Employees at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Memphis, Tennessee, say the e-commerce giant erred in withdrawing unpaid leave and has failed to ensure their safety just as colleagues fall ill with COVID-19 and the surrounding region suffers an explosion in cases.

Workers at Amazon’s MEM1 facility say managers require them to continue working even when experiencing symptoms. In one case, a worker told human resources he had headaches, a runny nose and loss of smell and taste, according to four people familiar with the matter. The worker got tested that day but kept working for five days until the results came back positive, the people said. 

In another instance, an Amazon employee training about two dozen new workers was pulled aside during a lunch break and told to go home because she had COVID-19, but those remaining weren’t immediately informed about their potential exposure, the people said.

Earlier this year, about the time coronavirus cases began appearing at warehouses in New York, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, Amazon gave workers an extra US$2 an hour and let them take leave with no questions asked. But as states in the Northeast and Midwest appeared to be getting the virus under control, the company ended those short-term programs and required workers to apply for sick leave—a process some employees say has been plagued by confusion and delays. 

Now that cases are exploding in Tennessee and other southern states, Amazon workers must show up for work or risk being fired. The Memphis workers say they get conflicting instructions, forcing them to make difficult decisions without clear guidance from the company. A key point of aggravation is being told to continue showing up by someone who’s allowed to work from home.

“We feel like sitting ducks,” said one worker, who requested anonymity to speak freely without jeopardizing her job. “We don’t want to get sick or threaten our children and our families, and we feel like they are playing around with our lives.”

It’s unclear how many workers have contracted the virus in Memphis, and Amazon has declined to provide a national or state-by-state tally despite pressure from several national politicians. A group of employees, who have been keeping their own spreadsheet of cases, said in June that there were more than 1,500 cases in Amazon warehouses around the country and more than a dozen in the Memphis warehouse.

In a statement, Amazon said: “Temperature checks are mandatory and if an employee is found to have a temperature above 100.4 then they are sent home and paid for their scheduled shift, up to five hours. Associates need to stay home until they’ve been fever-free for at least 72 hours without the use of fever-reducing medicine. If anyone is experiencing symptoms, in addition to or separate of, a fever, they are instructed to stay home until their symptoms subside.”

While Tennessee hasn’t been hit as hard as Florida, Texas and Arizona, the Memphis area began reporting  a spike in COVID-19 cases at the end of June. Nearly 14,000 people have been infected and more than 220 have died from the virus in Shelby County, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Shelby County, where the warehouse is located, had an infection rate of 33 per 100,000 people, among the highest infection rates in the state.

Tennessee was among the first states to reopen its economy and paid for residents to get tested. But the recent surge in cases is forcing some cities to reimposes stricter measures because hospitals are overwhelmed. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland last week extended a state of emergency; local health officials ordered bars to close for the foreseeable future and restaurants to close at 10 pm.

Workers at the Memphis warehouse say colleagues began getting sick about the time cases surged in the area. Like Amazon workers elsewhere, they say the company isn’t providing enough information about new cases or how many people at the facility have tested positive or come down with COVID-19. 

Messages sent to workers are formulaic, vague and have arrived several days after workers were potentially exposed. One message sent to workers July 8 said: “We were recently notified that individuals who work at MEM1 have received a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. They were last onsite on 07/03/2020.”  Employees interpret the lack of transparency as a deliberate attempt by the company to mask the prevalence of the virus among the workforce, forcing them to make difficult decisions about their safety and financial well-being without facts.

When managers told the Memphis warehouse trainer to go home mid-shift, the workers say they weren’t told why. They learned she had COVID-19 only because the trainer told them herself, they said. The trainees were relocated to another part of the building, the workers said. 

The employees said they complained to the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration and reported the cases to a Shelby County Health Department hotline, but there is little regulators can do. OSHA doesn’t have much oversight over the spread of germs in the workplace beyond making sure employees have access to soap and water for handwashing, agency spokesman Chris Cannon said. Joan Carr, a spokeswoman with the Shelby County Health Department, declined to comment on the workers’ complaints.

Employees at the Memphis warehouse say they resent that unlimited unpaid time off is no longer available now that they could use it. Rather than creating a one-size-fits-all pandemic policy, they say, Amazon should tailor its response to local conditions—echoing the argument now being put forward  by school districts opposed to a wholesale re-opening amid the surge in infections. 

“It’s very scary,” one worker said. “They’re putting everyone at risk.”