Despite the shift toward an information-based economy, the coronavirus crisis reminds us that we still rely on material goods, with a just-in-time economy that places immense stress on those who work along its key nodes. More than 1 million people are warehouse workers in the United States — the Chicago metropolitan area alone is home to an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 such workers. These people keep the country running — and serve as stewards for the population’s health too, as many vulnerable people order groceries, medical devices and other essential items through Amazon and its competitors. Without their labor, the economy skids to a halt.
Amazon recently announced that it will be hiring 100,000 new employees in its fulfillment centers. Part of this is in response to increased demand for goods from a population sheltering in place. (It is also to replace current Amazon workers who are staying at home unpaid. As some Amazon employees told me, the company is hiring more desperate people who are willing to risk their health in the warehouses.)
So far, despite touting new measures to increase the frequency of cleanings in its facilities, Amazon has kept warehouses with cases of covid-19 open. According to The Washington Post, 74 warehouses had cases of covid-19 as of April 14 — and workers continue facing the choice to either stay home without pay or endanger their health and that of their communities by working. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) And Amazon is just the most visible of companies placing workers in potentially dangerous positions — as online orders swell, workers at warehouses across the country are risking their health to deliver items in crowded, often unhygienic facilities. For example, five workers at a Barnes & Noble distribution center in New Jersey recently tested positive for covid-19, with four more workers showing covid-19 symptoms. The Monroe Township facility remained open.
No one has a better sense of what livable warehouse work would mean than the workers themselves, which is why their own insights into what they need are so valuable. A group of Amazon warehouse workers organizing under the name Amazonians United recently launched a petition listing several demands that, if implemented, would improve working conditions.
One demand is paid sick leave regardless of diagnosis, as well as the shuttering of facilities where employees have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, with workers paid to stay home. Amazon has agreed to provide paid sick leave to any workers who test positive for the novel coronavirus, but given the scarcity of tests in the United States, workers say this effectively amounts to keeping sick leave unpaid. Further, the current policy of unlimited unpaid sick leave is set to expire April 30, causing outcry among the company’s workers. (A new policy, announced this month, will provide workers with up to five hours’ pay should they develop a fever on the job.) Some Amazon warehouses with cases of coronavirus remain in operation — in one New Jersey warehouse, 30 workers have tested positive for coronavirus.
Elected officials could mandate that companies implement these demands, paying workers to stay home instead of reporting to warehouses where they suspect the presence of novel coronavirus. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) did exactly this last month. This would allow deep cleaning of the warehouse, as well as time for workers to isolate themselves and see whether they develop covid-19 symptoms. Without such measures, employees will continue working in the warehouses alongside hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of others, potentially becoming super-spreaders in their communities.
The petition also demands an explicit commitment to fund child care and subsidies for workers, 1.5x hazard pay to compensate for the “added health and financial risk” of working in the warehouses, and an end to rate-based write-ups, the latter a demand emphasized by several workers who spoke to me, as they say the current rate precludes adequate handwashing and sanitation.
These are the demands of essential workers; it’s time for lawmakers — and logistics behemoths such as Amazon — to catch up to reality. While the economy runs on these workers, we can’t afford to force them to work at a sickening pace; that the pace of work is unsustainable and that exploiting workers’ health endangers everyone’s health, is a lesson we should keep in mind long after this pandemic is over.
Workers’ demands can lead the way to a livable logistics sector that enables the U.S. population to access goods it needs without sacrificing workers’ lives in the process. Some elected officials are already taking the workers’ lead. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Amazon in response to the Amazonians United petition, asking the company what preventive steps it is taking to ensure that its employees do not contract covid-19 and whether it would meet the petition’s demands. A second letter followed after the termination of Christian Smalls, a worker who organized a walkout at JFK8, a Staten Island Amazon facility, over the company’s response to the pandemic.
So far, workers have won a few concessions from the company. Personal protective equipment is now provided at Amazon facilities, and there is more frequent and thorough cleaning, as well as a reduction in workers’ proximity to one other. However, according to a survey of workers conducted by Inland Empire Amazonians Unite, a group of California-based Amazon workers, that I received, these measures remain unevenly and inadequately implemented. These changes came in response to workers’ unprecedented organizing efforts since coronavirus began spreading through the United States.
In France, workers recently won a ruling in court mandating that the company restrict its deliveries to only essential products until a risk assessment of health and safety measures is undertaken in concert with workers’ representatives.
Warehouse workers’ health and safety are critical for the health and safety of the economy. That they aren’t treated as essential, and are instead poorly paid and exploited by an unrelenting pace of work, says more about our economy than it does about the value of their labor. If this crisis can generate any positive changes, one would be an improvement in the conditions of warehouse work.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to Inland Empire Amazonians Unite as Island Empire Amazonians Unite.