Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon has come under fire for mandating that their employees continue to work in conditions that make social distancing impossible. According to organizers, over 130 Amazon warehouses have employees with confirmed cases of COVID-19, leaving Amazon executives to balance an increased demand for online delivery against the risk of a more widespread outbreak in company warehouses.
Amazon has an important role to play in combating COVID-19. Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods, two Amazon subsidiaries, could aid the elderly and immunocompromised in ordering groceries without putting themselves at risk of infection. It seems that these services are being used to that effect, evidenced by a rapid influx of new customers. It’s important to note Amazon can’t keep up with its grocery and delivery services and has opted to put their new customers on a waitlist. This rise in demand, however, does not give Amazon the license to violate social distancing protocol nor does it mean that workers should remain without protective equipment.
In a published letter to Jeff Bezos, former Amazon employee Chris Smalls detailed the conditions that Amazon employees in their Staten Island warehouse are facing. He described the limited number of masks, cleaning supplies and gloves in addition to the abundance of sick and at-risk workers. Crowded workspaces and cafeterias are still commonplace, despite assurances from Amazon management that employees are adhering to social distancing policy.
The elderly and immunocompromised should be permitted to stay home, but they are implicitly forced to work due to Amazon’s unlimited unpaid leave policy that says employees only receive pay if they are infected, and a strict end date of the sick leave of 14 days. For paid sick leave, workers must provide official documentation of sickness or a quarantine order — both of which are difficult to come by since COVID-19 tests are scarce. It is truly ironic that Amazon’s employees could have a difficult time affording groceries from the company that they work for if they elect to stay home for personal safety reasons. Amazon executives would do well to note that employees can only be productive to the extent to which they can afford food, medicine and this month’s rent.
Jeff Bezos has given a halfhearted response to these protests, stating he’s “very proud of [Amazon’s] working conditions” and that his critics were wrong. Amazon executives, at present, seem to view their disgruntled employees with disdain. Chris Smalls, the former Amazon employee previously mentioned, was allegedly fired due to his role in organizing a walkout within the Staten Island warehouse. A leaked memo from David Zapolsky, Amazon general counsel, showed him describing Smalls as “not smart or articulate” and formulating a PR strategy to deal with employee unrest. Perhaps Zapolsky would be better served if he focused on the pending legal repercussions of firing Smalls instead of disparaging him. The National Labor Review Board has a pending investigation into Smalls’ firing and New York AG Letitia James is considering jurisprudential punishment.
Amazon employees are protesting and have organized YouTube live streams where they discuss how their employers have failed to guard against mass transmission of the virus. They demand the re-hiring workers who were fired due to protesting company policy, regularly updating employees on warehouse infections and implementing paid sick leave as a permanent policy after the crisis is over. With Amazon employees risking their lives to do their jobs, the company has a responsibility to provide for its workers. Amazon should dip into its reserves to protect workers with enhanced social distancing measures and compensation. Consumers will remember Amazon’s sin of greed long after this pandemic ends if the company does not correct its course.
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