The Coronavirus Is Radicalizing Workers

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Corporations are eager to be seen as part of an emerging home front in the war against COVID-19. But over the last 24 hours, workers have called their altruistic bonafides into question. Protests at Amazon, Instacart, and Whole Foods — where low-paid workers have found themselves on the frontlines of a global disaster — have created a public relations nightmare for the companies, who say they’re providing essential services to Americans stuck at home. While workers like Chris Smalls don’t dispute the necessity of their jobs, they say their employers aren’t taking basic steps to protect them from infection. As they tell it, these essential corporations are actually placing the public at risk.

Now, desperation is driving these workers to measures some never thought they’d take. The pandemic changed things, Smalls told Intelligencer on Tuesday, and so did Amazon’s response to the crisis. A five-year Amazon employee who’d never been involved in any previous organizing work, Smalls suddenly finds himself out of a job. Amazon fired him on Monday, hours after he helped lead a protest at his Staten Island warehouse. Several of his coworkers joined him. They belong to a group of progressive organizations that organize under the banner of the Athena Coalition, which says on its website that Amazon has become “dangerous to our communities, our democracy, and our economy.”

“They definitely dropped the ball when it came to the pandemic issue,” Smalls said. “I took my stance once I realized they weren’t taking care of their people.”

Smalls joins a chorus of Amazon workers who say the company is failing the people who keep its warehouses afloat. The JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island, where Smalls worked, has been especially restless. Workers, including Smalls, complained that the absence of basic safety measures risked an outbreak of illness at the warehouse. When someone did fall ill, Amazon waited days to tell other warehouse employees, the Verge reported on Monday. Managers reportedly walked the floor, telling employees who were present that a co-worker had tested positive for the virus. But because the warehouse is staffed in shifts, the rest of the location’s 4,000-strong workforce found out much later, mostly through word of mouth. The warehouse had remained open, and workers had reported to their jobs, unaware of any risk to their health.

Amazon, meanwhile, insists that it’s doing its best. In a statement to Intelligencer, the company says it’s now checking the temperature of everyone who enters the Staten Island facility, and claimed that it fired Smalls for violating a quarantine order. “He was also found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14 days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world,” said Kristen Kish, an Amazon spokesperson. “Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite on March 30, further putting the teams at risk.”

But Smalls believes he’s been singled out for his activism. Of all the employees potentially exposed to the patient, he was the only one ordered to stay home, he told Intelligencer — a claim that Amazon, again, denies. Social distancing has also been difficult to practice in the facility. In a series of time-stamped videos, previously reported by HuffPost, Amazon employees at the same facility are crowded side by side in the cafeteria — after the sick worker went into quarantine, and after some social distancing guidelines had already been passed down by the city. Smalls believes he’s been singled out by Amazon, and punished for problems that were widespread in his facility.

Workers at other Amazon facilities tell similar stories. Since the onset of COVID-19, they’ve told multiple news outlets, including Intelligencer, that they don’t have enough protective gear, that they can’t practice social distancing at work, and that by offering paid sick leave only to those who test positive for the coronavirus or enter quarantine, Amazon endangers its entire workforce. They’re demanding sick leave for all Amazon workers, as well as protective gear and the shutdown and sanitization of facilities where someone tests positive for the virus. Workers at Whole Foods, which has been owned by Amazon since 2017, are asking for nearly identical protections, and some participated in a nationwide sick-out on Tuesday.

For some workers, like Smalls, the pandemic is the spark that turned them into activists. Others have been organizing for years. The pandemic takes them into uncharted waters. But the rage, they say, was inevitable. You can only exploit people for so long before they snap. COVID-19 may have just moved up the timeline.

Susan Caffaro, a San Diego-based Instacart shopper affiliated with the Gig Workers Collective, told Intelligencer that the start-up has been mistreating gig workers for a long time. “Originally, the issue was Instacart stealing our tips,” she explained. “Then there was a class-action lawsuit filed, and it was ultimately settled. We’ve had several other skirmishes with Instacart since that time over tips and pay and other issues.” In February, a judge ruled that Instacart had likely misclassified its California workforce as independent contractors in order to underpay them and to skirt some labor laws. The pandemic only deepened tensions between the company and its shoppers. Customers who belong to certain high-risk groups rely on Instacart and services like it to keep groceries stocked during the pandemic. But shoppers are taking a risk by entering stores for their customers, and Caffaro says that Instacart isn’t doing enough to ensure their well-being. They too are asking for protective gear, along with an extra $5 in hazard pay per order, plus a default tip set at 10 percent.

Caffaro sees a link between the Instacart strike and protests at Amazon and Whole Foods. “I think in large part, gig workers are viewed as expendable cogs by a lot of these corporations, and I don’t think that their business plans really entailed providing protections for us,” she said. “And when I talk about protections, I’m not really talking about employment benefits, because we’re gig workers. I’m talking about general protections that should be provided to individuals who are performing tasks for you. Anybody who does any task deserves to be fairly compensated.”

As the pandemic decimates the economy, it may accelerate an older trend. Workers have been angry for years, and they haven’t been subtle about it. Strike activity increased in 2018 and 2019, and 2020 may follow suit. A crisis as major as ours cracks society apart at the joints. We’ll have to rebuild it ourselves. Workers are demanding a say in the process.

“This virus demonstrates clearly that all work has dignity, that poverty shaming is a threat to everyone, and that driving high productivity while failing to increase wages or maintain manufacturing with good union jobs in the U.S. has put us in the worst possible position to confront this crisis,” said Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, CWA. Last year, amid an historically long government shutdown, Nelson raised the possibility of a general strike, and threatened to mobilize her members if politicians couldn’t agree on a deal to reopen the government. Nelson isn’t calling for a general strike now, but she’s confident that workers like Smalls “will get structural changes.”

“We will band together as a nation of working people to demand it. It is horrible that a lot of people will feel more pain in the process because the system has been so rigged against the public for so long,” she added. “No more.”

Indeed, this week’s protests may start a ripple effect that corporations find difficult to ignore. Attorney General Letitia James called Amazon’s decision to fire Smalls “immoral and inhumane,” and has promised to investigate the company for a potentially illegal act of retaliation. Amazon workers in Chicago, meanwhile, staged their own protest on Monday evening. Other labor protests linked to the pandemic continue to occur. In Lynn, Massachusetts, General Electric workers protested proposed layoffs and asked the company to put them to work making ventilators. McDonald’s workers in Tampa, St. Louis, and Memphis went on strike Tuesday, asking for protective equipment, hazard pay, and paid leave for anyone who wants to stay home because of the virus.

Asked if he believed there would be other Amazon protests, Smalls said he’s been getting texts from warehouse workers all over the country. “It’s already started,” he said.

“I’m a former [Amazon] employee now,” he added. “But employees for the company still working there, they need to stand up. They are the power.”

The Coronavirus May Be a Tipping Point for Labor