Bezos details Amazon’s COVID-19 testing plans in shareholder letter

Jeff Bezos dropped Amazon’s annual shareholder letter today, as the world struggles through the throes of a global pandemic. Naturally, the company’s response to the on-going COVID-19 crisis took center stage in the open letter, as the virus has impacted the retailer giant at nearly every level.

Among the meatier subjects detailed therein is more information on the Amazon-built testing labs that were announced last week. The executive notes in the letter that the company is considering “regular testing of all Amazonians, including those showing no symptoms.” The letter explains that, obviously, regular testing would be ideal to stop the disease’s spread, as many cases are non-symptomatic.

It’s not entirely clear whether such testing would be mandatory, nor is it entirely clear where mandatory testing of employees showing no symptoms would fall legally. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s recently released ADA guidelines for the COVID outbreak, “During a pandemic, ADA-covered employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing symptoms of the pandemic virus. For COVID-19, these include symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath or sore throat.”

Of course, limited availability of testing has rendered the issue somewhat moot. What Amazon is building, however, is a testing lab designed specifically to test its own employees, in order to prohibit the virus’s spread both within its own ranks and to the outside world. The company, after all, is a kind of retail lifeline for many Americans currently staying at home. Employees in at least 74 warehouse/fulfillment centers have tested positive for the virus, which is capable of living on cardboard for 24 hours and plastics for multiple days. The virus could potentially be transmitted through boxes and other surfaces. 

“We’ve begun the work of building incremental testing capacity,” Bezos writes. “A team of Amazonians—from research scientists and program managers to procurement specialists and software engineers—moved from their normal day jobs onto a dedicated team to work on this initiative. We have begun assembling the equipment we need to build our first lab and hope to start testing small numbers of our frontline employees soon. We are not sure how far we will get in the relevant timeframe, but we think it’s worth trying, and we stand ready to share anything we learn.”

The company has also implemented temperature checks at its building globally, designed to determine employees who might be carrying the virus. Other safeguards include routine sanitization of surfaces, the distribution of masks and mandated social distance [Amazon contacted us with an update on the WHO’s policy on packages, noting that the virus is extremely unlikely to be transmitted by these means].

Earlier this week it came to light that the company had fired two more employees who had been vocally critical of its handling of the crisis, bringing the total up to three, including a Staten Island employee who lost his job last month. The company denied that the firings were connected to their public criticism, instead insisting, “We terminated these employees for repeatedly violating internal policies.”