Protesters decry Amazon warehouse conditions as commerce giant gears up for holiday shopping blitz

Protesters decry Amazon warehouse conditions as commerce giant gears up for holiday shopping blitz

The chants echoed off the glassy exteriors of Amazon’s South Lake Union corporate headquarters: “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” “Tax! Bezos!”

Amazon, led by CEO Jeff Bezos, is projecting record-smashing holiday sales. Bezos has seen his personal wealth grow by nearly $67 billion this year.

But that bounty has not found its way into the pockets of Amazon’s front-line workers, some employees say, including thousands who demonstrated globally Friday. Those workers say the company has not done enough to keep them safe and reward their labor during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though Amazon shares have nearly doubled in value since March as Americans do more of their shopping online. In a potent signal of dissatisfaction with the status quo, workers at a newly opened Amazon warehouse in Alabama on Monday signaled their intent to unionize to secure better pay and higher safety standards.

In Seattle on Friday, protest organizer Chris Smalls led roughly 60 people carrying signs that read “Stop Union Busting” and “Paid Sick Leave” on a march through South Lake Union. The group — comprising older union organizers, young Seattleites who learned of the protest on Instagram and veterans of Seattle’s ongoing demonstrations against police brutality — demanded better pay, the right to unionize and more benefits for Amazon’s warehouse workers.

“We’re going to march and rally and tell these people who are making six figures what they need to hear: We’re essential workers. And we still exist,” Smalls said through a bullhorn, gesturing up at Amazon’s Terry Street offices. “They need us. And they need to take care of us. They’re not doing that right now.”

Amazon anticipates it will be busier than ever this holiday season, a time known as “peak,” when warehouse workers are expected to clock as many as 60 hours a week, typically in shifts of 10 to 12 hours. Some workers say even the off-peak pace at Amazon’s fulfillment centers can be punishing.

“It’s going to be awful as the holiday season ramps up,” said protester Sol Dressa, who grew concerned about conditions at Amazon warehouses while studying occupational safety in college. Dressa, who now works as a transportation safety advocate, said she worried that peak season could exacerbate repetitive stress injuries, which Amazon’s warehouse employees experience at much higher rates than industry averages, an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting found.

Smalls has been demonstrating against Amazon since March, when he was fired after leading a walkout of his Staten Island, New York, fulfillment center over what he said were inadequate sanitary precautions at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of ongoing efforts to quell organizing at its warehouses, Amazon later attempted to paint Smalls as “not smart or articulate,” according to internal Amazon memos leaked to Vice News.

Smalls founded a group called The Congress of Essential Workers, a coalition of Amazon employees and others filling front-line roles during the pandemic. The group is demanding Amazon provide more protective equipment and offer free health care and child care for employees.

It’s also calling on the company to reinstate a $2-an-hour pay bump Amazon instituted for several months this spring to incentivize workers to take shifts during the initial outbreak of COVID-19.

Pandemic restrictions at physical retail stores combined with many shoppers’ reluctance to leave their homes mean Amazon will likely book record post-Thanksgiving sales this year. Online sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday — when e-commerce retailers typically offer their steepest deals — are projected to jump nearly 30% over last year to $23 billion, according to research firm Adobe Analytics. Almost 40 cents of every retail dollar spent online are spent at Amazon, according to eMarketer.

To beef up for the shopping extravaganza, Amazon has embarked on an epic hiring spree, adding more than 400,000 employees, largely warehouse workers, between January and October, The New York Times reported. Amazon has made similarly huge investments in its physical logistics footprint and now employs nearly 500,000 contract delivery drivers.

Those changes may lessen the likelihood of shipping delays like those Amazon experienced at the start of the pandemic, when the company was simultaneously grappling with new social distancing requirements for workers and inundated by orders for cleaning supplies and work-from-home equipment.

Amazon now offers free, on-site coronavirus testing at many of its warehouses and has taken other precautions — such as staggering break times — to limit the spread of the virus at its facilities.

The company disputed how Smalls and other organizers described conditions in its warehouses.

“The fact is that Amazon already offers what this group is requesting: industry-leading pay with a $15 per hour or more minimum wage, health benefits that start on day one of employment, and opportunities for career growth,” said Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski in a statement. (Not all employees are eligible for health care benefits.) “We have made over 150 COVID-19 process updates and procured protective gear to protect our teams. Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing pandemic, we are evaluating and making changes in real-time.”

Many workers, though, say that the company should be investing more of its record revenue into the people Amazon calls its “superheroes”: the workers sorting, shelving and packing its products.

The company revealed in early October that nearly 20,000 of its front-line workers have tested positive or have been presumed positive for the coronavirus, an infection rate Amazon says is well below the general population.

But a steady drumbeat of infection notifications continues to flow into employees’ inboxes, said workers at four fulfillment centers around the country. And while Amazon is offering signing bonuses of up to $3,000 for new warehouse hires, current employees have received much less: Thanksgiving grocery vouchers and, for workers employed the entire month of December, a promise of a one-time bonus of up to $300.

Notably absent from Friday’s demonstration in Seattle were local Amazon warehouse workers.

“Well, of course — it’s Black Friday,” said Joel Vancil, a member of pro-union group Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity. “They’re at work.”

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