“Dildos are not essential items,” he told a Detroit television reporter during the protest, in video shared thousands of times on Twitter.
Crippen’s criticism illustrates how Amazon’s warehouse workers are finding their voice to push back on what some say are unsafe working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. Workers in at least 64 U.S. facilities have tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
“Amazon is not looking at its employees correctly, not doing what it needs to,” Crippen said this week.
Small groups of workers protested outside Amazon warehouse and shipping facilities over the past couple of weeks in New York, Michigan and Illinois to demand safer working conditions. Even though they represent a fraction of Amazon’s overall operations — the company has roughly 500 U.S. warehouse and shipping facilities, according to logistics consultancy MWPVL International — they’ve begun coordinating with unions and community groups to elevate their profile and their demands.
Workers have signed petitions to shut down their warehouses and demanded changes in rules regarding the speed at which they’re required to work, something that might discourage safe sanitary practices.
The efforts might be bearing fruit. After the U.S. protests, Amazon began handing warehouse workers face masks and checking the temperatures of employees as they begin shifts, sending workers home for three days if they register 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
Amazon’s decision to increase the pay for hourly employees through April by $2 an hour in the United States, 2 pounds ($2.49) an hour in the United Kingdom and about 2 euros ($2.18) an hour in parts of the European Union followed protests from warehouse workers in Italy and Spain.
“People are sympathetic,” said Joshua Freeman, a labor history professor at Queens College at the City University of New York. “Amazon is acutely sensitive to the issue.”
Amazon disputes that it made any changes based on outside pressure.
“We did it because it was the right thing to do for our associates who are performing a vital service during this crisis,” company spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski said in a statement.
The company is “tripling down” on cleaning, procuring personal protective equipment and imposing new rules to make sure workers maintain safe distances from one another, Levandowski said. And, she added, “the vast majority” of Amazon’s employees continue to show up for work every day.
(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Amazon activists aren’t alone in finding their voices among delivery workers, supermarket staff and warehouse employees who toiled in the shadows before the coronavirus crisis. Last week, some workers for grocery delivery app Instacart began a nationwide strike to demand hazard pay of $5 per order and better health protections. On Tuesday, workers for Target’s delivery app Shipt refused jobs to protest working conditions and pay during the outbreak.
Amazon’s warehouse workers are finding leverage as many Americans remain at home for weeks or more on orders by cities and states, making consumers more reliant than ever on its deliveries. Amazon has struggled to meet the crush of coronavirus-related orders, prioritizing stocking and delivering items deemed most essential and racing to hire 100,000 workers in the span of a few weeks.
Workers “have felt as if they are replaceable,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). “They are essential. They matter. They are part of something that makes our economy operate.”
Perrone joined a half-dozen other labor leaders to call on Bezos to protect Amazon workers. The UFCW has organized a small group of Illinois Instacart workers and would welcome the chance to work with Amazon employees, Perrone said.
The likelihood of Amazon’s U.S. workers forming a union are slim, given unfavorable labor laws, said Iain Gold, director of the Teamsters’ strategic research and campaigns department. Instead, the Teamsters see benefit in supporting Amazon’s workers to prevent it from “driving down working conditions and labor standards” that could spread to companies where its members work, Gold said. And Gold’s boss, Teamsters President James Hoffa also signed the letter pressing Bezos to protect workers.
Amazon’s activist workers are also finding support from groups such as Athena, a coalition of community groups and worker-rights organizations that have helped coordinate protests and publicized the events and worker claims.
“This is a moment for a reckoning about how working people are represented,” said Athena director Dania Rajendra.
For years, Amazon has successfully battled to keep unions out of its U.S. facilities. Six years ago, Amazon beat back an effort by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to represent a small group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians at the company’s Middletown, Del., warehouse, with workers rejecting union representation in a 21-6 vote.
It’s not clear that Amazon’s U.S. warehouse workers would join a union, even those who worry about not having the protections they need during the pandemic. First, the number of workers to organize is massive; most of the company’s roughly 500,000 U.S. employees work in warehouses and shipping facilities. What’s more, employees might worry about losing their jobs, or losing out on opportunities, during an organizing drive, said Victor Diaz, who works in receiving at an Amazon facility in Rialto, Calif.
“People don’t feel safe. People don’t know what to do,” Diaz said.
The company has increased efforts to get workers to physically distance from one another. And face masks have made their way to his facility. But Diaz worries that workers will disregard Amazon’s efforts because they have bills to pay.
“They need the money. They are going to show up to work,” Diaz said.
One worker who spoke out has gotten support from prominent politicians. Last week, Chris Smalls, a warehouse worker in Staten Island, N.Y., was fired after raising concerns to several media outlets including The Post. Amazon said the dismissal related to Smalls’s ignoring a request from his manager to stay home after contact with a worker who tested positive for covid-19.
Days after the firing, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky suggested the company’s senior leaders fend off workplace safety criticism by trying to turn the focus on Smalls, calling him “not smart or articulate.” After the news site Vice reported on the letter, Zapolsky said in a statement that he “let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”
Politicians have rallied to the defense of Smalls, who called his firing retaliation. New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) called the move “disgraceful,” asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate the firing and said she is “considering all legal options.” On Wednesday, five U.S. senators, including former Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), sent Bezos a letter raising concerns about Smalls’s firing.
“The right to organize is a bedrock of our economy, responsible for many of the greatest advances achieved by workers over generation,” the senators wrote in a letter to Bezos.
Amazon contends the work environment and benefits it offers compare favorably to other retailers. And the company says it believes it is best positioned to address the needs of its workers.
“For us, it will always be about providing a great employment experience through a direct connection with our employees,” Levandowski said.
Crippen, who has worked stowing products in Amazon’s Romulus warehouse since August 2018, plans to continue to speak out.
“If I’ve got to be that voice for everybody, I will,” Crippen said.