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Amazon workers went on strike at several fulfillment centers across the country this week, saying that keeping Americans’ packages coming is increasingly putting them at risk. Protests took place at three different facilities in response to what workers claim are insufficient safety precautions and a lack of transparency around coronavirus testing from the company.
On Monday, employees at Amazon facilities in Staten Island and Chicago refused to work after people at both locations tested positive for COVID-19. On Wednesday, workers at a facility in Romulus, Michigan, did the same. In all three cases, the protesters demanded their workplaces be temporarily closed for deep cleaning. They also alleged that Amazon had not been informing workers about infections in a timely manner, and that their access to cleaning products and health care was not enough to help them weather the crisis. The week became especially heated for Amazon after it fired Christian Smalls, an employee who helped organized the Staten Island walk-off. The company accused Smalls of violating quarantine orders, but New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the state’s attorney general, Letitia James, soon called for an investigation into the dismissal. Vice News subsequently published sections of a leaked internal memo in which Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky wrote of Smalls, “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.” (Zapolsky later apologized and said he was “frustrated and upset.”)
Amazon has said in response to the strikes, “We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances.” This week, it announced new measures related to cleanliness and health at its facilities.
To get a sense of what the conditions have been like inside warehouses, I spoke to two workers, from different locations, who have walked off the job in recent weeks because they say their workplaces are unsafe. An employee who works not far from the Staten Island warehouse—at a delivery station in Queens—and is affiliated with the labor rights group Amazonians United New York City told me that protests like these have become a necessity for their safety. “In general, to get them to take any type of safety precautions at all at any stage, we’ve pretty much had to fight them tooth and nail,” he said, noting that his own facility held a walkout on March 19 after a positive coronavirus case came to light there. After the protests, this worker’s facility closed down for two shifts, and he said the volume of orders it had to handle seemed to decrease, though he worries that the slack may just have been unloaded onto another location. (Amazon has been generally shifting inventory to focus on essential items during the crisis.)
This worker added that cleaning supplies have been low, and many people haven’t been showing up to work, meaning that the center has to rely on a “relatively lean crew of super workers” who are motivated by overtime pay. He was particularly concerned that drivers at his workplace tested positive for the virus, since the vans that they use are shared, and he doesn’t feel safe going into work given that many of the managers at the facility have opted to quarantine themselves at home. According to the employee, the company told the workforce that higher-ups would be checking the cameras to make sure that anyone who came in contact with a person who tested positive stays home, but he’s skeptical that the cameras actually cover everywhere in the facility.
I also spoke with Mario Crippen, who works at the Amazon warehouse in Romulus, Michigan. On Wednesday, Crippen helped lead the walkout there to protest working conditions. At least three people at the warehouse have tested positive for the coronavirus, though workers suspect that there are more cases. “I’m sad to say, but I think somebody may have to die for them to take the right actions,” Crippen told me. He said that his warehouse has attempted to stagger breaks to minimize contact, but also notes that workers only get one disinfectant wipe to clean their station and are running low on hand sanitizer to the point where people can only get it in the break room. Workers have also been limited to two pairs of gloves per week. Asking a manager for more gloves or wipes beyond that allotment requires workers to leave their stations and counts as time off task, which can lead to other repercussions. (Amazon closely tracks how workers use their time in fulfillment centers to maximize efficiency.) Crippen also claims that a manager told some employees that they would be fired if they joined his protest, though Amazon said that it will not take any disciplinary action against those who participated.
Amazon will be rolling out new anti-coronavirus measures next week in addition to its current practices of having employees stay home for two weeks if they test positive and more thorough cleanings. Employees will soon have access to face masks and undergo temperature checks before entering company facilities. The employee at the Queens delivery station says that while these are steps in the right direction, they don’t go far enough. He’d specifically like to see Amazon expand medical benefits—for part-timers in particular—and stop shipping nonessential items to slow the pace. “You can go on Amazon.com right now and order a boat anchor to show up at your door by next week,” he said. “I would feel a lot better putting my life on the line if I knew that we were serving the public good [by shipping just essentials], not vinyl records or rubber chickens or bowling balls.”