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Putting Profits Before Workers’ Safety: Inside Amazon During the COVID-19 Crisis

Photograph Source: Fibonacci Blue – CC BY 2.0

As coronavirus continues to spread and much of the country is locking down, Amazon has been ramping up. With more people staying home, delivery is becoming more important than ever, and more lucrative. Demand is soaring for deliveries on everyday necessities, everything from toilet paper to powdered milk.

All these deliveries require an army of workers—drivers, handlers, sorters, and more—at the company’s vast network of fulfillment and delivery centers. I am part of that army, a contracted cargo handler at an Amazon delivery station outside of Seattle, near the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.

While so many in the working class suffer an untold cost from coronavirus-related wage losses and layoffs, those of us still working bear the brunt in other ways. My coworkers and I are working harder than ever, putting our health on the line to provide an important service to our quarantined neighbors. But the executives and the billionaires at Amazon and its contractors are unfortunately not taking basic steps to protect our health and the health of the public, despite what their PR departments might say.

Unhealthy Conditions at Amazon

The Amazon delivery network is a potential hotbed for coronavirus spread. While health officials advise against meetings of 10 or more people, Amazon warehouses have 100, 500, or even 1500 employees working in a single location. From these warehouses, drivers and cargo handlers like me are dispatched all over the region, entering thousands of apartment buildings, businesses, and residences to deliver packages.

Despite this clear potential for danger, Amazon has not taken many simple precautions to prevent an outbreak. For example, neither Amazon nor our contractor has provided basic supplies like hand sanitizer for our trucks, to disinfect between deliveries, in spite of repeated requests from workers.

At our delivery station, we have also not seen any increase in our paid sick leave to account for the virus threat. Many of our coworkers would face a difficult choice if they experienced symptoms of coronavirus: go to work and risk infecting your coworkers, or miss as many as 5 days of pay (the time it can take to get tested for COVID-19 and receive the results). In the context of high rents, low wages, and no support for paid leave, many of them will be forced to take the risk and come to work.

On top of this, there has been remarkably little communication from Amazon management about precautions and procedures, including the question of what happens if one of our coworkers were to test positive for COVID-19. This question has become even more urgent, after an Amazon associate recently tested positive at a delivery station in New York City and five tested positive at a warehouse in Spain. In New York, employees say that it was co-workers—not Amazon management—that informed them of the positive test result, and that workers were asked to come in for their shift after the case was discovered. Amazon should communicate clearly with its employees and contractors about this threat, and they should immediately shut down any facility where a positive coronavirus case is found, with full pay for all affected workers.

These problems are not isolated to Seattle and New York. My Amazon coworkers have been increasingly trying to sound the alarm at warehouses around the country—but often anonymously, for fear of retaliation.

Workers and Community Members Need to Fight Back

Urgent action is needed, for workers like me who are being put into increasing danger, and for workers who are losing incomes because they are forced to stay home without paid leave or have been laid off.

The bosses of huge corporations like Amazon appear to have no intention of fixing these problems on their own, despite having the money necessary to do so, out of concern for their profits. Neither do the Democratic and Republican political establishments, which have failed to address the needs of working people even in normal times. To solve this crisis, workers will need to organize and demand change, whether for immediate cash assistance, guaranteed paid sick leave, safe working conditions, or Medicare for All.

In Seattle, socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant is fighting for a $500 million tax on big corporations like Amazon to fund immediate relief for working people. Workers, socialists, labor unions, and activists will need to join in this fight if we want to win.

In another important step, over 1,500 Amazon employees from around the world have signed a public petition calling for action from the company. In addition to urgent safety precautions, the petition correctly calls for Amazon to institute 1.5x hazard pay for all of us who are risking our health to do this work.

Deeper Problems Exposed

 The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the bankruptcy of capitalism. Corporations like Amazon put profits over the health of their workers and the community. When workplace problems arise, employees have little to no recourse through regular corporate structures, where unresponsive bosses have a monopoly on decision-making.

This system, which was already failing the vast majority of working people even before the coronavirus outbreak, has shown its complete inability to deal with the global pandemic as well as the rapidly emerging climate crisis. The model of siphoning off unimaginable wealth to the top, while even the most essential social needs like healthcare are starved, is not working. We urgently need a single-payer Medicare for All system, where the profits of insurance and big pharma are de-prioritized, so that the health needs of ordinary people can be met. Workers will need to get organized and build mass movements to win this kind of change.

But that will not be enough. Ultimately, unless entire sectors like healthcare and energy and housing, and large corporations like Amazon, are taken into democratic public ownership, crises such as coronavirus and climate change will not be addressed. Instead of allowing massive layoffs and bailing out big corporations like Boeing, we need to take the major corporations into our own hands as workers and democratically run them ourselves.

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Matt Smith is an Amazon cargo handler and member of Socialist Alternative.

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