Essential workers who get food and other critical items to those staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic are organizing strikes at Amazon, Instacart, and other companies, demanding better pay and safety measures.
At a Staten Island fulfillment center called JFK8, crowded working conditions make for difficult social distancing, and Amazon has not provided safeguards for employees, workers say. Dozens of workers walked out of JFK8 Monday afternoon.
“At JFK8, we are working long, crowded shifts in the epicenter of a global pandemic, and Amazon has failed to provide us with the most basic safeguards to protect us, our families, and the public’s health,” Rina Cummings, who works at the warehouse and is also a member of the non-profit group Make the Road New York, said in a statement. “We are walking out to protest the impossible choice of coming to work at a toxic workplace and possibly spreading the virus or going unpaid during an economic crisis.”
Workers held signs saying “our health is just as essential” and “protect your workers” and demanded that Amazon close the facility so that it can be properly sanitized, and pay its workers during the closure.
An Amazon robotics technician told a reporter in the Facebook video below that an employee tested positive for COVID-19 last week, but that the facility was not shut down afterwards for cleaning. Workers said that illness has spread to at least 10 of their colleagues.
“I know one of them personally. She has three children. I hope she gets better,” one employee at the facility, Jordan Flowers, said.
“Management has been brushing it under the rug,” said another Amazon worker Christian Smalls. “If you ask how many cases they have, they’ll never say.” Smalls added, “Somebody needs to be held accountable.”
Smalls, a management assistant, was in quarantine for two weeks after he came into contact with another employee who tested positive, according to CNBC.
Smalls told CNBC, “Since the building won’t close by itself, we’re going to have to force [Amazon’s] hand.”
Amazon spokesperson Kristen Kish called Smalls’s comments “incorrect” and “misleading,” but she did not answer whether the Staten Island facility closed or not. Smalls is being paid during his two week quarantine, she said.
Amazon said it weighs factors like how much time has passed since someone with COVID-19 was onsite or if the area they were in is regularly deep-cleaned when deciding whether to close a facility.
An Amazon delivery center in Queens was re-opened just hours after a worker tested positive, leading to a tense exchange between workers and management.
“Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis,” the Amazon spokesperson said. “Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable.”
Amazon says it is tripling down on cleaning and changed processes to help workers keep safe distances from each other, the spokesperson added. The company is also paying workers an extra $2 an hour, double pay for overtime, and extended paid time off benefits to part-time and seasonal employees, according to the company.
Nationwide on Monday, Instacart workers planned to walk off the job as well.
“Instacart has a well established history of exploiting its Shoppers, one that extends years back before our current crisis,” workers at Instacart, a grocery delivery app, and the Gig Workers’ Collective wrote in a post on Friday. “Now, its mistreatment of Shoppers has stooped to an all-time low.”
Promises of two weeks pay for those quarantined or confirmed to have the coronavirus “not only falls short, but isn’t even being honored.”
Workers are demanding hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes, hazard pay, as well as extended paid leave benefits.
It is not clear how many workers are calling out Monday, but one organizer, who has worked on and off for Instacart for more than three years, said this organizing effort “feels a lot different” than ones in previous months she and other shoppers have organized.
“It just seems so much more extreme now,” the organizer, Sarah Clarke, told Gothamist. “These are all things that for the past three weeks workers were begging for. We did this walkout because we felt like there’s no other choice.”
Tips are defaulted at what a customer previously has set, which is often 5 percent, Clarke said. The hazard pay they’re demanding would add $5 per order (currently shoppers receive an average of $7 per “batch,” which can be up to three orders) and default the tip amount to 10 percent, according to Clarke and the organizers’ demands.
“Workers already knew the company didn’t give a s— about them but now it’s magnified,” said Clarke, who has stopped working as a shopper due to the low pay but has continued organizing efforts with a national Instacart group of 15,000 workers. “This doesn’t just affect workers, this affects customers too.”
According to one Instacart shopper, the company was attempting to break the strike by offering $25 bonuses.
Instacart said the company has seen continued high demand and active shoppers on the platform Monday and remains operational. Regarding the bonuses, the company said such additional pay is not new, and coincides with customer demand. The company said it is also working to develop its own hand sanitizer with a third-party manufacturer to provide to workers this week.
Grocery store clerks have also expressed fear and stress over whether they’ll pick up the virus from a customer at packed stores, where social distancing of six feet or more becomes near impossible.
At Whole Foods Marketplace, which is owned by Amazon, the worker collective Whole Worker is planning a global “sickout” on Tuesday, demanding a host of benefits, like paid leave and hazard pay, as well as sanitation equipment.
A Whole Foods Market spokesperson said in a statement the company is taking “extensive measures to keep people safe, and in addition to social distancing, enhanced deep cleaning and crowd control measures, we continue rolling out new safety protocols in our stores to protect our Team Members who are on the front lines serving our customers.”
The spokesperson said two weeks of paid time off, $2 more per hour, and increased overtime pay have been provided.
General Electric workers also reportedly walked off the job on Monday demanding the chance to make ventilators, a badly need medical device for severely ill COVID-19 patients.
The worker strikes come as the employees have been deemed essential under stay-at-home policies, including New York’s. Even other essential, frontline workers—nurses and healthcare personnel—are having trouble getting enough personal protective equipment, like a specific filtered mask called an N95.
The pandemic has spurred an economic crisis that has led to tenants organizing rent strikes and tens of thousands of people demanding a rent suspension in New York alone. The $2 trillion federal stimulus plan supposed to help workers would send people $1,200 and expand unemployment benefits to gig workers, but leaves out many immigrants and has been described as a “miserly amount” of relief.
With Muhammad Rahman.