- Some engineers at Amazon's Lab126 hardware devices unit have been coming into the office over the past few months because their work can't be done at home.
- But now they're questioning why they have to continue to come in when the state has announced new stay-at-home orders that put in tighter limits to office work.
- At least one of the Lab126 engineers has been diagnosed with COVID-19 in recent weeks, and those who have come in contact with that person have been quarantining at home, Business Insider has learned.
- Some engineers have brought the issue to Amazon's human resources, asking for paperwork and more clarity on why they are deemed "essential" workers, when county guidelines don't specifically mention their roles.
- It's the latest workforce tension Amazon has faced during COVID over safety protocols, and gives a glimpse into the challenges the company could face if more workers return to the office next year.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Some of the engineers at Amazon's Lab126 hardware devices unit in California's Bay Area are questioning why they have to come into the office, when the state has put in new stay-at-home orders this month that put in tighter work restrictions, Business Insider has learned.
The question at stake is whether those hardware engineers should be deemed "essential workers," a designation that allows them to be in the office — and puts them at an increased exposure to the coronavirus. Lab126 is the team in charge of building Amazon's hardware devices, including the Echo and Fire TV.
At least one of the Lab126 engineers who has been coming into the office over the past few months contracted COVID-19 recently, according to people familiar with the matter. People who came into close contact with that employee have been quarantining at home in recent weeks, they said.
Most of the Lab126 engineers classified as essential are those who can't do their work at home because they review and check the quality of new products, these people said. But with this month's new state mandate, these engineers are demanding more information on whether the company's decision to have them in the office is in accordance with the government guidelines — and if Amazon has the proper paperwork to enforce the rules.
"Based on the Essential Workforce guideline published by the state of California, Amazon's Lab126 shouldn't be deemed an essential workplace during shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders," one Lab126 employee told Business Insider. "If employee safety is a priority for Amazon, why are engineers still allowed on-site working on non-infrastructural-critical or non-business-critical projects?"
The flare-up at Lab126 is the latest case of worker unrest Amazon has experienced during the pandemic, and gives a glimpse into the challenges the company could face if more workers return to the office next year. Most of Amazon's labor issues this year have erupted in its warehouses, where multiple protests and walkouts took place over its safety protocols.
While Amazon's leadership never explicitly told these engineers they're required to come into the office, the implicit message has been that their absence would be taken into account during annual reviews, effectively forcing them to be in the lab almost every day, these people said.
Some of the employees brought the issue directly to Amazon's human resources department, but they haven't received a clear explanation, they said.
In an email to Business Insider, Amazon's spokesperson said no Lab126 employee is "required" to come into the office, but a "very small number of roles" that are critical to the core operations of its devices business have been coming in. Those roles manage the technology that enable calling and messaging features and communications between doctors and their patients through Amazon devices, the spokesperson said.
"We continue to prioritize the health of our employees and follow local government guidance. Only a small number of essential employees are permitted to come into the Lab126 office if their work requires it," the spokesperson said.
The new California state mandate, announced on December 3, requires people to stay at home "as much as possible," as the significant increase in COVID-19 cases "threaten to overwhelm the healthcare delivery system."
Santa Clara County, where Amazon's Lab126 is located, said in its guidelines that "all individuals must stay home except as necessary to support or use critical infrastructure." Essential workers in the information technology sector include those in network maintenance and IT infrastructure roles, state guidelines say, but there's no mention of engineers for consumer gadgets, like those manufactured by Amazon's Lab126.
Still, the state and county guidelines are vague, making it difficult for companies like Amazon to give clear answers to concerned employees, according to Brad Bell, a human resources professor at Cornell University, whose research area includes virtual work. It's a tricky situation that requires a stronger balance between ensuring employee safety and meeting its own business goals during a pandemic-hampered year, he said.
"It's something every company is going to be struggling with, particularly as we move into next year," Bell told Business Insider.
Unlike other tech giants, like Facebook and Microsoft, that have announced some form of perpetual work-from-home policies, Amazon hasn't committed to any permanent changes yet. Most of Amazon's office workers, including many of its engineers, have been working from home since March, but that mandate is set to expire on June 30, 2021, the company previously announced.
In internal COVID-19 guidelines, Amazon says "employees should always adhere to local government restrictions regarding the ability to work in our offices." The company has also recently added new safety measures at Lab126 offices, including six-feet social distancing, thermal cameras at entrances, and mask requirements.
Amazon doesn't appear to be ready to make any imminent changes to its work-from-home policy. During an internal all-hands meeting in October, which Business Insider previously reported, Amazon's HR boss Beth Galetti told employees that it's "way too early" to make any long-term commitments to remote work, as the company is "learning as we go."
"In recent months, we've actually been seeing an increasing number of people start to come into the office," Galetti said. "We're learning that there's some types of work that work really well in a quiet, distraction-free environment. For some of us, that's our home. For some of us, that's definitely not our home."
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