Amazon vs. Its Workers

Katie Tracy

April 3, 2020

Amazon's response to the coronavirus pandemic is the latest in a long line of instances where the company has put profit ahead of the health, safety, and economic well-being of its workforce. According to Amazon employees at its fulfillment centers and Whole Foods stores, the company is refusing to provide even basic health and safety protections for workers in jobs where they could be exposed to coronavirus.

In Staten Island, New York, several Amazon warehouse workers organized a walk-out after multiple co-workers tested positive for COVID-19 and the company refused to shut down the facility for deep cleaning. In response, the company fired Christian Smalls, an employee who participated in and helped organize the protest. Amazon claims it fired Smalls because the company had put him on paid leave for 14 days and asked him to remain home in self-quarantine after he was exposed to another Amazon associate confirmed to have COVID-19. However, leaked notes from an internal Amazon meeting reveal a strategy to smear Smalls and “make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” Smalls told ABC News that the company put him on quarantine in an effort to silence him and prevent the protest from happening. He has also written an open letter to Jeff Bezos explaining his perspective and reminding Amazon that its workers hold the power. The potentially retaliatory firing sparked outrage, and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio responded by ordering the city's Commission on Human Rights to investigate. Letitia James, the New York State Attorney General, issued a statement saying she had asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate the incident, as well.

The Staten Island warehouse isn't the only facility with workers who have tested positive. NPR reported that as of March 30, at least 11 warehouses have workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and one warehouse in Kentucky was forced to close temporarily. Rather than deep-clean all facilities where coronavirus is present, Amazon is making decisions on whether to close and clean facilities on a case-by-case basis, factoring in such considerations as where sick workers were in the building and for how long.

Whole Foods workers are also organizing to demand safer and healthier working conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic. On March 31, Whole Worker – a collective of Whole Foods employees – organized a nationwide "sick out," calling for a host of new policies and equipment to protect them on the job, including:

  • Guaranteed paid leave for all workers who isolate or self-quarantine instead of coming to work.
  • Reinstatement of health care coverage for part-time and seasonal workers.
  • Increased FSA funds to cover coronavirus testing and treatment of all team members, including part-time and seasonal workers.
  • Guaranteed hazard pay in the form of double pay during scheduled hours.
  • Implementation of new policies that can facilitate social distancing between workers and customers.
  • Commitment to ensuring that all locations have adequate sanitation equipment and procedures in place.
  • Immediate shutdown of any location where a worker tests positive for COVID-19. In such an event, all workers should continue to receive full pay until the store can safely reopen.

Since the emergence of the coronavirus in the United States, Amazon has instituted some changes to its employment policies but ignored the most crucial requests of its frontline employees. The company is increasing the pay of hourly employees by $2 per hour through April and doubling the hourly base rate for each overtime hour worked through May 9. The company is providing paid sick leave to employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine. It has also granted all hourly employees unlimited unpaid time off through the end of March without assigning attendance points. Amazon is taking small measures to encourage social distancing, such as reducing standing-only meetings on the warehouse floor, but it has not distanced workers in its fulfillment centers or taken adequate measures to protect Whole Foods workers from customers (the small Plexiglas shields it has installed are helpful but hardly adequate to deter the highly contagious coronavirus).

Amazon's failure to step up to protect its workforce – the backbone of its operation – in their greatest time of need is disheartening. What makes it even more alarming, however, is that the company claims it is an "industry leader" on safety. At an American Bar Association (ABA) conference on March 5 – as coronavirus was spreading rapidly in Seattle and making its way across the country – Amazon's Vice President for Global Safety, Heather MacDougall, told a room full of mostly management-side and government attorneys that the company seeks to be a model for other workplaces to follow. MacDougall claimed that Amazon's "customers, peers, regulators, and employees" all expect the company to be the "best in class" at everything. Amazon doesn't seek merely to comply with the law, according to MacDougall; it strives to be a leader on workplace safety and to raise the bar to serve as a model for other companies to follow. Notably, MacDougall's presentation was not without controversy, as reported by The Washington Post. Amazon workers and community members also protested Amazon's horrendous working conditions at the ABA conference. Watch a video clip here.

For a company with a health and safety team of more than 25,000 professionals globally that claims it wants to lead on these issues, why is it ignoring calls by its employees on the ground to provide faster and better relief? Amazon, with a net worth of roughly $1 trillion, certainly doesn't lack the capital to respond. And coming up with innovative solutions to shield workers and institute sufficient social distancing practices shouldn't be difficult for the technology behemoth.

Amazon workers see the writing on the wall: The company currently views them as expendable. Without these frontline workers, however, families across our nation wouldn't have ready access to groceries and household goods that make it possible for the masses to shelter-in-place. Amazon employees are our family members, friends, and neighbors. They deserve every one of the policies they're calling for, and much more. Amazon should take action now and keep lines of communication open so it can continue to respond to the needs of its workforce as the pandemic drags on.

Read More by Katie Tracy
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