Mark Huber holds a voice amplifier in front of his mask and speaks into the microphone to be heard over the whir of conveyor belts in a warehouse the size of nearly 15 football fields.
Above him, cameras track the movement of hundreds of employees at Amazon’s North Randall fulfillment center on Emery Road. Images from those cameras flow through an artificial intelligence system that flags possible breaches of social-distancing guidelines.
Huber and his fellow operations directors at Amazon distribution sites nationwide pore through that data daily to see how many violations the cameras identify — and what approaches they ought to take to keep workers apart.
The photo-analysis system, called Proxemics, is one of many measures — from high-tech to decidedly makeshift — that the e-commerce titan has implemented to combat contagion of the novel coronavirus. Since mid-March, the pandemic has forced Amazon to confront worker allegations that the company isn’t doing enough about safety, even as the online retailer tries to meet seemingly insatiable demand from customers who largely are stuck at home.
Amazon says it has made dozens of changes, from quadrupling cleaning of doorknobs and bathrooms to defogging buildings between shifts. The Seattle-based company has distributed almost 48 million ounces of hand sanitizer and more than 100 million disposable masks to employees over the last four months.
In North Randall, associates have their temperature taken at the start of each shift by a thermal camera that scans them from 10 to 15 feet away. Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher is sent home. Workers with confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, are eligible for up to two weeks of paid time off.
On a Friday in late June, Donna Shaw manned the screening station, where she watched employees’ temperatures pop up over their faces on a monitor. Boxes of masks sat next to her, available for workers who didn’t bring their own face coverings.
Behind her, corridors built from stacks of yellow storage totes — the same bins that ferry gadgets, books and household goods on a winding path through the building — channeled one-way, single-file traffic. A checkerboard of tape on the floor showed the path employees should follow when approaching the time clocks.
Now, instead of physically punching in, most workers check in on their phones. Amazon started allowing phones onto the floor on March 15, in a departure from its long-running rule that employees had to stash their belongings in lockers. The North Randall locker room, where the aisles are strewn with forgotten winter coats and boots, has been cordoned off for months.
“The building wasn’t engineered, obviously, for social distancing. No building is,” Huber said of the fulfillment hub, which opened in fall 2018 and employs more than 2,500 people.
“We’ve done our best to physically engineer the building in such a way that associates cannot be within 6 feet of one another,” he said, adding that “some of those solutions have been a little bit scrappy.”
Amazon won’t say how many local employees have tested positive for COVID-19. The company, with a rapidly growing footprint in Northeast Ohio, also has fulfillment center in Euclid and smaller sorting and delivery facilities scattered across the region.
In late May, Amazon confirmed that an employee in North Randall died after testing positive for the virus. In Minnesota and Pennsylvania, fulfillment centers have been linked to clusters of cases. Ohio doesn’t release business-specific case information, aside from reports on nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Since late March, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health has received 18 complaints about Amazon facilities — half from Euclid and half from North Randall. Most of the complaints were about a lack of social distancing. A few related to insufficient cleaning, limited mask usage and sick employees at work. The board didn’t find evidence to support the claims.
An Amazon spokesman said infection and quarantine rates for workers at the company’s buildings are comparable to or lower than rates in the surrounding communities.
“I don’t find that information to be really relevant to what we’re trying to do, because our mission here has been clear from the very beginning,” Huber said of the statistics. “We’re trying to provide a safe environment for people to come in tough times to work, and to work safely. … We just don’t find the information to be helpful.”
Over the last few months, Amazon has ramped up hiring, adding 175,000 jobs across the country and taking in workers furloughed or laid off from hotels, restaurants and the travel industry. In Ohio, the company has hired 6,500 people since mid-March, including 2,000 full-time employees in Northeast Ohio. Many part-time jobs are turning into full-time positions.
Attendance and the pace of activity at the North Randall facility dropped for about a month, from mid-March to mid-April, as business closures cascaded across the state and families struggled with health concerns and childcare challenges. But the fulfillment center never shut its doors.
Instead, Amazon staggered start times and breaks. The company began requiring masks April 8, after a hectic two-week period when Huber’s team oversaw the logistics of distributing masks to 140 Amazon buildings, ranging from other fulfillment centers to Whole Foods Market stores.
And Amazon created a new job, the social distancing ambassador, focused on education and enforcement. In North Randall, more than 15 ambassadors are on hand during every shift.
In the break room, each table is equipped with a single chair and a bottle of hand sanitizer. On the main floor, the human resources staff sits out in the open, at high tables, and talks to workers from a distance using voice amplifiers and two-way radios.
Those are the relatively low-tech tweaks.
Then there are programs like Proxemics and Distance Assistant, which is still rolling out to Amazon warehouses nationwide. Using the same network of cameras, monitors throughout the building will show workers with ample distance around them standing in green circles.
As employees edge together, their circles will turn red.
Such coronavirus surveillance is raising concerns for privacy advocates, who worry that companies will find applications beyond the current crisis. Amazon, which has a robust robotics arm and is exploring other ways to use technology for social distancing, has said these tracking programs are specific to warding off COVID-19.
“I think Amazon’s made it really clear what the priority is, and it’s the health and safety of people in the buildings. … Anything that’s going to happen in the future would probably be conjecture on my part,” Huber said. “But I don’t expect any of our social distancing, any of our personal protective equipment, any of the 150 process changes that we’ve put in place, I don’t expect any of that to change at any time until, really, the Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention) helps Amazon to establish what the best practices are.”