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Workers protest at Instacart, Amazon and Whole Foods for health protections and hazard pay

Grocery store, delivery and warehouse workers have unprecedented leverage to demand better working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic because their labor has become essential for millions of Americans

Jordan Flowers holds a sign at an Amazon building in the Staten Island borough of New York City on Monday. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

Millions of consumers are turning to Instacart, Amazon and Whole Foods as essential resources during the novel coronavirus pandemic, something that has given workers at those companies unprecedented leverage.

Now they are conducting walkouts, strikes and sickouts to demand hazard pay and safety protections that match what they say is the high risk they take in showing up to work.

On Monday, some workers for grocery delivery app Instacart began a nationwide strike to demand hazard pay of $5 per order and better health protections. Meanwhile, some warehouse employees at an Amazon facility in Staten Island, N.Y., walked out because they said the e-commerce giant isn’t doing enough to protect them.

And on Tuesday, some staff at Amazon-owned Whole Foods around the country plan to call in sick to demand the grocer offer hazard pay of double their current hourly wages, along with other health protections.

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The workers’ actions are taking place as many Americans find themselves largely stuck at home for weeks on end thanks to stay-at-home orders issued by cities and states, making consumers more reliant than ever on deliveries.

At the same time, the workers in those jobs have complained that the companies aren’t taking enough precautions to protect them as they risk their lives to come into work and ensure consumers get the products at home that they need.

Spokespeople for Amazon, Whole Foods and Instacart disputed the workers’ claims, saying they are taking appropriate precautions to protect them.

Both Democratic presidential candidates have shown support for the workers. On Saturday, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) encouraged Instacart to meet workers’ demands. “@Instacart was last valued at nearly $8 billion. A company of this size should not be forcing its workers to put themselves — and us all — at risk,” Sanders tweeted.

“Instacart needs to step up and give their workers the protections and pay they need and deserve. Now,” Joe Biden wrote on his Facebook page Sunday.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also voiced support. “First Instacart, then Amazon, now Whole Foods: workers are withholding their labor& demanding dignity,” she tweeted Monday. “When people work an hourly job, it’s suggested in many ways that you’re unimportant or expendable. Except you aren’t. Everyone deserves safe work, paid leave, & a living wage.”

Amazon workers test positive for covid-19 at 10 U.S. warehouses

Employees in at least 21 Amazon warehouse and shipping facilities across the United States have tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to Amazon and local media reports.

It’s unclear whether the Staten Island workers’ actions Monday had any impact on company operations.

Amazon’s warehouse workers have asked the company to offer paid time off for those who feel sick or need to self-quarantine, as well as to temporarily close warehouses for cleaning where workers test positive. One sign at Monday’s protest read, “Alexa, please shut down & sanitize the building,” referring to the company’s digital assistant.

About 50 workers walked out Monday, according to Chris Smalls, a worker at the warehouse who helped organize the action. Amazon, which is trying to hire 100,000 workers to address the crush of coronavirus-related orders, disputed that figure, as well as the complaints that it’s not doing enough to protect workers. Only 15 employees participated in the demonstration out of 5,000 who work at the warehouse, Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski said in an emailed statement.

At the end of the workday, Amazon fired Smalls, a process assistant who worked for the company for five years. A manager at the warehouse told Smalls he had been terminated for violating a quarantine, Smalls said, since he had been in contact with a co-worker who tested positive for the virus. Until Monday afternoon, though, Amazon hadn’t warned him about not showing up to work, he said.

“They are trying to silence me for speaking up on behalf of the people,” Smalls said Monday afternoon. “It’s retaliation.”

Amazon’s Levandowski said the company asked Smalls to stay home, with pay, because of his contact with the worker who tested positive, and his decision to come to the warehouse put others at risk.

“This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues,” Levandowski said.

Amazon’s warehouse workers sound alarms about coronavirus spread

Late Monday, New York Attorney General Letitia James called the firing “disgraceful,” asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate the incident, and said she is “considering all legal options.”

Earlier Monday, Levandowski said Amazon is increasing the facility’s cleaning, encouraging safe distancing among its staff and checking employees’ temperatures as they arrive to keep workers safe.

“Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable,” Levandowski said.

Instacart workers held their strike in part because they say the company has failed to provide hand sanitizer, masks or disinfectant during the outbreak. On Sunday, Instacart announced that it used a third-party vendor to manufacture hand sanitizer and would begin allowing workers to order it online Monday, and start shipping next week. Workers had asked that Instacart raise the default tip setting in the app to 10 percent, up from 5 percent or less. Instead, Instacart is changing the default setting to the customer’s last tip amounts.

The strike organizers said Instacart’s last-minute response was too little, too late and went forward with the strike.

In a statement, Instacart spokesperson Natalia Montalvo said the company has not experienced an impact from the collective action. The company had 40 percent more customers shopping Monday compared with the same day and time last week, and shopper satisfaction was high, she added in a statement.

But finding a same-day delivery window on Monday was a challenge.

“You’re insane if you think we aren’t disrupting their operations,” strike organizer Sarah Clarke tweeted Monday afternoon.

Instacart’s workers will strike for safety protections and hazard pay. A lifeline of groceries could be caught in the middle.

Instacart did not respond to questions from The Post about whether any of its workers have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

Instacart has also announced plans to hire 300,000 new workers over the next few months, and the company says that in the past week 250,000 new people signed up to become full-service workers. Already, 50,000 of them have started shopping on the platform.

It’s unclear how many Instacart workers participated in the strike, but one of the organizers, Vanessa Bain, said many veteran shoppers who support the strike have already been staying home. “They don’t feel safe and they don’t feel respected,” Bain said. They may lose income, but “it’s better than dying or infecting their family or infecting customers.”

Meanwhile, Whole Worker, a grass-roots campaign led by employees that is organizing the sickout Tuesday at Whole Foods, has received 9,266 signatures out of a goal of 10,000 on an online petition. Vice first reported the plans.

Whole Foods spokesperson Rachel Malish said in an emailed statement that the company is taking safety measures, including deep cleaning and crowd control, and that workers have access to up to two weeks of paid time off if they are quarantined or test positive for the coronavirus.

One member of Whole Worker, who works at a Whole Foods store in Wisconsin, said that roughly 5,000 workers signed an internal pledge to participate in the protest in recent weeks and that some distribution center drivers have expressed an interest in participating. The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation, said worker sentiment has changed during the pandemic.

“It really opened their eyes,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot more team members say, ‘You’re right, they don’t care about us. An extra $2 an hour isn’t worth it.’ ”