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Employees at Amazon’s sprawling Staten Island warehouse say they’re forced to pack onto city buses to get to work — and are calling on the online retail giant to provide social distance-friendly shuttles.
Workers also want the MTA to bring back one of the two lines that until recently ran between the St. George Ferry Terminal and the “fulfillment center” in Bloomfield, as employee ranks swelled to 5,000 to meet the demand for goods during the pandemic.
“It’s crowded. We’re like sardines in a can,” said Amazon employee Phillip Ruiz, 35, who is burning through his paid time off, because he’s afraid of bringing coronavirus home to immunocompromised loved ones.
“The bus drivers are cool and everything, but the problem is this is something Amazon could easily take care of if they just provided us with a shuttle bus,” he added. “If a CUNY school like College of Staten Island can provide a shuttle bus for their students, then I’m sure a multibillion-dollar corporation can easily provide us with a shuttle bus.”
’A 24-Hour Machine’
Workers say city buses frequently become overcrowded when employees jam on to make it to one of the four daily shift changes — with major ones at 4:45 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. — at the warehouse, known as JFK8.
At times, some said, fights break out, with would-be riders trying to block buses from leaving without them.
In 2019, which was JFK8’s first full year in operation, ridership on the S40/S90 route increased by nearly 10% after three years of decline, according to the MTA.
On March 25, the MTA temporarily added 20 additional buses to the S40 local route on weekdays and 16 additional buses on weekends to adjust for Amazon hiring additional workers.
But, on April 9, the agency suspended S90 express service until further notice. The limited bus is about eight minutes faster than the S40 during rush hour, according to an MTA timetable.
The additional S40 buses have helped, several JFK8 employees told THE CITY. But they’re not enough: With the front of buses closed off to help keep passengers six feet away from drivers, it’s difficult to maintain social distancing, riders said.
“JFK8 is a 24-hour machine,” said Rina Cummings, who is employed at the warehouse as a merchandise “picker.”
Cummings, who helps organize workers, typically takes the S40 from her Staten Island home to JFK8. But now, the single mother of two said, she’s using all of her paid leave to avoid going in for her 10-hour shifts.
Shams Tarek, an MTA spokesperson, said transit officials are keeping an eye on use of the only public transportation link to Staten Island’s largest employer.
“The MTA is constantly monitoring its service and making adjustments in order to deliver the best possible service to customers,” he said in a statement. “We added 132 S40 buses per week when Amazon had a surge in hiring last month, and we continue to monitor the service in light of the dynamic and unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic to evaluate whether additional changes are necessary.”
A spokesperson for Amazon said the company has staggered shift start and end times to encourage social distancing, and noted the additional buses match the work hours.
“We have worked closely with local officials and the MTA to offer associates multiple transportation options includ[ing] both public transportation and a WAZE Carpool rideshare option,” said Rachael Lighty, a spokesperson for Amazon, in a statement.
Lighty wouldn’t address whether Amazon is planning to provide a shuttle bus.
Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse, where workers pick and pack items for shipment, has been mired in controversy since it began operating in September 2018.
Employees have organized multiple protests and walkouts, calling for Amazon to provide longer breaks and improve working conditions.
In its early months, JFK8 logged a recordable injury or illness rate of 15.2 per 100 employees — a higher rate than the coal mining industry, according to 300A logs submitted to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that were analyzed by Make the Road New York.
Firing Made Headlines
Last month, Amazon fired Chris Smalls, an employee who organized a protest calling for more personal protective equipment and for the warehouse to be shut down overnight for a thorough cleaning.
The company said at the time he was canned for violating Amazon’s quarantine rules. On April 22, state Attorney General Letitia James wrote a letter to the company suggesting it may have violated New York whistleblower laws, and indicated that she’s investigating.
“The information so far available to us raises concerns that Amazon’s health and safety measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are so inadequate that they may violate several provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” James wrote, NPR reported.
The company has declined to say how many employees at JFK8 have tested positive for the virus.
Cummings said she’s maintaining a log of everytime she hears of another coronavirus case involving a warehouse employee. “It’s at least 50,” she said Tuesday.
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