurdity has to end.”