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How do you practice social distancing in an Amazon warehouse?

Amazon is hiring 100,000 new workers, but it has not provided many details about how it will keep them safe.

How do you practice social distancing in an Amazon warehouse?
[Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP via Getty Images]

It’s only week one of what is likely to be a long period of isolation and quarantine, and Amazon has already seen a spike in orders. In fact, it’s struggling to keep up. So the company announced that it is ramping up hiring, creating 100,000 new roles in its fulfillment centers and delivery network to meet the surge of demand.

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The big question, though, is how Amazon will keep its warehouse and delivery people safe from the COVID-19 pandemic. In a post on Amazon’s blog, the company was woefully lacking in details about how it would protect workers. “Health and safety are a top priority with all of our roles and sites,” the blog post reads. “We continue to consult with medical and health experts, and take all recommended precautions in our buildings and stores to keep people healthy. We’ve taken measures to promote social distancing in the workplace and taken on enhanced and frequent cleaning, to name just a few.”

But how, exactly, do you practice social distancing at an Amazon warehouse? The CDC and other government agencies recommend that people stay six feet apart from one another. Yesterday, President Trump asked that people limit gatherings to groups of 10 or less. Meanwhile, Amazon fulfillment centers are full of workers who are interacting with one another, machines, and products. If even a single person were to become infected with the coronavirus, everyone would be at risk.

And since there is still a massive shortage of tests, it can be very difficult to determine whether someone has been infected or not. Some who get the virus don’t show symptoms but can still spread it to others. And the virus can continue to live on surfaces for two to three days. It would take just a single report of an outbreak at an Amazon warehouse for consumers to panic that they may get the disease from a product that’s delivered to their door.

We reached out to Amazon for specifics about what it’s doing to keep workers safe and will update this story if we hear back.

On its blog, Amazon is framing this move as an effort to help America during this time of crisis. And there is some truth to this claim. In the United States, we don’t have as much of a robust infrastructure as other developed countries do—such as the United Kingdom and Canada, for instance. As a result, we need to rely on private companies such as Amazon to fulfill some basic needs such as delivering essential items.

Indeed, Amazon says it is currently focused on stocking high-demand items, including medical supplies and household staples. This is important because many people, including those who are old or have compromised immune systems, are scared to leave their homes to go to physical stores.

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And it’s also true that the coronavirus is very likely going to kickstart a global recession. Some retail stores have already announced their first layoffs as they prepare to shutter for weeks, if not months. Amazon says that it is ready and willing to hire people who have been fired from other jobs.

“We also know many people have been economically impacted as jobs in areas like hospitality, restaurants, and travel are lost or furloughed as part of this crisis,” the blog post says. “We want those people to know we welcome them on our teams until things return to normal and their past employer is able to bring them back.”

Many laid-off workers will soon be desperate for a job. But at what cost?

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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