Loress Burke, an Amazon warehouse worker in New York, was coughing throughout our interview when we spoke recently. She tried to get tested for COVID-19, but her doctors told her to stay home for two weeks instead. Conforms to that of Amazon New policy, the company said it would pay her for the duration of her quarantine. But there’s a catch: she was told she wouldn’t be paid until after she returned to work. This is a problem, she says, because she takes care of her disabled sister and needs the money now. “I got the idea that they didn’t know how it worked, because it’s as new to them as it is to us,” Burke told me.
Burke’s ordeal highlights the difficulty some workers are having getting paid for their sick leave, even as their companies roll out new policies offering paid time off due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many employees are undoubtedly lucky enough to work in companies whose services are always in demand. Still, big companies like Walmart and Amazon have struggled to adapt and explain their sick leave policies amid a rapidly evolving pandemic.
Where retail workers were once entitled to a set number of hours off, the crisis has raised complex new questions about employee absences. What should happen to immunocompromised workers, for example? Or to those who feel sick but cannot get tested for coronavirus? Unlike white-collar workers, many of whom enjoy liberal sick leave policies, blue-collar workers cannot always be sure they will be paid for their absence. While an office worker with asthma can easily work from home, many retail and delivery workers with underlying health conditions make agonizing calculations about whether to risk their health or their income.
This does not appear to be an issue of intentional corporate malpractice, but rather a failure to catch up with the severity and frequency of COVID-19 cases, and to reconcile company policies with state and federal guidelines. rapidly changing that affect life. workers and their families.
Yet even unintentional delays hit workers hard. Interviews with employees at Amazon, Walmart and Whole Foods painted a picture of confusion over the new policies and who is eligible. (Atlantic contacted these companies for comment and have not yet received a response to most of our questions.)
Workers could, for example, fall ill before a new policy takes effect. Or they may embark on a long process of trying to prove they’re really sick and wait weeks to get paid, longer than many of them can afford to go without.
Leaving O’Hare Airport on March 18 after a trip to Spain, Christian Zamarron, an Amazon warehouse worker in Chicago, was stopped by an official who told him that because he had recently visited a country with a large coronavirus outbreak, he is expected to stay home for 14 days. Zamarron said he thought it wouldn’t be a problem because Amazon had recently granted two weeks of paid sick leave for workers who test positive for COVID-19 or who are placed in quarantine. But several Amazon employees, including Zamarron, have told me the process to get paid for their time in quarantine has been byzantine and, in some cases, completely unsuccessful.
As soon as he realized he was going to miss work, Zamarron said, he called Amazon’s Employee Resource Center, the company’s HR equivalent, to make sure he would be paid. . After an hour on the phone, he finally managed to reach someone and explained his situation. The person told her that she was entitled to unpaid leave.
He asked if he could receive paid time off instead, per Amazon policy, and was told a case manager would contact him in a few days. But he hasn’t heard from anyone for over a week, and he hasn’t been paid. When a case manager finally got in touch, it was to provide him with leave without pay forms. Zamarron, who had traveled to Spain with another Amazon colleague, wondered what to do. “Either we take the hit and don’t get a check for two weeks,” he told me, “or we go to work and infect our colleagues.”
Hours after emailing Amazon about his case, Zamarron received a call from a human resources representative who said Zamarron and his co-worker would be paid retroactively for their absence from work. (Amazon denied that my email prompted payment.)
Another Amazon employee, who leads a union of informal workers, told me that he knows of cases in which the paid vacation policy has been implemented correctly. But those workers either tested positive for COVID-19 or Amazon itself ordered them quarantined.
Amazon workers who cannot prove they have COVID-19, meanwhile, find themselves in a more difficult situation. Nicole Jackson, who works at the Chicago facility with Zamarron, has not returned to work since March 9, when she developed a fever and cough, and began experiencing shortness of breath, telltale symptoms of the coronavirus. She told me her doctor wouldn’t test her for COVID-19 because testing is rare. But he told Jackson to stay home, so she emailed Amazon’s Employee Resource Center to try to get quarantine pay. She failed and missed weeks of pay. The day after emailing Amazon, she heard from a social worker who started working again on processing her paycheck.
Like many other companies, Amazon allows warehouse workers to take unlimited unpaid leave until the end of March. But workers say they can’t afford to go without their paychecks, even as they fear returning to work. Tonya Fondren, who also works at Amazon’s warehouse in Chicago, was off work for two weeks with lupus. She is afraid to return to work because her weakened immune system makes her more susceptible to coronavirus. But Fondren told me she would come back soon anyway, just because she had no more money. Although Chicago has a local paid sick leave prescription, she says, Amazon’s system shows she’s only accrued 22 minutes of paid sick time.
Some workers at Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, have reported similar problems getting sick pay. A New York-area employee, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid possible retaliation, told me he started having flu-like symptoms on March 14. A doctor told him he couldn’t be tested for COVID-19 because testing was being rationed. , but that he was to stay home until 48 hours after his symptoms resolved. His regional human resources office told him he was ineligible for the company’s two-week quarantine salary because he did not have a positive COVID-19 test or a county quarantine order.
In recent weeks, the focus has rightly been on the safety of healthcare workers and other first responders. But the people who allow confined Americans to shop and get delivered are, in many ways, also vulnerable and indispensable. And they are increasingly frustrated at not being treated as such.
“We’re one of the few essential businesses that aren’t valued in the culture as first responder heroes,” said another Whole Foods worker in Chicago, who requested anonymity because he fears ‘to be fired. He is an asthmatic whose sickness benefit situation is still unclear. “We were always treated as disposable, and now we have to go to work.”
For some workers, it is already too late. William Elmore, a Walmart employee in the Spokane area, came in with what he thought was COVID-19 on Feb. 20. He told me that he contacted his company’s personnel manager and requested time off, which was approved, so he stayed home from work for the next two days. Once back at work on Feb. 23, he said, his boss told him he had too many attendance “points” and would be fired. A few weeks later, Walmart announced that it would be offering paid sick leave employees with COVID-19. Elmore said he won’t be eligible for rehiring until August, when his points will be reset.