Amazon workers protest termination of unlimited unpaid time off policy

Amazon workers protest termination of unlimited unpaid time off policy
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Amazon workers are protesting the retail giant's decision to end the unlimited unpaid time off program is has provided during the coronavirus outbreak.

The online retail giant announced Friday that starting May 1st, workers not directly affected by COVID-19 whose work requires physical presence – primarily warehouse workers – will either have to come to work or request a leave of absence.

The company also announced it would be extending $2 per hour hazard pay through May 16.

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Workers say the possibility of losing benefits will force them to chose between protecting their and their family's health and potentially losing their jobs.

"I'm one of the people that is very anxious about this reduction of unlimited unpaid time off," Rachel Belz, a worker at an Amazon fulfillment center in New Jersey, said on a call with reporters Monday.

Belz has been staying home since late March out of fear of spreading the disease to high risk individuals she lives with or her son.

"Because what that means is you basically have to choose between your job and getting your family sick," she added.

A group of Amazon workers at a warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, clocked out of their jobs early Sunday in part as a protest of the end of the unlimited unpaid time off policy.

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"It's just outrageous the fact that unlimited [unpaid time off] will be ending - workers aren't even clear on the rules," Hafsa Hassan, one of the workers who walked off Sunday, told reporters.

Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty said in a statement to The Hill that "[o]f the more 1,000 employees at our Shakopee, Minnesota site, 25 people—less than quarter of a percent of associates—participated in today’s demonstration," noting the commitments the company has made to providing protective gear and cleaning facilities.

She also said that the company is continuing to provide "flexibility with leave of absence options, including expanding the policy to cover COVID-19 circumstances, such as high-risk individuals or school closures."

Workers say accessing the company's paid leave of absence program has been difficult.

Billie Jo Ramey, a worker at a fulfillment center in Michigan who has an auto-immune disease that leaves her at a high risk for COVID-19, said Amazon has not made it clear who is covered by the "circumstances" portion of the program.

Belz said she has been trying to apply for the program but has been unable to access the required forms or get in touch with HR.

"If you're expecting people at high volumes to apply for these things you need to work out the kinks in the system and make the manpower available," she told reporters.

Amazon's treatment of workers has been under a spotlight during the pandemic.

More than 130 Amazon facilities have had at least one employee test positive for COVID-19, and workers have conducted warehouse level and national strikes to protest how the company has handled those cases.

Amazon has taken steps to address some of the issues raised by workers, including pledging to increase cleaning and enforce social distancing measures at warehouses.