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At an Amazon warehouse, COVID-19 and the holidays keep employees busy with purpose



(NEW YORK) — Jared Holmes-Robinson has been nothing short of busy this year. He’s one of the thousands of Amazon delivery drivers across the country who’ve been working nonstop throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and now, the holiday season.

Holmes-Robinson starts his day delivering packages to over 100 homes before most people have woken up, and he takes pride in providing the essential service.

“I lost my father back in June, so what I would do is I would go to the store and get stuff for him as well. So I know how important it is — someone to be able to deliver for them like that, and be able to be there on time so that they can have what they need,” Holmes-Robinson, 32, who has been working for Amazon since losing his job at a solar panel company a year ago, told ABC News’ Nightline co-anchor Juju Chang.

“I feel like a hero, a knight in shining armor. Here I come with my packages in my hand and my rabbit in the other,” he added, referring to the device drivers use to scan each package and navigate their routes.

While many companies were set back from the economic downturn of the pandemic, Amazon, a trillion-dollar company, saw its profits triple from a year ago. After hiring an additional 250,000 employees to meet the demand, their ranks now top a million, according to John Felton, the company’s vice president of global delivery services.

“We were all trying to figure out, ‘OK, what’s the next thing coming,’ and the waves were very interesting,” he said. “Initially, it was toilet paper, it was essential goods. It was cleaning supplies, and then it evolved into, ‘How do you live at home?’ So, home gym equipment, office supplies, printers, computers. And now it’s evolving into the more traditional gifting.”

Hitha Herzog, a retail analyst and chief research officer at H Squared Research, says that from a business perspective, the company is on a path to domination.

“They want to be the one-stop-shop for everyone,” she told Nightline. “They want people to watch their movies on their platform Amazon Prime, they want you to buy diapers from Amazon, they want you to buy your books [from Amazon]. … Amazon wants to be every fiber of what we do, and eventually, the trajectory that they’re on, that’s where they are heading.”

The company, with its large workforce and overwhelming market share in multiple industries, has faced repeated criticism for its company culture and business practices, which some believe stifle small businesses. In October, for example, some independent bookstores around the country launched the so-called “Boxed Out” campaign to draw attention to the threat they believe Amazon poses.

With fewer people shopping in person for the holidays this year, the company expects to deliver billions of packages around the world, an Amazon spokesperson told Nightline.

It all begins at one of the company’s massive warehouses, which are called fulfillment centers. At the one in Staten Island, one of New York City’s five boroughs, Amazon’s four-story fulfillment center is the size of 15 football fields. To help those working to pack orders, hundreds of robots move up to a million items a day throughout the warehouse.

The Staten Island fulfillment center employed 3,000 people before the pandemic. Since then, it’s ranks have grown to 4,000. Robert Nicoletti, who used to work on the technology side of finance and said he’s near the end of his career, is one person who recently joined as a packer.

After moving from a desk job to the fulfillment center, where he works 11-hour days four days a week, he says he’s “probably [in] as good of a shape as I’ve ever been as I get older.”

“Always moving, lifting things. So your arms build up,” Nicoletti said. “And you see how big the building is, length and everything. So we do a lot of walking, so it’s good physically for you.”

Tyneka McGlone has been a process assistant at Amazon for two years. Also known as a “picker,” her job is to grab the items and send them off to those who pack them into boxes.

Like Holmes-Robinson, she said she also recognizes the value Amazon brings to people, particularly older folks. She said her grandmother benefits from Amazon delivery.

“She’s elderly and she doesn’t drive anymore, and she lives in the south, so it’s harder for her to get out there,” McGlone said. “So, we order stuff for her. She orders stuff. … I know she’s not the only American who has this issue that is a little older, and they can’t get out like they used to. So it gives me a sense of, ‘Wow, I made a difference today.’”

But while the company has seen tremendous success over the last few months, it has also faced challenges and scrutiny. Early on in the pandemic, some employees organized walk-outs and protests over what they considered subpar COVID-19 safety measures and workplace conditions.

Felton said that when it comes to the issues critics have brought up, the company listens and responds. He said the company has fought for and encouraged other major retailers to institute a $15 an hour minimum wage and that it’s overhauled it’s COVID-19 safety protocols.

Today, at Amazon’s fulfillment centers, employees have thermal screening, on-site testing and tech that alerts them if they’re too close to one another.

Still, Felton said the company hasn’t been able to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks among its employees. The company had to shut down one of its New Jersey warehouses after a new outbreak emerged just this week and, in October, the company announced that 20,000 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 between March 1 and Sept. 19.

“It’s something that we take very seriously,” he said. “We’ve invested over $10 billion in COVID safety this year. We’ve actually even … created our own labs. We are now doing tests. We actually are testing an employee every 10 seconds.”

Felton says he’s excited to go to work every day knowing that he’s solving “huge problems for customers, especially in COVID.”

“I mean, when people are locked down, they’re looking for deliveries at their doorsteps [since] they don’t leave the house. Again, these essential goods,” he said. “It’s inspiring to see what employees are doing, what our drivers are doing every day to deliver all these items for customers.”

In order to meet the demand of all its customers, Amazon partners with millions of small businesses as well as independent delivery vendors, such as John Nicolaou, who has seen his fleet of delivery trucks grow from five to 61 in just a year. Each one with its own driver, who delivers packages for Amazon each day.

“Amazon has given me a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “I think we can all attest to how tough 2020 was. A lot of people are struggling, and Amazon has given me the opportunity to provide a lot of jobs, which is super gratifying.”

Those jobs are likely to exist even after we move past the pandemic, Herzog says.

“Once the pandemic hopefully subsides, sooner versus later, these jobs will more than likely stick around because the way we shop and the way that we do things, Amazon has changed the game,” she said. “This demand is going to stick around for a while.”

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