Why did Amazon go public with the Covid-19 case count for its US workers?

Keeping up with demand.
Keeping up with demand.
Image: Reuters/Alex Gallardo
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For the first time, Amazon has publicly disclosed that 19,816 of its frontline US employees have tested positive or been presumed positive for Covid-19.

That would imply a positivity rate of about 1.4%, based on the total headcount of frontline US workers—more than 1.37 million of them—employed by the company’s Amazon and Whole Foods businesses from March 1 to Sept. 19.

Until now, the company had declined to disclose the total number of Covid-19 cases in its facilities. In a 60 Minutes interview aired in early May on CBS, Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of global operations, said, “I don’t have the number right on me at this moment because it’s not a particularly useful number.”

So why did Amazon decide to release the data now?

Was it for the good PR?

It’s impossible to ignore that these numbers make Amazon look good. The company’s reported positivity rates, which it broke out by state, were below the average rates in 49 of the 50 US states. (The only state where the rate of employee cases was higher than the general population positivity rate was West Virginia.)

The e-commerce giant says it should have been expected to see 33,952 cases nationally, had its positivity rate been equal to that of the general US population over the same period. The actual number of positives at Amazon was 42% below the expected rate.

That’s excellent news for Amazon on several fronts, as it:

It’s unclear whether the company would have reported the case numbers if they were less favorable. Also unclear is whether the tested employees include temporary workers and contractors, such as delivery drivers and customer representatives. Quartz has reached out to Amazon for comment.

Was it for the chance to get other companies to follow suit?

Amazon has been facing calls from employees and government officials to disclose the number of Covid-19 cases at its facilities. There have been at least eight confirmed coronavirus deaths of Amazon employees.

It is not mandatory for a company to disclose infections to workers, unless they are identified as close contacts of the ill colleague and subject to quarantine. Meat processing company Tyson has also released its Covid-19 numbers recently, after facing pressure from labor groups to do so.

The decision by Amazon to shed light on its Covid-19 data could pressure more big companies to follow. In the blog post detailing its employee case count, Amazon concludes: “This information would be more powerful if there were similar data from other major employers to compare it to.” The company cites a desire to benchmark progress and share best practices across industries, adding, “We hope sharing this data and our learnings will encourage others to follow, and will prove useful as states make decisions about reopening public facilities and employers consider whether and how to bring people back to work.”

Amazon notes that it has been building out its testing capacity and expects to be conducting 50,000 tests a day by November, across 650 work sites.