The Amazon Effect   //   April 7, 2020

Concerns over Amazon’s warehouse work conditions have reached fever pitch

For years, Amazon has been lambasted for the conditions its non-corporate workers face. Former employees had come forward multiple times detailing long hours, menial pay and few benefits. Back then, many chalked it off as simply part of the Amazon grind; it was the everything store and it needed a large crew of people at the front lines making sure everything could be bought and shipped in a few days’ (or hours’) time.

These issues have crystallized and become more dire over the last few weeks. The spread of the novel coronavirus has caused an acceleration in demands for workers’ rights, as well as an influx of stories showcasing just how precarious it is to work in the on-demand age. Now, with an increasing number of Amazon workers testing positive for coronavirus, even more employees and advocates are coming forward demanding the facilities better protect its frontlines staff.

Increasingly precarious conditions
Workers at a Pennsylvania Amazon warehouse, for example, received word a week ago that three people at the warehouse had tested positive for the coronavirus. According to employees and those close to them, the company provided scant details about the local outbreak and dragged its feet to respond. “We’re called ‘essential’ because calling us ‘sacrificial’ would just be too honest,” wrote one employee on a Facebook post. “It was just business as usual,” said the daughter of a warehouse worker at that same facility. “They are trying to do social distancing, but at the same time they are working long hours,” she said.

This is just one of many recent examples. A group of Amazon workers walked out of their New York warehouse last week over the conditions they faced. Employees claimed the company wasn’t forthright with information about the number of cases the facility had. Additionally, Amazon allegedly let a worker suspected to have the virus continue working until a test came back positive.

Reached for comment, Amazon spokesperson Timothy Carter wrote, “We are following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our siteOur employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis—we have nearly 500,000 people in the U.S. alone supporting customers and we are taking measures to support each one.”

Now, with more concerned workers coming forward with stories, Amazon is beginning to make some changes. Warehouse workers, for example, are being offered unlimited time off, albeit unpaid. The company also said it would pay time off for employees who tested positive for coronavirus, although the New York Times reported that implementation of this new plan has been spotty. Amazon is also making inroads with test makers, trying to figure out ways to test employees for the sickness at scale. Amazon’s Carter added that the company has added an “additional $2 per hour, double time for overtime, and paid time off benefits for regular part-time and seasonal employees.”

Amazon isn’t the only company feeling the heat. Over the last week, a number of businesses that rely on scaled labor for so-called essential tasks have been called out for unsafe work environments. Instacart shoppers, for example, went on strike demanding better compensation and benefits for their work. Employees at Target’s Shipt delivery service are also reportedly planning a strike.

Put together, retail giants that have had long-simmer issues related to workers’ rights are being called to account with much greater velocity. With many people sheltering-in-place, and a generally understanding that anyone working in public is putting their health at risk — onlookers and those on the inside are increasingly calling for better protections for the people still providing everyday services. While some of the businesses have made changes, many workers don’t think it’s enough.

“You can’t clean what’s being used 24/7,” wrote one Amazon worker on Facebook. “They have been told to wear masks and keep six feet away — the use gloves and sanitize things,” said the daughter of one worker. “But obviously the place is already crowded.”

The Amazon spokesperson wrote that the company has “implemented proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance in the FC, and adding distance between drivers and customers when making deliveries.”

In Italy, Amazon agreed to new health and safety measures after workers went on strike for 11 days. “Amazon workers are speaking out across the globe because they need a real seat at the table in expressing their concerns,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in an emailed statement. “It took an 11-day strike for workers at one fulfillment center in Italy to win increased daily breaks, a detailed agreement on cleaning and sanitizing practices at the facility, and staggered break times and working distances.” The Union is calling for similar measures to be extended to warehouses in the United States.

No oversight
Meanwhile, those closest to these workers are fearful and aren’t sure where to turn. The Pennsylvania warehouse employee’s daughter, for example, tried to contact multiple authorities to report the conditions. Over the course of many hours she called the Governor’s office, OSHA, the local police and the local government — all of whom told her to call others. “No one is stepping in to keep things safe,” she said. “There has to be someone.”

Even corporate employees aren’t happy with the situation. “We are in a challenging and exceptional situation — but this type of behavior doesn’t align with our [leadership principles] or the image and values we try to embody when working with customers and candidates,” wrote an Amazon employee in an internal email that was published by Recode. “If this isn’t [a] situation where people should have backbone and insist on higher standards for our leadership then what are we even doing here.”

This all brings to light the uncertainty surrounding the essential/unessential divide. Amazon warehouse workers are technically considered essential, and the company stopped allowing shipments of what it considers non-essential items into its storage warehouses. But some employees questioned whether the work they were doing was actually necessary. Some employees posted pictures of boxes of power kids toys to social media; “Amazon has to earn its right to call itself an essential service,” a New York City-based warehouse employee told the New York Times.

Even with changes being made, some fear it may be too late. “Everything is preventable,” the warehouse employee’s daughter said. “We’re at a point where we can see where our mistakes are.” One of the most glaring issues, is figuring out what exactly is essential during this time. “Maybe people just don’t get two-day shipping,” she said.