Amazon warehouse workers protest outside the the Eagan facility in Minnesota, on June 4, 2018. Credit: Photo courtesy of Awood Center.

Suleiman Ahmed is pretty sure he contracted COVID-19 in April at the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, where he has sorted boxes, scanned items and loaded trucks 30 hours a week for more than three years.  

By April, Governor Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, meant to curb the spread of the virus, had been in place for about a month. But the retail giant was among the so-called essential businesses that had remained open. The governor put in place social distancing requirements—for example, maintaining distances, wearing gloves and non-surgical facemasks and monitoring COVID symptoms—to protect workers and clients at these operations. 

The consequences of that business decision became clear this week when the Minnesota Department of Health announced that a COVID outbreak sickened 88 workers at the 1,000-employee Shakopee facility over the course of two-and-a-half months. These infections match a trend at Amazon facilities in Eagan, Maple Grove and Brooklyn Park, which have registered about 100 other COVID cases, MDH said in an email. Many of these workers are immigrants and refugees from East Africa. 

On Wednesday afternoon, some of these workers staged an online press conference to address the growing health crisis. Speakers called on Waltz to pressure Amazon to close down its warehouses for two weeks and compensate its employees until the company implements better safety guidelines. The workers also demanded that Amazon provide regular, timely updates on the number of employees who have tested positive for the virus. 

Hibaq Mohamed, who’s worked in various departments in the Shakopee fulfillment center for four years, demanded Amazon to “tell us the truth and say these are the confirmed cases we have.” 

Jen Crowcroft, a spokesperson for Amazon, said, “Over the months of COVID-19, thousands of employees and partners have worked at our Shakopee site. And we believe strongly people are not spreading the virus at work given the robust safety measures we’ve put into place.”  

So why—months after Amazon first registered sick workers at its Minnesota facilities—are so many of its workers still reporting COVID infections? 

Suleiman asserts that on the warehouse floor, social distancing rules weren’t fully reinforced or followed. He pointed to as many as 10 employees clustered in restrooms, making it nearly impossible to keep the recommended six-foot distance from other workers. 

On his fast-moving assembly line, too, Suleiman couldn’t maintain a safe distance, he said. Immediately after he completed one order, colleagues would come running to him with more boxes instead of exchanging packages at a safer span. The pace of the work flow presented other threats of infection. He would often find himself touching the same computers and scanners others had used, without their being sanitized first. “You don’t know if the person who used that equipment was infected,” Suleiman said.

On April 28, after his 10-hour shift ended, Suleiman came down sick. The usual 40-minute drive between Shakopee and his house in St. Paul became unbearable. “I felt so weak,” he said. “I was dizzy. I was shaking. I had to turn on the hazard lights on the car and drive 20 miles per hour on the highway.”  

Ten days later, Suleiman tested positive for the virus.    

More COVID-19 cases at Amazon facilities 

Amazon workers have been concerned about the spread of the virus since mid-March, when the pandemic took hold in Minnesota. In early May, seven Somali employees at the Eagan facility told Sahan Journal they feared going to work after a half dozen co-workers tested positive for the virus. 

The employees weren’t just worried about their workplace. They also expressed concerns that the pandemic might spill over into their neighborhoods and take the lives of vulnerable community members with underlying health conditions. 

Nearly two months later, what these workers dreaded has happened. According to Minnesota health authorities, the Eagan warehouse now counts 22 positive cases; Shakopee, 88; Maple Grove, 5; and Brooklyn Park, 14. In reality, the number of positive cases in each facility is likely higher. The state knows that more than 50 positive test results came from additional Amazon workers who did not specify a location. 

Hibaq Mohamed, who’s worked for the Amazon fulfillment center warehouse in Shakopee for four years, is one of the leaders demanding changes at the retail giant. Credit: Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News.

Hibaq said she was surprised to learn about the spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in her workplace. She sees the virus at home, too, in the Cedar–Riverside neighborhood where she lives, and she speculates about the connection. “Most of the people who work at Amazon live in Cedar–Riverside,” she said. “They are the ones bringing the virus into the neighborhood. Many people in the community have died, especially the elders.” 

At the warehouse, Hibaq works as what’s commonly called an AFE—or Amazon fulfillment engineer. These workers sort, scan and package items for customers. These tasks involve close contact and coordination, Hibaq said. “You cannot maintain social distancing in this department,” she added.      

Suleiman, also an AFE, believes he contracted the virus in his department, where people don’t pay attention to the social distancing guidelines. After he completes packing a set of items, he said, another team brings him more boxes. These workers are known at Amazon as “water spiders.”

“The water spider comes with a box,” Suleiman said. “He comes next to you.” These coworkers get so close, he said, that he’s had to back away from them anytime they show up. “Is that safe?” he asked.

Crowcroft, the Amazon spokesperson, said in an email that the company has taken all the necessary steps to protect the health of its employees. “We utilize a variety of data to closely monitor the safety of our buildings and there is strong evidence that our employees are not proliferating the virus at work,” Crowcroft said.  

“I’m scared”

Suleiman hasn’t returned to work since he fell ill with the virus on April 28. The two weeks that followed were a torment. “I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I was not eating at all. I was forcing myself to eat, but I couldn’t feel it. The smell and the taste were gone.” 

He recovered on May 25. “I felt it; I’m healthy,” he said. 

Amazon already called him about returning to work. He could use the paycheck: With his $18-an-hour post, Suleiman was supporting his pregnant wife and two kids. But he doesn’t feel ready to go back—especially after hearing this week about the rest of the new wave of infected co-workers. 

“I’m scared,” he said. “That’s why I don’t want to go back now.” He told his employer that he’ll start working in the first week of August. Suleiman hopes that speaking out about the spread of the virus at the warehouse will set an example for other workers, who’ve kept a lower profile for fear of retaliation. 

“They’re scared that if Amazon hears them, they’ll be fired,” he said. “For me, I have to say the truth. I’m not saying anything bad about them, but just sharing what they were supposed to do.” 

Hibaq tested negative when she took the test about a month ago. But she’s been nervous about contracting the virus as she learns about increasing COVID-19 cases at the Shakopee fulfillment center. 

Still, she has no plans of quitting just yet. “You get scared every time you hear of confirmed cases,” she said. “But we’re poor people; we live paycheck to paycheck. If you miss one day, you won’t be able to pay your rent.” 

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at Sahan Journal, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost and MPR News. Ibrahim got...