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Amazon Workers Organize for Health & Safety Before COVID-19 Spreads Further

Peter Rugh Mar 31

Where exactly is the richest man on Earth right now? 

Perhaps he is at the Beverly Hills mansion he purchased in February from David Geffen, after hammering out the details of the $165 million purchase on the entertainment mogul’s private yacht, the Rising Sun. He could be at his 29,000-square-foot estate in Seattle, his Texas ranch or one of his three interlinked New York City apartments, though the latter is unlikely given that the city is now the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. 

Hell, Jeff Bezos could be squirreled away at any one of the half-dozen or so sprawling properties in his possession. We do, however, know where his sprawling, low-wage workforce is. Whether shelving organic produce at Bezos’ high-end grocery chain or packaging boxes at warehouses across the world for that online retail monopoly of his — his employees are on the job and, in some cases, putting their lives at risk. 

How much longer will be that the case? We shall see. 

Workers crowded in at multiple Amazon distribution hubs here in the states have fallen ill with COVID-19 in recent weeks. At Amazon’s Staten Island facility, employees warn at least 10 people have contracted it, contradicting the company, which claims only one worker at the site has been sickened. 

On Monday, several dozen workers at the facility staged a walkout. Among their demands, child care, hazard pay beyond the two-dollar raise they have received and improved onsite medical care. But first and foremost workers are demanding that the warehouse be shut down and cleaned and that they receive two-weeks sick pay while they quarantine themselves. 

“It’s difficult to close a business for 3–4 weeks,” one of their hand-written signs read. “It’s more difficult to close a casket on a loved one for life!!!” 

“We’re not done here,” said Chris Smalls, speaking outside of the factory. “Today was a cry for help.” 

Later that evening, Smalls was fired.

Make the Road, a member organization of Athena, a coalition of community, faith and labor groups fighting for improved pay, safety and working conditions at Amazon facilities, expects more company backlash to follow. 

“Amazon is going to do everything in its power to try and make sure this strike in Staten Island does not inspire more worker actions across the country,” said Angeles Solis who leads Make the Road’s Workplace Justice Team. “They’ve begun targeting our leaders, they’ve retaliated against the organizers inside of the warehouse and I’m sure that they’re going to try to find ways to downplay the numbers of people speaking out against this. But the truth is, Amazon wouldn’t be trying so hard to cover up what’s been going on if there wasn’t truth to what workers were saying.”

While Make the Road expects more reprisals, it and its Athena partners are also planning more protests. Workers at Whole Foods outlets nationwide staged a sick-out on Tuesday. They are demanding free coronavirus testing for all employees and, like their warehouse counterparts, hazard pay that is double current wages. 

The protest is part of growing unrest among workers who are providing essential services amid this pandemic, be they medical workers, taxi drivers, delivery workers or Jeff Bezos’ employees. Amid the outbreak, they are keeping society functioning, all while receiving minimal wages and benefits. The $120 billion man himself acknowledged as much in a letter to his workforce last week in which he noted the “vital service” Amazon was providing by fulfilling the millions of orders it has received. But after the mouse is clicked, it’s people who fulfill those orders. 

Not that Amazon has ceased shipping non-essential items. Everything from bowling balls to edible glitter remains available for purchase. Given that COVID-19 can linger on surfaces like cardboard for 24-hours and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel, the company’s lack of health and safety precautions could spread the disease far beyond its warehouses. 

When mandatory overtime is required, Amazon sends each warehouse employee texts but has been sluggish and often radio silent when it comes to sharing information about coronavirus. Twelve days prior to the Staten Island strike, employees at an Amazon facility in Queens walked out after word spread among them that one of their colleagues was infected. The warehouse was cleaned and reopened that day. At the Staten Island warehouse, which employs 4,000 people, many workers only learned that at least one of their coworkers was sick through word of mouth and several days after the employee tested positive for the virus on March 12. 

“Jeff Bezos can either choose to listen to workers, take appropriate measures to shut down the warehouse for cleaning and commit to independent inspections for cleaning,” says Solis. “He has more than enough warehouses still operating around the country. He can close the warehouses where cases have shown up as positive. And then ensure that workers aren’t going to get sick from this and that customers won’t either.”

Amazon closed its Shepherdsville, Kentucky facility last week, but only after the state’s governor ordered it to do so. Make the Road and their partners with the Athena coalition are urging those concerned about conditions at Amazon’s facilities to call and write their elected officials and demand the company do the same in Staten Island and elsewhere where the virus has been detected.  

UPDATE: Amazon, which disputes our reporting, sent us the following statement after this article was published:

“Of the more 5,000 employees at our Staten Island site, 15 people — less than half a percent of associates— participated in the demonstration. Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis. Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable. We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances and, in Staten Island, we are now temperature checking everyone entering the facility. The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day.” — Av Zammit, Amazon spokesperson.

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