Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos used the occasion of his annual shareholders letter to address the company’s response to and operations during the coronavirus outbreak, saying they’re doing all they can to keep workers safe amid bad press on growing positive tests, a worker death and walkouts at its facilities.
Bezos also raised the possibility of testing all Amazon employees globally, whether symptomatic or not, while taking a swipe at government efforts to implement widespread testing.
“Regular testing on a global scale, across all industries, would both help keep people safe and help get the economy back up and running,” he said in the letter. “For this to work, we as a society would need vastly more testing capacity than is currently available. If every person could be tested regularly, it would make a huge difference in how we fight this virus. Those who test positive could be quarantined and cared for, and everyone who tests negative could re-enter the economy with confidence.”
Bezos said Amazon has begun the process of “building incremental testing capacity,” without offering details. Everyone from research scientists and program managers to procurement specialists and software engineers have been redeployed to the testing effort, he said.
“We have begun assembling the equipment we need to build our first lab and hope to start testing small numbers of our frontline employees soon,” Bezos 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.”
Amazon is facing a firestorm of criticism for issues related to worker safety, as well as late deliveries and unavailable pickup slots for grocery delivery, including from Whole Foods stores. Prime orders in general have been uncharacteristically delayed for weeks, and the company recently hired 100,000 new fulfillment and delivery workers, and is looking for 75,000 more.
Bezos address the unprecedented and unexpected nature of the coronavirus situation, like a new peak season every day.
“Amazonians are working around the clock to get necessary supplies delivered directly to the doorsteps of people who need them,” he said. “The demand we are seeing for essential products has been and remains high. But unlike a predictable holiday surge, this spike occurred with little warning, creating major challenges for our suppliers and delivery network. We quickly prioritized the stocking and delivery of essential household staples, medical supplies, and other critical products.”
Bezos went on to detail Amazon’s various efforts to keep workers safe, including daily safety audits at Whole Foods and fulfillment and sorting centers, distribution of face masks, implementation of employee temperature checks, sanitizing of surfaces regularly touched, social distancing of associates, elimination of shift meetings, staggered break times and spread out chairs in breakrooms.
Still, many associates have gone public with complaints the company isn’t doing enough to protect its workers from COVID-19 infection, and at least four complaining dissidents were fired this week for causes Amazon says are unrelated.
Bezos closed the letter with a quote from Dr. Seuss: “When something bad happens you have three choices. You can either let it define you, let it destroy you or you can let it strengthen you.”
“I am very optimistic about which of these civilization is going to choose,” he said.