Amazon and Instacart delivery is a coronavirus goldmine. Workers need to use that leverage.
Despite filling roles that are essential to modern life, many American workers remain in a separate, lesser class of employee even as their executives make millions.
Over the past decade, tech companies have become a driving force of U.S. economic power. And the COVID-19 shutdown has provided many of them with an opportunity to increase their share of consumer spending as many brick-and-mortar businesses are closed.
Brian Merchant, author of "The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone," has gone so far as to call this moment the "Amazonification" of the economy. But it's not just the companies that see an opportunity; their front-line workers have unprecedented leverage, and in the face of inadequate coronavirus protections, they need to use it.
With millions of people now staying home to slow the spread of the virus, delivery services like Amazon and Instacart are seeing significant increases in orders. Amazon says it's hiring 100,000 additional workers to staff its warehouses, while Instacart, which uses contractors to pick up and deliver groceries, announced in March that it plans to hire 300,000 new workers to meet demand. But these low-paid workers are also putting themselves at risk as their customers stay safely home. And it doesn't yet seem like either company is doing enough to support them.
Last week, this conflict finally boiled over. After repeated warnings from workers that Amazon wasn't doing enough to keep those in its warehouses safe or was failing to provide adequate cleaning supplies to delivery drivers and Whole Foods clerks and stockers, employees took matters into their own hands.
Amazon workers at a fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, walked off the job on March 30 demanding that their workplace be closed for cleaning after workers tested positive for COVID-19. Whole Foods workers followed on March 31 with a nationwide sickout, demanding a better paid leave policy, free testing for all employees and hazard pay. They were joined by Amazon workers in Chicago who want their workplace closed for cleaning. Workers in Detroit also staged a protest.
In response to this organizing, Amazon announced that it would begin doing temperature checks, providing protective equipment and using artificial intelligence to try to do better with social distancing
These measures address some but not all workers' concerns. Making matters worse, though, Amazon fired the organizer of the Staten Island walkout, an assistant manager named Chris Smalls. The company claimed the firing was not because of Smalls' organizing but because he had broken company policies. As Senior Vice President Dave Clark wrote on April 2, "We want to be very clear that we respect the rights of these employees to protest and recognize their legal right to do so. At the same time, these rights do not provide a blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, and potentially the lives, of colleagues."
Clark and Senior Vice President Jay Carney, who was White House press secretary under President Barack Obama, went on to defend the company's actions on Twitter.