Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at firstname.lastname@example.org
Amazon workers are tired of putting their health on the line to keep their employer’s profits flowing during the coronavirus crisis. It started last month with a few dozen workers at the JFK8 fulfillment center on Staten Island who walked out after becoming wary about coworkers getting infected and what they saw as a woeful lack of sanitary protections on the job. In the past two weeks, that initial protest was followed by walkouts at fulfillment centers in Chicago and Detroit. And on Monday, workers at JFK8 walked out again. While only a small fraction of the total workforce at each facility participated in the actions, they made headlines with their unified demands for safe workplaces and a voice on the job.
Jordan Flowers, one of the JFK8 workers who engaged in the walkout, said the second protest was a direct response to dozens of reported cases of COVID-19 that had emerged in recent days:
We actually had around forty or fifty walk out, but this time our message was even bigger, because we’re up to, like, thirty cases. [Twenty-five] were confirmed. But there’s Human Resources telling people to be quiet about it; if you have it, they want you to be quiet. . . . Our message now is, we have to get our demands. We have to make sure that our warehouse is clean, and we should feel safe at it, because we’re there every day. You know, like I said, 5,000 people walk in and out [of the facility]. . . . You shouldn’t have to be, like, “Oh, I don’t know if I should go to work,” you know, feel like you have to risk going [to work]. . . . We should feel like, “Hey, I want to wake up, go to work, make money. . . .” At times like this, we shouldn’t be working. There are thirty COVID cases, and we’re still operational.
While working alongside infected coworkers is risky, so is protesting. In late March, another employee at JFK8, Chris Smalls, was sacked after participating in the first walkout. Amazon argued that Smalls was fired for allegedly breaking the company’s quarantine policy, but labor advocates, including the Teamsters and the national coalition of Amazon workers, Athena for All, say Smalls’s dismissal was blatant retaliation for organizing the walkout. Asked if he feared retaliation, Flowers said, “There possibly could be, but I’m not too much worried about it.”
Flowers has other reasons for staying away from work for now; he has lupus nephritis, which makes him especially vulnerable to infection. He said he was taking time off but was not using Amazon’s special paid leave scheme for COVID-19, which requires a formal diagnosis or quarantine due to the virus. “Every day,” he said, “I put in that I have an underlying condition, and I’m not coming to work until the place is clean.”
In Detroit, Tonya Ramsay participated in another walkout at her fulfillment center, DTW1, which was triggered in part by news of three confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the facility. Describing the hygiene provisions at her workplace as inadequate, she said, “Everyone’s scared to go to work.”
Although the management had provided workers with hand-washing stations, she said that, given the size of the fulfillment center and the pressure to process orders rapidly, “It’s definitely a challenge to be able to wash your hands and get back in a timely manner.” Meanwhile, she is on unpaid leave, forgoing wages until she feels safe going back to work. With a child to support at home, she said, “I’m the only means of income in my house, so it’s going to be a struggle.”
Athena has demanded that all Amazon workers be given full paid leave if they are affected by COVID-19, including having to care for a family member at home.
Amazon claims it is stepping up efforts to protect workers and keep facilities sanitized, like temperature checks and disinfectant wipes. But Flowers wants JFK8 to be totally shut down for two weeks and thoroughly disinfected, with two weeks’ pay for the workers. He added, “We should at least have testing nearby where [you will know] if you’re positive or negative, and then the people that are negative, they can go back to work. But as of right now, they’re acting like they don’t want to clean it, and they’re just going to keep hiring people every other day.”
Indeed, Amazon has announced plans to hire about 100,000 new people to keep up with soaring demand from house-bound online shoppers. That could mean more workers getting exposed daily to infection as the company ramps up production. But it might also mean more workers choosing to walk out when they feel that they are risking more by going to work than by refusing to show up.
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.