Peel Public Health has ordered an Amazon warehouse in Brampton to cancel all shifts after more than 200 workers have tested positive in a COVID-19 outbreak.
The order, issued under health protection laws, also mandates that all workers at the online retail giant’s Heritage Road facility self-isolate for two weeks following an investigation by the health unit. Workers who tested positive in the last 90 days and have finished their quarantine are excluded from the order.
Some 617 of the warehouse’s 5,000 employees have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic — with 240 in the last several weeks, medical health officer Dr. Lawrence Loh said Friday.
“Over the past few weeks, the rate of COVID-19 infection across Peel has been decreasing while the rate inside this facility has been increasing significantly,” the health unit said in a statement.
“Peel Public Health has been working closely with Amazon Canada to get this outbreak under control. This order will allow Amazon Canada further time to consider additional operational changes recommended by Peel Public Health that may help prevent outbreaks in future.”
Loh said mass testing at the warehouse indicated a “broader spread throughout different clusters in the facility.”
“It’s for that reason that we said, it’s time to move to a more more stringent closure to try to get this under control.”
A spokesman for Amazon Canada argued there is little risk of catching the virus within the facility, telling The Canadian Press that a recent round of tests came back with a positivity rate of less than one per cent.
“We do not believe the data supports this closure and we will appeal this decision,” Dave Bauer said in an email. “This closure may have some short-term impact on our Canadian customers, but we will work to recover as quickly as possible.”
Service along Brampton’s Steeles West corridor was suspended by the local transit authority last week because of an outbreak at a “large logistic business,” but Loh said there was as yet no evidence linking the two events.
Last year, a Star investigation found Amazon had rescinded a $ 2-an-hour pay bump for warehouse workers implemented earlier in the pandemic, and reinstated disciplinary measures aimed at workers deemed unproductive. Temporary workers at Amazon’s warehouses do not have paid sick days.
“This is something that we all knew would happen,” said Gagandeep Kaur, an organizer with the Warehouse Workers Centre.
Listen to Sara Mojtehedzadeh discuss the Star investigation
“From the beginning we had heard from the workers about lack of social distancing and company policies about penalizing them about production — which actually discourage them to follow any of the safety protocols.”
Amazon has previously said it invested $ 45 million in COVID-related precautions such as enhanced cleaning measures and providing those diagnosed with the virus two paid weeks off.
The company has several other warehouses in the GTA, including one on Winston Churchill Boulevard in Brampton, and one in Mississauga.
Warehouses have been hard-hit by COVID-19 outbreaks, especially in Peel Region — which is home to more than 80 per cent of the GTA’s employees in that sector.
Last month, Ontario’s Labour Ministry launched an inspection blitz of warehouses in Peel, which found 43 per cent of the 208 warehouses visited were not compliant with health and safety requirements.
Loh said he has asked Amazon to support workers as they self-isolate, including paid sick leave — calling the order to temporarily shutter the warehouse a “difficult decision.”
Amazon said Friday the employees will be paid while in quarantine, in accordance with company policy.
Loh said the facility was in “a vulnerable community and employs thousands of people.”
“Immediate action must be taken to protect these essential workers and the community where they live,” he said.
“Essential workers remain the backbone of our community and I continue to urge both employers and policy-makers to provide paid sick leave to anyone impacted by COVID-19.”