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Amazon Worker Who Suddenly Died After Working in COVID Testing Area Complained About Unsafe Conditions

Poushawn Brown Amazon

“So what you’re saying is that Amazon will not be closing the warehouse and [having it] professionally cleaned and sanitized,” the late Poushawn Brown wrote to HR at the DDC3 Virginia warehouse in April 2020

Poushawn Brown, a 38-year-old Amazon worker who suddenly died in January after working in her Virginia warehouse’s COVID testing area for several months, complained to human resources and supervisors about Amazon’s unsafe and unsanitary conditions early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, emails obtained by Status Coup show.

On January 14th, Brown, who worked at Amazon for two years, came home from work not feeling well. She called her sister Christina and shared that her head hurt. The next morning, after Poushawn got her 12-year-old daughter Gabrielle ready for virtual school, she laid back in bed still feeling unwell. 

She never woke up.

Poushawn’s family couldn’t afford an autopsy to find out what caused her death. According to her sister and other sources who worked with her in the DDC3 warehouse in Virginia, Brown had been administering COVID-19 nasal swab tests on co-workers for months before her death. While doing so, she wasn’t provided the proper N-95 mask, surgical gloves, gowns, goggles, or other protective measures nurses and doctors are supposed to wear while conducting COVID-19 testing.

“Amazon should have hired or paid third-party companies with medical expertise to conduct testing,” Christian Smalls, an Amazon worker who was fired after blowing the whistle on the company’s unsafe conditions early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, told Status Coup. “As a result of this company cutting corners to save money, workers like Poushawn pay the price.”

In emails obtained by Status Coup, it’s clear Poushawn had expressed concerns multiple times to Amazon about the lack of cleaning and safety protocols that were being taken to keep workers safe early during the pandemic. 

On April 8th, 2020—a day in which over 2,000 Americans died from COVID-19—Brown emailed the HR department for DDC3 asking “is the warehouse going to be professionally cleaned and sanitized?”

An HR official responded 11 minutes later, telling Poushawn that Amazon had “implemented enhanced cleanliness and sanitation protocols across all facilities.”

The spokesperson offered a list of mostly non-enforceable measures the company had taken to ensure safety during the pandemic, including social distancing of  “6ft/2m from others at all times” and providing face masks in “limited quantities” for employees. Other items the HR official listed included Amazon taking employees’ temperatures on a daily basis and prohibiting workers from shaking hands or other physical greetings.

Having not received a direct answer on what Amazon was doing to clean and sanitize the warehouse, Brown responded to HR soon after: “So what you’re saying is that Amazon will not be closing the warehouse and professionally cleaned and sanitized.”

The next day, on April 9th, the HR official responded that “DDC3 is not closing.”

They added that the site was being “professionally cleaned and sanitized by our cleaning crew” and that Amazon was monitoring CDC, World Health Organization, and local health department guidance. But, according to Poushawn’s sister Christina—who was working with Poushawn at the Virginia warehouse at the time—Amazon was misleading in its response to Poushawn.

“There was no social distancing and face-masks weren’t mandatory until June,” Christina told Status Coup. She also revealed that the warehouse’s all-African American cleaning crew quit early on during the pandemic; they were quickly replaced by a majority Hispanic crew.

“People were concerned because they weren’t cleaning the trays, they weren’t cleaning the carts, or the scanners,” Christina said, explaining that the cleaning crew was mostly cleaning the walls and floors but didn’t touch the key equipment workers touched throughout the day.

When workers complained to supervisors that the carts and trays weren’t being cleaned, supervisors responded it wasn’t possible to clean them since employees were working on them all day. In response, employees proposed closing down the warehouse for a day or two for a deep clean.

“That’s not my call,” Christina recounted one manager saying. 

A day after HR told Poushawn they wouldn’t close down the warehouse, she anonymously emailed Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle. Instead of identifying herself under her actual name, Poushawn identified herself as “a concerned individual.”

“She was afraid,” Christina explained to Status Coup about why her sister remained anonymous when reaching out to the company’s corporate headquarters. 

 “They’ll start watching you and reprimanding you,” Christina said, noting that when workers made complaints, supervisors would do things like go to the break room to “make sure you don’t go over 15 minutes.” They would also write you up for frivolous reasons, she said. 

In the April 10th, 2020 email to corporate headquarters in Seattle, Poushawn anonymously wrote that “Amazon leadership is not concerned with their employees” and that they had been sending out multiple text messages to employees to come into work despite the raging pandemic.

“Amazon is allowing its employees to come to work and be exposed to COVID-19 and taking it home to their families,” Poushawn continued. “They are also not concerned if their customers become sick. There is no screening process for Flex Drivers that deliver a good portion of packages to customers.”

Poushawn revealed that the cleaning crew in the Virginia warehouse weren’t wearing masks, staying six-feet from one another, and could only get to the areas where employees weren’t working—like the bathrooms, the break area, and lobby.

“They can’t disinfect the carts, racks, and bags that the drivers and employees touch constantly,” Brown wrote. Poushawn revealed that three to four employees had tested positive in a span of a few days—but their co-workers were only notified after the fourth employee tested positive.

Poushawn explained that when workers asked for the warehouse to be closed for 48-to-72 hours for professional cleaning, the site manager turned them down, saying “we will not lose money [and] we still have to do the numbers [and] the site will remain open.”

“Employees and managers are scared for their lives and do not want to come to work until the site is cleaned,” Poushawn wrote, adding that workers were fearful of contracting the virus.

“Amazon does not offer insurance for 80% of the employees that work at the warehouse so if someone were to get sick, how will they receive medical treatment let alone pay for their, or their families, healthcare while contracting the virus,” she asked. Poushawn concluded that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos “has more than enough money to make these sites safe for his employees and customers.”

 

The unsafe conditions went beyond lack of cleaning. Early on during the pandemic, the entire Fresh [groceries] department had a COVID outbreak with eight employees testing positive, Christina shared, adding that other workers across different departments were coming in sick.

“Somebody had come in and thrown up,” she said. Poushawn wouldn’t clean it up, and the cleaning crew didn’t want to clean it up, yet Amazon still didn’t close the warehouse.

“I’ve seen that,” Smalls told Status Coup about seeing sick workers still being allowed to work in the Staten Island warehouse he worked in before getting fired. Smalls, whose firing from Amazon recently spurred charges against the company by New York Attorney General Leticia James, said those sick workers were “put back on the same stations without proper cleaning.”

Maurice BP-Weeks, who runs the Action Center on Race and the Economy, condemned Amazon’s exploitation of workers like Poushawn.

“The way they have their company set up, it’s impossible to have these workers—in many cases workers of color—to not be in a dangerous condition while they’re working,” BP-Weeks told Status Coup. “This is just a systematic oppression of workers of color that is really typical for the company and we’ve seen over and over again.”

Danny Cendejas, who helps runs the “For Us Not Amazon” Northern Virginia coalition, agreed, telling Status Coup: “Amazon makes money while harming black and brown communities environmentally, through technology with police and ICE, and similarly making billions and billions while our folks are struggling to make rent, pay bills, and go to the doctor during this pandemic.”

A month after Poushawn first complained to HR, word spread throughout the warehouse that a worker who had COVID was still working inside the warehouse.

“A manager knew about it and they didn’t say anything; they allowed them to work, that happened a lot,” Christina said. “People were coughing, but supervisors said it’s just the dust in the warehouse. It was the summertime, so what are you coming in coughing for? What do you have?”

At the end of May 2020, Christina was leaving work as Poushawn arrived for her shift.  According to Christina, both she and Poushawn were concerned about contracting COVID and bringing it home to their mother, who is paralyzed from the waist down and a diabetic with high blood pressure.

“We got into an argument because I said ‘what about mommy?'” Christina said. Poushawn asked her sister, “how are we going to find another job with all this COVID happening?”

Christina waited outside the warehouse as Poushawn went in to confront a supervisor about the sick worker being allowed to continue working. But her supervisor essentially blew her off, according to Christina. So Poushawn made a formal complaint to HR. In a May 30th email, obtained by Status Coup, an Amazon HR employee from Poushawn’s Virginia warehouse responded to her.

“I just wanted to let you know that we received your complaint from James and I have submitted the case. Consistent with our Investigations Process, your case will be assigned to an HR Investigator on our Central Investigations Team and they will likely contact you in the next 7 days.”

It’s unknown whether Brown ever received a response from HR with the findings of its investigation.

Since her death in January, Poushawn’s family has received little outreach or help from Amazon. When Christina approached the company seeking assistance to pay for an autopsy on Poushawn, an HR official said they would “see what they could do” and then never followed up. In a horrifying exchange, when Christina called Amazon’s Seattle headquarters to find out if Poushawn had life insurance, an employee made Poushawn’s grieving 12-year-old daughter Gabrielle get on the phone to provide her mother’s date of birth, social security number, and date of death. 

While this call was in progress, Christina called Status Coup. We listened in as she pushed back to the Seattle employee, explaining that she was Gabrielle’s guardian and that the employee was traumatizing the 12-year-old who was already grieving the loss of her mother and didn’t know the information she was asked. The Amazon corporate official said she was just following the company’s process.

While the Brown family continues to grieve, they’re left to wonder whether Poushawn contracted COVID at work.

“I’ll never know how my sister died, I’ll never know,” a tearful Christina said. “I’ll go on the rest of my life not knowing what happened to my sister. How does somebody 38-years-old die of natural causes in her sleep? We just didn’t have the money [for an autopsy]”

Although she doesn’t know if Poushawn had contracted COVID working inside the company’s COVID testing center, Christina said her sister had no business testing co-workers for COVID.

“She had no medical training, she wasn’t a nurse, she wasn’t a doctor,” Christina said. While dealing with the loss of her best friend, Christina said Amazon has barely picked up the phone.

“Nobody has called to say sorry, nobody has called to see if we need anything,” she said. The only call she received was soon after Poushawn’s death on her sister’s phone—from a supervisor asking why Poushawn wasn’t showing up to work.

When Christina informed the supervisor her sister had died, the supervisor didn’t express any sympathy for Christina’s loss, she said. They merely said Amazon would send Poushawn’s last paycheck and cash out her overtime.

For weeks, Amazon has refused to answer a variety of questions posed by Status Coup about Poushawn Brown’s death, including exactly what her role was working in the warehouse’s COVID testing area and why Amazon—which reached a $1 trillion market cap in 2020—had employees like Poushawn involved in COVID-19 testing rather than doctors and nurses.

When Status Coup approached Rena Lunak, Amazon’s Operations PR director, in January, she asked to speak off the record. We declined and pushed for the company to answer our questions on the record. 

When Status Coup reached out to for this story, Lunak again refused to answer specific questions, telling Status Coup: “Your facts and sources are wrong, but it’s clear that you’re more interested in telling a preconceived story than an accurate one, so we won’t have anything further for you.”

When Status Coup gave the spokesperson an opportunity to correct any perceived falsehoods, she didn’t respond. 

In the two months since Brown’s death, the only assistance Amazon had offered her family is two months of counseling for Poushawn’s 12-year-old daughter Gabrielle.

“Only two months of counseling, which will expire in April,” Christina said, adding that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had enough money to hire doctors to come and test Amazon employees.

“He had enough money to open a small clinic just to test Amazon employees,” she said. “It is disgusting, I feel no one from Amazon cares.”

With her sister gone, Christina has assumed a full-time caretaker role for their mother, who has refused to eat following Poushawn’s death. She is also raising Gabrielle, who was extremely close with her mother.  Thus far, Christina has raised $41,000 dollars via GoFundMe to help care for her paralyzed mother, raise Gabrielle, and potentially sue Amazon. Her goal is to raise $100,000.

As the pandemic continues, Christina and her family are left to grieve. Poushawn was a “beyond loving, sweet, and caring person,” Christina said. “She never said no, she loved everyone. She loved to bake, do hair and makeup, and she loved her family. 

Beyond the anguish of losing her sister, Christina told Status Coup there’s one thing she can’t stop thinking about.

“You had a worker who died, whether it was COVID that she caught or something else, she just dropped dead and died,” Christina said. “Don’t you think we should send her mother some f**king flowers or a piece of fruit?”

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