When someone in Deepti Varma's family got affected with Covid-19 this year, it took her at least two days to find a hospital bed. The incident provided Varma, who is director of human resources at e-commerce giant Amazon India, with first-hand experience of the challenges that frontline employees would be going through and to find support.
“That really hit me,” said Varma. “Because people like us have got the financial support, but still, we were finding it difficult to find support.”
The experience helped her realise she had to look at the pandemic crisis holistically and reinforced the efforts of her team in making policies that support employees impacted by it.
Indeed, Jeff Bezos-led Amazon has been at the forefront of providing support to its employees and community in the country. These practices can also become a template for the corporate industry to manage the pandemic.
“Being the frontline e-commerce firm, we have a huge responsibility not just to ensure the safety of our employees but also our communities around our customers and partners,” said Varma.
The warrior ecosystem
Amazon India’s ‘Covid Warriors’ are helping colleagues and the community with critical resources amid the medical emergency that has accompanied the country's second Covid-19 surge.
At Amazon, employees have stepped up to help colleagues in need. This has turned into a full-fledged cause. A dedicated group of Covid Warriors are reaching out to offer aid and collaborate across the country to support those who require urgent medical help.
“Despite personal challenges, I am amazed to see how employees have come forward to help each other in the hour of need,” said Varma.
The team works round the clock and directly with HR and Benefits teams to support colleagues, their families, and friends. They are helping to find hospital beds, ambulances and isolation centres. They are also addressing queries on claims, insurance, leave and salary advances.
The group now spans many cities and is made up of over a thousand volunteers, with a plan to offer support in additional cities. These city bands work together to ensure a coordinated response for those in need across cities. Some of these places include Chandigarh, Coimbatore, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Mangalore. Other cities include Indore, Bhopal, Bhubaneswar, Lucknow, Jaipur and Salem.
Each city’s warrior band has a leader, a clear operating model, and rosters with a division of responsibilities and duty shifts. This decentralized framework is braced with central support from subject matter experts in HR, employee benefits, compliance, and other departments. They share regular updates and drive process improvements based on the Warriors’ feedback. There are also 100 plus volunteers whose role is to call people to support them and provide empathy.
These efforts had started with setting up a call centre to handle covid related calls. These calls were related to finding ambulances, hospital beds, medication, counselling and know-how of setting up an intensive care unit (ICU) at home.
“We realised that we need to put in a mechanism in order for us to scale it up,” said Varma.
What helped Amazon scale up these efforts is that it had conducted experiments related to remote working and setting up of virtual contact centres, before the outbreak of covid in India. It had also given the flexibility to the employees to work from home. After the pandemic hit the country, Amazon was one of the very few companies which were able to move 98 per cent of its employee base to work remotely within a few days.
Amazon employs almost 100,000 workers in India directly, including tens of thousands of employees in the many global technology teams based out of Bengaluru. Besides the staff in India, Amazon is also supporting the families of the employees who were transferred to different countries. One among them was an employee whose mother was admitted to the hospital. The employee’s father was alone at home and his oxygen level had started dipping.
“The employee was on a video call with his father trying to help,” said Varma. “He gave us a call at 1:00 am and by 4:00 am, we had the oxygen concentrator at his home.”
Sometimes the whole family is affected by covid. The firm has come up with a concept called ‘listening circles’ where people can share with their peers about what they are going through.
Though the firm has implemented covid policies globally, India is facing its own unique challenges. It is providing information to the employees about India specific needs like oxygen concentrators and vaccines and the resources available.
Amazon India is also taking its learnings from earlier on-site vaccination events for people above 45 years to bring Covid-19 vaccines to its front-line teams. It is hosting on-site vaccination events administered by licensed health care providers. It started the vaccine event with those on the frontline, delivering to its customers and will continue to expand when vaccines become more available.
The firm has made close to a hundred changes in its on-ground operations to maintain social distancing in its buildings and keep associates safe. Amazon said it adjusted practices within all its operations sites including fulfilment and sorting centres and delivery stations. This was done through new formats of communications, process changes, training methods and several policy changes.
In April, Amazon India said it will cover the Covid-19 vaccine cost for more than a million people. This includes its India employees, associates and sellers with active listings since last year. It also includes the operations partner network of delivery service partner associates and their eligible dependents.
It had introduced extensive safety measures along with other financial support initiatives. This includes comprehensive support mechanisms for employees including cost coverage for Covid-19 treatment, hospital search and coverage of prescribed Covid-19 tests. It also set up Amazon Relief Fund and Partner Support Fund for its operation partner network.
Amazon recently announced that it is arranging Covid-19 health insurance cover, completely free of cost for registered sellers on the Amazon.in marketplace, through Acko General Insurance Limited (Acko).
The firm is also working with sellers on its marketplace to help them bring in about 9,000 oxygen concentrators for customers in India. The aim is to address the growing customer demand and shortage of critical medical equipment.
Amazon’s global procurement teams are helping interested sellers from India connect with leading global suppliers to enable them to procure oxygen concentrators for customers in need. The firm’s global supply chain network is also helping urgently airlift these oxygen concentrators to India for these sellers.
As part of its commitment to help India fight the devastating second wave of Covid-19, Amazon recently announced it is importing and donating 100 ventilator units. The firm has also joined hands with multiple partners to urgently bring in over 10,000 oxygen concentrators and BiPAP (bi-level positive airway pressure) machines to India.
What the others are doing
Other companies such as Walmart, Flipkart, PhonePe and Walmart Foundation have also made commitments to support Covid-19 relief efforts in India. The companies have mobilised their efforts to fight the contagion in the country. They have taken efforts to strengthen the availability of oxygen, support the national vaccination drive, and donate to organisations that are working towards Covid relief in severely affected areas. These include smaller districts where the caseload is increasing.
Over the last few weeks, these companies have started distributing many of the supplies that were committed, which include 20 oxygen-generating plants, 20 cryogenic containers, more than 3,000 oxygen concentrators, and 500 oxygen cylinders.