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Workers in Chicago-area warehouses allege harsh, dangerous working conditions

Employees working in warehouses for Amazon and other companies say the distribution centers are often windowless and a breeding-ground for COVID-19. They called for higher wages and better working conditions.

Amazon boxes on a conveyer belt in the interior of the first floor of the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Matteson Wednesday morning, Oct. 13, 2021. Mark Capapas/Sun-Times
At a Tuesday town hall, workers from Amazon and other area facilities called for higher wages and better conditions, saying the warehouses are COVID-19 hotspots, with limited mask wearing in close quarters. Workers also said they receive little to no training, while being charged with operating heavy, dangerous machinery.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

Dina Blouin, an Amazon warehouse worker, was handling a package of coffee when she noticed something odd.

The package had come open, but she could barely smell it.

“I freaked out,” Blouin said. Loss of smell is one possible symptom of contracting the coronavirus, and sure enough — she had it.

Blouin said she thinks she contracted COVID-19 while working at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Matteson.

She said she was frightened for herself but also because her father, a 74-year-old veteran, relies on her for day-to-day care.

In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait said, “We’ve worked hard from the beginning of the pandemic to keep our employees safe and deliver for our customers — incurring more than $15 billion in costs to date — and we’ll keep doing that in months and years ahead.”

The company has mask policies in place and have followed the guidance of federal and local health authorities since the early stages of the pandemic, Agrait said.

The Amazon fulfillment center in Matteson, shown on Wednesday morning, Oct. 13, 2021.
The Amazon fulfillment center in Matteson, shown on in October.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

At a Tuesday town hall, workers from Amazon and other area facilities called for higher wages and better conditions, saying warehouses are COVID-19 hotspots, with limited mask wearing in close quarters. Workers also said they receive little to no training, while being charged with operating heavy, dangerous machinery.

“It’s not safe working in the warehouses at Amazon. Period,” said Tionette Pollard, a worker in an Amazon warehouse in Downers Grove.

Agrait said Amazon has nearly 8,000 safety professional and has invested millions in training, tools and technology. “The safety and well-being of our employees is always a top priority. We recognize that helping employees stay safe in physical roles takes a lot of focus and investment.”

Roberto Clack, executive director of Warehouse Workers for Justice, said the recent labor shortage may be caused by such harsh conditions.

“Workers are tired of high-demand jobs that pay far too little, with far too few benefits,” Clack said. “Let’s call it what it is. It’s a strike.”

Amazon pays an average starting wage of at least $18 an hour in addition to health, vision and dental insurance and training for in-demand jobs.

Vanessa Carillo Ruiz, 23, a sortation associate, joins about a dozen fellow Amazon workers in a walkout and protest to demand better working conditions at at the Amazon facility known as DIL3 in Gage Park on the Southwest Side, Wednesday morning, April 7, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Workers at an April protest in Gage Park at an Amazon facility also called for better wages and work rules.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In addition to claims of limited social distancing and harsh conditions, workers say warehouse facilities are cramped and mostly windowless.

“You do feel that you’re in a prison in that warehouse,” said Amazon warehouse worker Abraham Dominguez.

More than improving working conditions, Dominguez says warehouse workers deserve higher wages.

“We all know Amazon can pay way more than what they’re paying right now,” he said.