Amazon workers stage walkout at Romulus warehouse during COVID-19 crisis

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Romulus — Bright blue surgical gloves and masks littered the driveway into a full parking lot at's Romulus fulfillment center, where workers planned a walkout Wednesday.

But only a handful of warehouse's 4,000 workers joined the strike outside the facility on Ecorse during the shift change at noon, proclaiming their work through the COVID-19 crisis is "not by choice but by necessity."

The workers who did leave the Detroit faciltiy are angry, saying the company is failing to protect public health and the safety of its workers, customers and communities.

Marteya Spears, Redford, holds a sign after she and other Amazon employees walked out of the DTW 1 Fulfillment Center on Ecorse Road in Romulus, Mich., Wednesday, April 1, 2020.

Two positive cases of coronavirus were confirmed there in recent days, with a third confirmed in a text to workers Wednesday morning, protest organizers said.

One infected Romulus worker was last on site March 18, received medical care and is in quarantine, the company said in a Thursday statement.

Amazon said it is consulting with health authorities and medical experts on how to handle building closures for deep cleaning if an employee tests positive for COVID-19. The company said it has also implemented health measures at its sites, including increasing cleaning and sanitizing, shifting start times or breaks, as well as asking employees to defer non-essential travel.

"Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable," the company said in a statement Wednesday. "We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances. The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day."

Still, workers are calling for a shutdown and sanitizing of the facility and a decrease in staff who aren't "essential."

The small group of workers took to the sides of Ecorse Road to protest. They stood 6 feet apart and cheered as a few cars honked while passing by. Dozens who were off the clock or on temporarily leave joined their co-workers in the parking lot, but chose not to leave their cars. Meanwhile, many masked employees could be seen inside with their phones up to the glass documenting the walkout.

Workers who decide to temporarily clock out during the pandemic are not being penalized but won't be paid during their leave, employees said.

"A lot of people are thinking about their bills first," said Jordan Jackson, a sorter at the facility for more than a year. "All of this is fear-based. Everybody's afraid they don't know what to do and nobody wants to stand alone."

Jackson, from Detroit, said the baby wipes being passed out to employees aren't useful. He decided to join the protest because he doesn't feel like Amazon is playing an essential role during the pandemic.

"People are ordering the same stuff as usual," said Jackson, 25. "If it was purely medical supplies and if Amazon actually stepped up and did that then I'd be much more willing to put myself which feels like in the front lines because we get stuff from everywhere, but that's not what's going on... It's people ordering the same cat litter, toys, ramen noodles."

The protest is the third walkout nationally this week. The warehouse on Ecorse follows a walkout at a Staten Island fulfillment center and at a delivery station in Chicago. 

Workers walk off the job at the Amazon Fulfillment Center midday in Romulus Wednesday , April 1, 2020.

Amazon also fired a worker who organized a walkout at a New York warehouse to demand greater protection against the coronavirus. Amazon said the worker had received several warnings for violating social-distancing guidelines and refused to stay home.

More than 4,400 workers signed a petition released by Athena, a national coalition organizing around Amazon, demanding paid leave for workers to stay home. Workers also demanded an explanation of what the company would do if the virus disrupts operations.

"We are scared to go to work and disgusted at Amazon's disregard for our safety and our health and the health of our neighbors,” said Tonya Ramsay, a leader of the walkout and a worker at DTW1, the Detroit distribution center. “We aren't heroes and we aren't Red Cross workers — we are working people who pack and deliver goods. We're working through a crisis not by choice but by necessity."

Mario Crippen, another leader of the walkout, said they had to walk for workers who fear they're putting their families in danger.

Marteya Spears of Redford holds a sign after she and other Amazon employees walked out of the DTW 1 Fulfillment Center on Ecorse Road in Romulus, Mich., Wednesday, April 1, 2020 amid coronavirus fears.

“If Amazon truly cares about our collective public health, it will do what workers like me and our communities have been demanding: shut down warehouses with positive cases of coronavirus and guarantee workers full pay while the building is fully sanitized, provide adequate paid time off to anyone who needs to stay home, and explain exactly what you will do if and when cases of coronavirus are found in your facilities," Crippen said in a statement.

The company said it has distributed more than 450,000 canisters of disinfectant wipes, has adjusted practices in its facilities to encourage social distancing and implemented a series of preventative health measures for employees, delivery and transportation partners.

All Amazon employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two weeks of pay. All hourly employees have been offered unlimited unpaid time off, the company said. 

Mecca Shabazz, from Detroit, has worked at the Hazel Park Amazon warehouse for two years and said she hopes the protestors don't get in trouble.

“I’m hoping they don’t get repercussions from that,” said Shabazz, 24. “I see their efforts, but I just know they’re not going to shut it down.”

She said workers are complaining because they need the money, but the ones that are truly fearful for their families are staying home.

“They’re hiring more people every day,"  Shabazz said, "so they're like 'If ya’ll don’t want to do it, another person will.'"

Staff Writer Ariana Taylor contributed.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_