Amazon Workers Struggle to Stay Safe as Company Swells

The delivery giant is likely to come out of the coronavirus crisis even more powerful.

A man delivers an Amazon parcel in Paris
A man crosses a street as he delivers an Amazon parcel in Paris on March 19, the third day of a strict lockdown in France to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

When the world finally emerges from the coronavirus it will look very different. Many people, especially the elderly, will be dead. Economies will be in a deep hole, comparable to the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929. Governments, impacted by the economic knock-on effects, will fall.

Some things will stay the same, however. One of those is Amazon. The world’s most valuable multinational company will accrue even more power during the crisis as increasing numbers of us stay at home and rely on remote delivery of everyday essentials. Amazon has already experienced a surge in online orders as populations begin to isolate themselves.

In order to cope this with increased demand, the company says it intends to hire 100,000 extra warehouse and delivery staff in the United States alone. Workers in Amazon’s U.K. distribution centres have been ordered to work overtime to tackle increased demand caused by the pandemic.

Much like other ongoing news stories, Amazon’s response to the coronavirus feels like a sideshow to the main event. Yet it has important implications for those who work for the company and for its consumers, which increasingly means almost everyone in the West—especially as other businesses falter and Amazon’s power as a monopoly grows.

The first is the safety of the workers themselves. Amazon employs more than 750,000 people worldwide, and some of its workers in the United States and Europe have already tested positive for the coronavirus. In response to the growing pandemic, Amazon has offered distribution center employees who test positive for coronavirus or are quarantined “up to two weeks of pay.” Meanwhile, salaried managers have been offered the opportunity to work from home.

Individual Amazon workers will be able to apply for grants of between $400 and $5,000 per person as part of a $25 million fund available to delivery drivers, seasonal employees, and nonemployees. The fund will cover up to two weeks of a worker’s pay. Those who contract the virus have also been told that they can take unlimited time off and will not be punished for it.

This is the line from the top—but workers themselves are uneasy about the sincerity of even these concessions. A petition set up by Amazonians United NYC, a New York-based group of Amazon warehouse workers, criticized the company’s “lack of protective measures” against the coronavirus. So far it has gathered more than 1,500 signatures. The petition calls on Amazon to provide all employees with paid sick leave (“not simply extending our unpaid leave”), longer breaks to give adequate time for handwashing, the shutdown of facilities when a worker tests positive for coronavirus, as well as child care pay and subsidies.

“While Amazon has made some limited coronavirus accommodations, it needs a comprehensive plan to ensure the safety of all of its workers and the larger public,” the petition states.

Moreover, the petition criticizes Amazon for increasing productivity quotas to meet surging customer demand. “In places like Italy where the coronavirus is further advanced, our fellow Amazon workers faced increased rates to meet demand — including in facilities where workers tested positive!” Workers at the warehouse near Milan have gone on strike in protest at the company’s handling of the crisis.

While some of the announcements made by Amazon are welcome, workers at the company are right to be angry, judging by Amazon’s past behavior. Up to now two Amazons have existed: the face the company presents to the world and the reality of life as an “associate” inside one of its distribution sheds.

As demand surges, there are reports that workers are being given even more stringent productivity targets. During my stint undercover at Amazon in 2016, I found a company that was obsessed with productivity at the expense of employee well-being. Workers were disciplined for taking days off sick (even with a note from a doctor), toilet breaks were frowned upon, and even fit and healthy workers such as myself struggled to keep up with draconian productivity targets. Amazon has gone out of its way to deny that these things were taking place in the company’s fulfillment center even after I and others had repeatedly exposed them.

The fear among workers now is that targets imposed by the company will provide insufficient time for appropriate hygiene measures to keep everyone safe—including recipients of deliveries.

The world’s most valuable multinational, headed by one of the world’s richest men, is keeping its purse strings tight during a crisis. Amazon could easily afford to give employees unlimited sick pay during the coronavirus outbreak. Instead, by offering workers “up to two weeks of pay,” those already on low incomes may be forced to choose between turning up to work sick and staying home without money.

The stinginess coming from the top was epitomized by Whole Foods, which has been owned by Amazon since 2017. Last week Whole Foods CEO John Mackey emailed store employees with the suggestion that they “donate” their paid time off to workers facing a “medical emergency.” As with Amazon, workers who test positive for the coronavirus will receive up to two weeks paid leave and unlimited unpaid leave, but Whole Foods expects workers to effectively subsidize fellow workers who contract the coronavirus.

The power Amazon wields in the retail sector means that any decisions it takes reverberate across tens of thousands of small businesses. The company’s announcement that it is suspending all shipments of nonessential items to its warehouses as consumer demand for household staples surges will hit these companies hard. Small businesses who sell through Amazon’s storage and delivery network will no longer be able to ship nonessential items through Amazon, at least until April.

Our societies will emerge from the coronavirus shutdown not for perhaps 18 months. By that time Amazon will have accrued even more power. As the coronavirus puts most developed nations into lockdown, consumers will be feeding the Amazon behemoth with increased orders. Workers at the company were already paying a price for our insatiable appetite for convenience. As the coronavirus tightens its grip, front-line Amazon workers may be putting themselves in actual danger in order to satiate the demands of housebound consumers.

James Bloodworth is an English journalist and writer. He is the author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.

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