Coronavirus is putting America’s biggest businesses to the test. In difficult economic times, many of the country’s biggest corporations are rising to the challenge: Hanes has voluntarily retrofitted its factories to produce surgical masks. Starbucks announced they will pay their workers for the next 30 days even if they don’t show up to work due to safety concerns. Even America’s distilleries have begun using their alcohol supplies to produce hand sanitizer.
An outlier in all of this is Amazon, the trillion-dollar e-commerce monopolist that is putting profit ahead of the health and safety of its employees.
Amazon has a dubious track record on worker protections. From micromanaging worker time to the extent that some pee in bottles rather than take bathroom breaks, to forcing workers to return to fulfillment duties after one of their colleagues died on the warehouse floor, Amazon’s modus operandi has generally been viewed as putting profits before people.
In 2019, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health put Amazon on their “Dirty Dozen” list of most dangerous employers in the United States. Amazon’s reputation as a company that puts profits over people is becoming disturbingly clear in the corporation’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. While many corporate giants are following federal guidelines for social distancing, Amazon’s fulfillment model, which requires thousands of workers to stand next to one another in warehouses, puts workers in danger.
Workers have lamented the lack of sanitary conditions in warehouses, as well as an absence of personal protective equipment to reduce their exposure. Some employees say they have brought in their own supplies to compensate for the shortage. More than 50 Amazon facilities have had reported cases of coronavirus. Most have remained open.
Workers at warehouses with positive cases are concerned they are not being notified. According to reporting from The Verge, workers at a warehouse in Jacksonville, Florida, learned of positive cases from local news. Others in New York City were alerted by a worker text chain. At a fulfillment center on Staten Island, an employee tested positive, but the warehouse workforce received no email, text, or call from Amazon.
In part due to these concerns, employees at the Staten Island warehouse announced they are striking to demand worker protections—specifically, that Amazon close the facility for cleaning and offer employees paid time off while it’s shut down. A day after the strike was announced, the employee who led it was fired. In a leaked internal memo, Amazon’s general counsel called the employee “not smart or articulate,” and speculated that it would be good for the company if the fired employee became the face of the worker movement.
As corporations around the country announce pay raises and paid sick leave for frontline workers, Amazon has announced several measures in response to the coronavirus crisis. The company said they were sanitizing facilities (although not closing them to do so), and any employee placed in quarantine or who tested positive for coronavirus could apply for up to two weeks’ pay. Amazon has also agreed to raise pay for warehouse workers and drivers by $2 an hour and allow workers to take unpaid leave through April.
But Amazon’s workforce says the steps the company is taking are insufficient. Said one Amazon driver, “I have high blood pressure and asthma issues. I have three children. I’m really not willing to risk my life for two extra dollars.”
Moreover, many Amazon employees can’t afford to take unpaid leave. “I’m in a position where I have to pay rent and go to work at Amazon, or stay home and risk our rent payment,” one warehouse worker told CNBC.
Amazon is undoubtedly filling a critical role in getting needed supplies to millions of families who can’t leave their homes to shop elsewhere. At times demand has been so high that Amazon has been overwhelmed. Amazon, like other tech companies, is helping us survive social distancing and quarantine in ways that would be unimaginable ten years prior.
But this, in and of itself, should not spare Amazon from scrutiny. Amazon’s priors for worker treatment are unsettling and appear to be amplified in a public health crisis where worker safety is paramount. While coronavirus has confirmed that Amazon’s fulfillment capacities are nearly unparalleled, it’s also exposed how much of it is done on the backs of Amazon’s employees being commoditized, rather than prioritized.
American companies are all pitching in to do their part to balance profits with public health during these unprecedented times. As consumers, our expectations of Amazon should be no different.