For Amazon worker Courtenay Brown, the holiday season is always intense. “Turkey apocalypse,” as she calls it, means long, physically demanding night shifts packing and shipping deliveries for Amazon Fresh at the company’s Newark, New Jersey, fulfillment center. But this year means she must also cope with overcrowded conditions in a pandemic. “I have about 50-something people that work under me,” she said, “and most of the time they’re on top of each other.” It’s a small working area, she added, and when people complain, managers insist that nothing can be done. “I used to be in the Navy,” she said. “I got hazard pay while I was on deployment.”
And she had it at Amazon, for a while. Like a few other major retailers, Amazon offered warehouse workers an extra $2 an hour during the early months of the pandemic. That helped Brown, who makes $16.25 an hour without hazard pay. “A lot of people could catch up on bills and anything that they have fallen behind on, like rent,” said Brown, who also said she has experienced homelessness during her years working for Amazon. But in June, the company ended the extra pay, which a spokesperson said was not for hazardous labor but rather an incentive for workers facing an unexpected increase in demand. Employees got another onetime bonus of $500 in the summer, though Brown said it was more like $300 after taxes, and Amazon said this week it will give workers bonuses over the holidays totaling $500 million.
Amazon’s pay cut was part of a harmful trend for workers. Walmart ended hazard pay in July, and Kroger ended its “hero pay” for workers even earlier — in May. Other retailers never introduced hazard pay at all. Petsmart workers petitioned the company’s owner, BC Partners, for hazard pay this summer but never got it. Neither did workers for the rival Petco, which is owned by a different private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners. Instead, the firm set up a “$2 million fund to support [Petco] employees in financial difficulty,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
Unions and retail-worker advocacy groups like United for Respect, to which Brown belongs, say that retailers can afford hazard pay and must reinstate it. Now. As of November, Amazon’s profits had increased by 53 percent since 2019, according to one recent report from the Brookings Institution. Walmart’s grew by 45 percent, Kroger’s by 90 percent. A report by United for Respect, Bargaining for the Common Good, and the Institute for Policy Studies found that by mid-November, “the combined wealth of 647 U.S. billionaires increased by almost $960 billion” this year. Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, has watched his fortune grow by 62 percent since March, the report says; over at Walmart, part-owners Rob, Alice and Jim Walton have grown their wealth by a collective $48 billion.
In two press conferences organized by United for Respect and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 1.3 million people in the U.S. and Canada, workers said the holidays have become a source of fear.
“We haven’t learned, we haven’t changed,” said Janet Wainwright, a UFCW member who works for a Kroger store in Virginia. Managers don’t enforce existing mask mandates, she added, though they did tell workers not to approach customers who don’t cover their faces. Customers crowd the aisles and common areas, which may increase the risks workers face, Wainwright said. The approaching holidays promise more foot traffic in stores — and potentially, an increase in risky or reckless behavior from customers.
The pandemic has already been deadly for food and retail workers. The UFCW says that at least 350 of its members have died from the virus, a figure that includes 109 grocery store workers. Around 48,000 frontline workers have been infected or exposed to the virus, the union estimates. Of that number, 17,4000 are grocery-store workers. Marc Perrone, the union’s international president, told reporters on Monday that he believes the real number of deaths and infections is likely higher than the union knows. Though it’s difficult to know whether sick frontline workers contracted the virus on the job or in their communities, that’s partly because corporations themselves have frustrated efforts at transparency. Major retailers still haven’t released official tallies of workers sickened or killed by the virus. (Amazon said approximately 20,000 out of 1.3 million employees were confirmed or suspected to have had the virus.)
United for Respect and the UFCW have both launched new campaigns to pressure corporations into reintroducing hazard pay and enforcing basic safety standards in their workplaces. The “Five to Survive” platform released by United for Respect includes a $5 per hour wage increase for frontline workers and paid leave, plus protection for whistleblowers. The UFCW has updated its “Shop Smart” campaign for the holiday season, calling on corporate employers to provide free COVID-19 testing, free protective gear, hazard pay, and mask enforcement in stores. They also want a freeze on corporate stock buybacks until the pandemic wanes.
The onus to provide hazard pay and protective gear lies with corporations like Amazon, and not with consumers. (Amazon said it has implemented an on-site testing program in its warehouses.) But the UFCW’s “Shop Smart” campaign does suggest steps individuals can take to reduce the risk they pose to frontline workers: Wear masks, limit shopping trips to essentials, and don’t go to the store in groups. Observe restrictions on private gatherings. Brown says she understands that e-commerce is a lifeline for many immunocompromised people — including her own mother, who has diabetes. But she wants customers to know that Amazon workers are putting in long days and weeks to keep up with demand. “Have a heart, man,” she said. “Don’t order excessively.”
But she reserves her strongest words for Amazon. That, too, is a risk: Amazon has fired workers who organize, and surveils its workforce closely for signs of rebellion. Vice News reports that the corporation has even retained the Pinkertons, a name synonymous with strike-breaking and union-busting since the 19th century. Despite the dangers, Brown says Amazon’s treatment of workers leaves her no choice but to speak out.
“We take a gamble every day,” she said. “So I’m not scared.”