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Supply Chain News: Distribution Center Workers Risk Infection, Washington Post Reports


Soaring Temp Workers Make Social Distancing in DCs almost Impossible, as Pressure to Deliver can Trump Safety

Sept. 15, 2020
SCDigest Editorial Staff

As coronavirus infections piled up in Amazon fulfillment centers in April and May, the company decided to take a number of steps, including raising hourly wages by $2.00, implementing more generous time off policies, adding handwashing stations and more, including later adopting technology supposed to help enforce social distancing.

That didn't stop some Amazon workers in a handful of cities from trying to organize walk outs to demand Amazon do more to reduce virus risks. They all fizzled, with little to no impact.

Now the bonus pay is gone, as are the more lenient time rules, though temperature checks on entering the FCs and the washing stations remain.

Supply Chain Digest Says...

One former Wayfair DC manager even alleges that when some workers there became infected, the company "just swept it under the rug."

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The lot of the distribution center workers, never exactly desirable, has become even less so, given infection risk and soaring volumes at many facilities.

That according to an article in the Washington Post last week.

For example, take the case of Isaiah Kane, a 21 year-old worker at a Kohl's DC in San Bernardino, CA. The Post reports that Kane took some unpaid time-off in early July after two co-workers became infected with the virus.

But when Kane came back, managers made it clear it had to be for good because the holiday peak season for distribution was fast approaching.

"When covid started, they basically told us, "Try to socially distance," which is almost impossible in such close quarters," Kane told the Post. "They keep sending us messages about positive cases. But at the same time, they are going full speed ahead like nothing is happening."

As SCDigest reported last week, there were 1.18 million warehouse workers in the US in July, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is up 85% from the 637,000 distribution center jobs a decade ago.

The Post says that many DC associates say "Working conditions have steadily deteriorated during the crisis, leaving many distribution centers understaffed and ill-equipped to accommodate frequent hand-washing and other safety protocols."

While there are some anecdotal stories, no one is really sure how many DC workers became infected since the March outbreak, because for now at least there are no requiring companies to report that data.

But at an Amazon FC in Shakopee, MN, 152 employees - or about 1 in 7 workers - tested positive for the coronavirus between April and August, according to the state's health department. Whether this is a real outlier or more like the norm is simply not known.

And with peak season here and many DCs adding hundreds or even thousands of temporary workers into a single facility, maintaining social distance is virtually impossible. Add to that greatly increased and mandatory requirements for hours workers per week, and it certainly seems like infection risks would also be rising sharply.

It's not like it's the first complaints from warehouse workers about working conditions, but the Post article also included comments from two former employees of on-line home products retailer Wayfair, who say they were frequently asked to work 12-hour days, six days a week, beginning in May to keep up with an avalanche of furniture orders triggered by the lockdowns.

(See More Below)




There were also allegation from the former workers that at the Wayfair DC in Jessup, MD, conditions have worsened and include broken fans during heat waves, sagging ceilings and floors strewn with shattered glass. At least three managers were recently fired for "gross misconduct" for complaining about safety concerns, the former workers said. E

One former Wayfair DC manager even alleges that when some workers there became infected, the company "just swept it under the rug." The manager also alleges safety protocols are being relaxed under the pressure to get orders out of the door.

Susan Frechette, a spokeswoman for Wayfair, said the company's sites adhere to "rigorous" safety policies that include social distancing measures, sanitation protocols and emergency paid time off for employees who need it."

And while there have been a few exceptions, DCs in general do not shut down operations for disinfecting when DC workers do become infected.

"It creates very uncomfortable choices for people to make: Earn a living or stay safe," said Ellen Reese, chair of labor studies at the University of California at Riverside.

In the end, robotics may change the dynamics. As we reported a few weeks ago, retailer American Eagle has added 26 piece-picking robots at its main US distribution centers, after piloting a small number of robots before that.

"During non-Covid times, if demand grew by 50% I would go hire 300 more people," Shekar Natarajan, senior vice president of global inventory and supply chain logistics for the company, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Natarajan added that "It's really tough because you're also trying to make sure you're keeping the associates safe. You cannot actually bring in 1,000 to 2,000 untrained people into the distribution facility and maintain safe working conditions."

As in many other areas, the pandemic is simply accelerating existing trend, in this case the growth of robot adoption of all sorts in distribution.

Are DC workers at too much risk? Does volume trump safety in many DCs? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.




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