Update: On Tuesday, April 21, Amazon workers will lead their third warehouse strike, citing the same concerns over protections during the pandemic. According to a report by The Guardian, about 300 workers will call in sick this week to fight for more PPE, hand sanitizer, and a better paid sick leave policy. Previous reports estimate that over 70 Amazon-run facilities have now had coronavirus outbreaks.
This story was originally published on March 30, 2020.
As workers struggle to meet soaring online shopping and delivery demands in the wake of the virus’ spread, employees at Amazon’s Staten Island facility claim that management failed to communicate effectively after one of their colleagues recently tested positive for the virus, and is continuing to take inadequate precautions to ensure the remaining workers’ safety.
Chris Smalls, a warehouse management assistant and a lead organizer of the strike, told CNBC that workers are demanding that the Staten Island facility be shut down and sanitized in light of the positive diagnosis, and that workers receive paid time off while the deep clean occurs. "Since the building won't close by itself, we're going to have to force [Amazon's] hand," Smalls said. "We will not return until the building gets sanitized."
The strike comes on the heels of other worker-led actions across the country aimed at getting employers to codify coronavirus-related protections. The same day that Amazon workers in Staten Island were set to walk off the job, workers affiliated with the grocery ordering startup Instacart said they also planned to strike over safety concerns. And on March 31, workers at Whole Foods — the national grocery store chain owned by Amazon — are set to participate in a “mass sick out,” calling on management to provide guaranteed paid leave to all employees in self-quarantine, reinstate health coverage for part-time and seasonal workers, and shut down any location where a worker tests positive for COVID-19, among other demands.
Amazon employs more than 800,000 nationwide, with workers in at least 11 different warehouses recently testing positive for coronavirus. As the outbreak has worsened, Amazon has made efforts to balance increased ecommerce demands with worker safety, including relaxing rules regarding cell phones on the warehouse floor in case employees need to contact family members in the event of an emergency and installing new signs at some facilities mandating that workers not stand less than three feet apart.
But aside from minor adjustments, including a recent shutdown at a Kentucky returns facility, workers say Amazon’s inadequate response has left them susceptible to infection as they work long hours to meet increased demands.
“All employers need to prioritize the health and safety of their workforce at this time,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Amazon appears to be maximizing its enormous profits even over its employees’ safety — and that is unacceptable.”
Even as beleaguered workers head to the picket line, it goes without saying that consumers have most of the power here: As with the Amazon Prime Day boycotts in 2019, customers now have the ability to influence decisions made all the way up the chain of command at Amazon by choosing to spend their dollars elsewhere until working conditions for warehouse employees are improved.