Amazon to use AI tech in its warehouses to enforce social distancing

(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc on Tuesday launched an artificial intelligence-based tracking system to enforce social distancing at its offices and warehouses to help reduce any risk of contracting the new coronavirus among its workers.

The unveiling comes as the world’s largest online retailer faces intensifying scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers and unions over whether it is doing enough to protect staff from the pandemic.

Monitors set up in the company’s warehouses will highlight workers keeping a safe distance in green circles, while workers who are closer will be highlighted in red circles, Amazon said.

The system, called Distance Assistant, uses camera footage in Amazon’s buildings to also help identify high-traffic areas.

Amazon, which will open source the technology behind the system, is not the first company to turn to AI to track compliance with social distancing.

Several firms have told Reuters that AI camera-based software will be crucial to staying open, as it will allow them to show not only workers and customers, but also insurers and regulators, that they are monitoring and enforcing safe practices.

However, privacy activists have raised concerns about increasingly detailed tracking of people and have urged businesses to limit use of AI to the pandemic.

The system is live at a handful of buildings, Amazon said on Tuesday, adding that it planned to deploy hundreds of such units over the next few weeks.

(Reporting by Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Editing by Ramakrishnan M. and Sriraj Kalluvila)

Amazon to offer permanent roles to 70% of 175,000 new U.S. hires

By Jeffrey Dastin

(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc plans to offer permanent jobs to about 70% of the U.S. workforce it has hired temporarily to meet consumer demand during the coronavirus pandemic, the company told Reuters on Thursday.

The world’s largest online retailer will begin telling 125,000 warehouse employees in June that they can keep their roles longer-term. The remaining 50,000 workers it has brought on will stay on seasonal contracts that last up to 11 months, a company spokeswoman said.

The decision is a sign that Amazon’s sales have increased sufficiently to justify an expanded workforce for order fulfillment, even as government lockdowns ease and rivals open their retail stores for pickup.

Amazon started the hiring spree in March with a blog post appealing to workers laid off by restaurants and other shuttered businesses, promising employment “until things return to normal and their past employer is able to bring them back.”

Seattle-based Amazon did not disclose how much it was spending to make the positions permanent and whether that cost would be in addition to the $4 billion it has forecast for virus-related expenses.

The permanent roles come with benefits that seasonal workers lack, such as employer-offered health insurance and retirement plans.

Some Amazon staff, unions and elected officials have said the company has put employees’ health at risk by keeping nearly all its warehouses operational during the pandemic. At least 800 U.S.-based workers have tested positive for the highly contagious virus, according to figures compiled by one employee, which Amazon has not commented on.

The company has increased cleaning, added social distancing measures and offered face masks, fever checks and virus tests in response.

Amazon said it had 840,400 full and part-time staff at the end of last quarter while it still was in the process of hiring. It has not reported an updated number.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

A day in the life of an Amazon courier on the frontlines of the U.S. pandemic

By Nathan Frandino and Shannon Stapleton

DUBLIN, Calif. (Reuters) – Excelso Sabulao delivers groceries for Amazon.com Inc in California so he can help provide his parents an income. Now, with endless interactions at stores and at homes during a pandemic, he worries his work will kill them.

“I’m just putting my faith in God that, you know, somehow while doing this, I’m going to be spared,” he said. “Once I get it, I’m going to spread it at home. And you know, it’s like bringing (a) death sentence to my parents.”

Sabulao, 35, is one of countless Amazon contractors shuttling food and staples that consumers depend on to their doorsteps, with nearly all of the U.S. population under government stay-at-home orders. Yet he and other drivers say they feel short-changed by Amazon for not giving them more pay or protections, as frontline workers in a global pandemic.

On Monday morning, Sabulao commuted about an hour to Dublin, a city in the San Francisco Bay Area, to pick up grocery orders from Amazon-owned Whole Foods. He lives in Stockton with his mother, who suffered a mild stroke three years ago, and his father, who is on a virus-related leave from Walmart Inc. For Sabulao, taking care of his parents – vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus, he said – is part of Filipino culture.

Donning a white face mask, Sabulao towed two shopping carts overflowing with brown paper bags that were stamped with a logo for Amazon’s loyalty club Prime. He started loading his car in a parking spot for Amazon Flex, a program that lets contractors like himself sign up for delivery times with their own vehicles. He quickly filled up the trunk and began lining bags and other packages along the back seat of his car.

The harrowing part of the shift was over. What Sabulao had feared most, he said, was having to fetch those orders from the Whole Foods staging area where other drivers stood side by side, disregarding health officials’ recommendation to stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart. Sabulao had to open the same storage coolers that they did, and he generally has no time to use a wipe, he said.

“It’s making me paranoid,” said Sabulao. “You’re handling stuff that other people already put their hands into, and maybe if they have coughed – I don’t know.”

Amazon said gloves, masks and sanitizer are available at the Dublin Whole Foods store and across its facilities. “We remain committed to keeping our teams healthy and safe,” the company said, adding that it was requiring social distancing among staff and telling delivery workers to stay further apart from customers.

Sabulao took off his mask and started driving. At his destination, he scanned a code on grocery packages using his smartphone and took those to the shopper’s doorstep.

He has wanted to minimize customer contact as much as possible. Amazon’s app lets him text shoppers to inquire where to leave the items and share his estimated time of arrival.

Still, across 21 deliveries Monday, there was no avoiding face time. One woman was in her driveway when Sabulao arrived, so he put the groceries down next to her car. At another home, a customer opened the door, got on her knees and started wiping down the items she had ordered.

The work at times has been worth the trouble. Sabulao recalled how around the start of the pandemic, one shopper’s generous tip bumped his $10 pay up to $83 for a delivery that lasted less than 30 minutes. He earned $289 in over seven hours Monday, more than half of which came from tips. Earning $200 is typical for that amount of time, he said.

Increasingly he feels the reward is changing. Now rare surge pay for warehouse deliveries means he may make less than before, and he fears his personal supply of wipes will run out. He wishes Amazon would give him and other contractors sanitizer.

“We’re risking our lives, literally, risking our life delivering packages,” he said. But quitting is not an option.

“I have bills to pay. That’s it,” he said.

(Reporting by Nathan Frandino and Shannon Stapleton in Dublin, California; Writing and additional reporting by Jeffrey Dastin; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Amazon testing disinfectant fog at New York warehouse after coronavirus protests

By Jeffrey Dastin

(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc is testing the use of disinfectant fog at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York starting on Tuesday, the company told Reuters, following worker protests over the risk of coronavirus infection at the site.

The measure shows how the world’s largest online retailer is aiming to increase safety cleaning without closing facilities essential to its operation, as some workers and elected officials have demanded.

Amazon said it is trying out disinfectant fog as used by airlines and hospitals to further sanitize its facilities. The pilot program follows an announcement last week that the company would check workers’ temperature and make masks available at all U.S. and European sites in its operations network.

“We continue to explore even more preventative measures to support the health and safety of employees, who are providing a critical service in our communities,” Amazon said in a statement.

The New York warehouse, known internally as JFK8, is one of several locations where small groups of Amazon employees have walked out to highlight the risks they face from working where colleagues have become infected with the virus, which causes the sometimes deadly COVID-19 respiratory illness.

The virus has led to at least 80,000 deaths globally and infected more than 1.4 million people – including workers at more than 50 Amazon facilities, according to a New York Times report. New York is currently the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak with by far the most confirmed COVID-19 cases and related deaths.

The company has said it is requiring staff to keep safe distances from each other.

The Staten Island warehouse drew particular attention after Amazon fired an employee on paid quarantine for participating in a protest last week that he helped organize.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union called on company executives to resign after an internal document leaked, in which Amazon’s general counsel described that employee as “not smart, or articulate.”

The general counsel then issued a statement saying frustration over the health risks created by the employee had clouded his judgment.

(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Editing by Chris Reese and Bill Berkrot)

Amazon warehouse workers protest near Detroit

(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc on Wednesday said a handful of workers staged a demonstration at one of its warehouses near Detroit, reflecting the ongoing concerns among its staff about contracting the coronavirus on the job.

Less than 15 of Amazon’s more than 4,000 employees at its Romulus, Michigan fulfillment center participated, following confirmation that a worker based there had tested positive for the virus, the company said.

Those protesting have demanded Amazon shut down the facility for additional cleaning and cover all medical bills for associates and their family members who contracted COVID-19 from the site, according to a Facebook live stream of the demonstration.

(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Editing by Chris Reese)

Factbox: Coronavirus cases reported at 13 of Amazon’s U.S. warehouses

Factbox: Coronavirus cases reported at 13 of Amazon’s U.S. warehouses
(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc is at the front line of responding to outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in the United States, delivering essential goods while about half the population faces government stay-at-home orders.

However, news reports that a handful out of Amazon’s hundreds of thousands of U.S. warehouse workers have contracted the virus raise the potential of future site closures and operational disruptions at the world’s largest online retailer.

The following is a list of 13 company warehouses across the United States where one or more instances of COVID-19 have been reported. Amazon, which did not respond to Reuters requests that it confirm all the cases, said in a statement that it has taken preventive action and that workers’ health and safety is its top priority.

According to logistics consultancy MWPVL International Inc, Amazon has 519 facilities in its U.S. distribution infrastructure — including fulfillment centers, delivery stations and warehouses.

QUEENS, NEW YORK – On March 19, Amazon said it was temporarily closing delivery station DBK1 after an associate there tested positive for the virus. It was the first known case at an Amazon warehouse in the United States.

SHEPHERDSVILLE, KENTUCKY – Amazon said it shut a warehouse until April 1 at the direction of the state’s governor. Several workers at the site, known as SDF9, had contracted COVID-19. The facility handles apparel and footwear, according to MWPVL.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA – A worker at Amazon’s OKC1 fulfillment center said until he had tested positive, he needed to keep working to pay his bills. “I hope I didn’t spread it,” he told local television station News 4.

BROWNSTOWN, ROMULUS and SHELBY CHARTER TOWNSHIP, MICHIGAN – Three facilities near Detroit have had cases of the virus, including an Amazon sortation center and two Amazon fulfillment centers , the company said in local media reports.

WALLINGFORD, CONNECTICUT – Amazon told local broadcaster WTNH last week  that it was supporting a now-quarantined individual at its facility here who had the coronavirus. The site has stayed open, the report said.

JOILET, ILLINOIS – A worker, who was last at a fulfillment center in this city southwest of Chicago on March 18 and now is in quarantine, caught the virus, Amazon said to the Herald-News.

KATY, TEXAS – Amazon told local news  that a management team member at a delivery station outside Houston had tested positive for the disease.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA – A fulfillment center employee tested positive for the virus, Amazon told local news , which quoted an anonymous worker as saying the person was “upset, angry, scared — basically in fear for my safety, in my own immediate (family’s) safety.”

MORENO VALLEY, CALIFORNIA – Amazon notified employees at its “ONT8” fulfillment center that a worker had contracted COVID-19. Last at the facility on March 18, the person has since received medical care and has gone into quarantine, the Desert Sun reported.  The warehouse is continuing operations, the report said.

STATEN ISLAND, NEW YORK – CNN has reported  that a worker at a fulfillment center in New York City’s least-populated borough had the virus.

EDISON, NEW JERSEY – Local news reported  that an employee at the facility southwest of New York had tested positive for the virus.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Exclusive: Amazon stops receiving non-essential products from sellers amid coronavirus outbreak

By Krystal Hu

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc  is suspending sellers from sending non-essential products to its U.S. and U.K. warehouses until April 5 in the latest move to free up inventory space for much-needed supplies that are in shortage as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

In a note sent to sellers on Tuesday, Amazon said it is seeing increasing online shopping demand from consumers. As its household staples and medical supplies are running out of stock, it will prioritize certain categories in order to “quickly receive, restock, and ship these products to customers.”

Amazon defined five categories as essential products that can continue shipping, including Baby Product, Health & Household, Beauty & Personal Care, Grocery, Industrial & Scientific, Pet Supplies.

The move follows Amazon’s announcement it will hire 100,000 workers for its warehouses on Monday, as the Seattle-based giant is trying to meet growing online shopping need from people who stay home amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Third-party sellers account for over half of the sales on Amazon. Amazon has been courting sellers to use its own fulfillment system, enabling many of them with faster delivery without the risks of sitting on inventories.

It is especially popular for sellers who use a dropping shipping method, meaning sellers import products from manufacturers in countries including China and directly send them to an Amazon warehouse. Amazon earns fees from managing the storage and delivery process.

Sellers supplying products that are deemed non-essential could see their products run out of stock and they will be unable to restock as a result of the measure. Still, they can use other fulfillment methods to directly mail products to customers.

Amazon did not immediately replied to request for comment.

(Reporting by Krystal Hu; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Amazon bars one million products for false coronavirus claims

By Jeffrey Dastin

(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc has barred more than 1 million products from sale in recent weeks that had inaccurately claimed to cure or defend against the coronavirus, the company told Reuters on Thursday.

Amazon also removed tens of thousands of deals from merchants that it said attempted to price-gouge customers. The world’s largest online retailer has faced scrutiny over the health-related offers on its platform, and earlier this week Italy launched a probe into surging prices around the internet for sanitizing gels and hygiene masks while it battled the biggest outbreak in Europe.

The coronavirus has caused at least 2,797 deaths globally. New reported infections around the world now exceed those from mainland China, where the flu-like disease arose two months ago out of an illegal wildlife market. Governments from Australia to Iran have closed schools, scrapped events and stockpiled medical supplies to contain the virus’s spread.

One offer comparison site showed recent examples of higher-than-usual prices for masks on Amazon made by U.S. industrial conglomerate 3M Co.

A merchant Thursday offered a 10-pack of N95 masks for $128, a Reuters reporter saw when clicking through the buying options on Amazon. That was up from a recent seller average price of $41.24, according to the tracking website camelcamelcamel.com. The item was no longer available in a check later in the day.

A two-pack respirator was offered new at $24.99 earlier this week by a third-party seller, up from a recent average of $6.65 when sold by Amazon, the price-following site showed.

“There is no place for price gouging on Amazon,” a spokeswoman said in a statement, citing the company’s policy that product information must be accurate and that Amazon can take down offers that hurt customer trust, including when pricing “is significantly higher than recent prices offered on or off Amazon.”

It declined to specify the exact threshold at which an item is considered unfairly priced.

The company said it has monitored for price spikes and false claims through a mix of automated and manual review of listings.

(This story refiles to delete extraneous words in second paragraph)

(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Editing by Peter Henderson and Cynthia Osterman)

Britain to United States: We want a trade deal and a digital tax

Britain to United States: We want a trade deal and a digital tax
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain wants a trade deal with the United States but will impose a digital service tax on the revenue of companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, business minister Andrea Leadsom said on Thursday.

“The United States and the United Kingdom are committed to entering into a trade deal with each other and we have a very strong relationship that goes back centuries so some of the disagreements that we might have over particular issues don’t in any way damage the excellent and strong and deep relationship between the U.S. and the UK,” Leadsom told Talk Radio.

“There are always tough negotiations and tough talk but I think where the tech tax is concerned it’s absolutely vital that these huge multinationals who are making incredible amounts of income and profit should be taxed and what we want to do is to work internationally with the rest of the world to cover with a proper regime that ensures that they’re paying their fair share.”

Under the British plan, tech companies that generate at least 500 million pounds ($657 million) a year in global revenue will pay a levy of 2% of the money they make from UK users from April 2020.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft; writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Kate Holton)