Sen. Cory Booker, in conjunction with four other senators, is leading the charge against Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse workers. As the coronavirus pandemic intensifies and Amazon remains an essential service and a lifeline for many Americans who are quarantined in their homes, their workers say the company is not providing them adequate protection against the virus.
Booker (D-NJ), along with Sens.Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), penned a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Wednesday, demanding better treatment of Amazon’s warehouse workers.
“While Amazon has previously touted the steps they have taken to keep their workers safe, workers at the Staten Island facility claim that they were in short supply of personal protective equipment like disposable gloves and masks,” the letter says. “Workers at other Amazon facilities have said essential supplies like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are being rationed, and at times are wholly unavailable.”
To protest the unsafe conditions at Amazon’s warehouses, workers have been striking. On March 30, nearly 100 workers at the Staten Island facility, led by employee Christian Smalls, walked off the job. "Since the building won't close by itself, we're going to have to force [Amazon's] hand," Smalls told CNBC. "We will not return until the building gets sanitized." Smalls was then fired by Amazon, in what was seen as retaliation for his organizing efforts.
The letter cited concerns about Smalls’ firing. “The right to organize is a bedrock of our economy, responsible for many of the greatest advances achieved by workers over generations,” the letter says. The senators also expressed dismay regarding leaked memos, first published by VICE, that showed Amazon executives planned a smear campaign against Smalls, who is Black, by playing into racist stereotypes by painting Smalls as “not smart or articulate.”
“Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are evaluating and making changes in real-time and encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits, and speed in which we’re managing this crisis to other retailers and major employers across the country,” Amazon spokesperson Av Zammit said in a statement to Refinery29.
The company has laid out the policies they plan on rolling out in a blog post on their website. "We’ve implemented a broad suite of new benefits changes for employees in our operations and logistics network including an additional $2 per hour, 2x base pay for overtime, and paid time off benefits for regular part-time and seasonal employees," said Zammit. "We are encouraging those who are unwell to stay home and taking extreme measures to keep people safe in our buildings."
In their letter, the senators laid out a series of questions they are asking Amazon to respond to by April 14, which include how Amazon will ensure workers have access to the necessary safety equipment, protocols around company response when a worker tests positive for COVID-19, and whether Amazon will “assure the public and its employees that they will allow their workers to freely and publicly address concerns they have in the workplace without fear of retribution.”
This action comes after a separate group of senators, also led by Booker, sent out a letter last month to Amazon citing similar concerns about warehouse safety conditions.
In Amazon’s statement, the company called their workers “heroes,” but Smalls disagreed with that categorization in an interview with the New York Times. “They keep saying we’re like the Red Cross,” he said. “We’re not. We’re regular people and we didn’t sign up for this.”