Amazon (AMZN) warehouse workers and advocates will stage more than a dozen protests nationwide this week as the company holds its annual Prime Day, a two-day shopping event on Tuesday and Wednesday set to do billions in sales, anti-Amazon organization Athena told Yahoo Finance.
The protests over working conditions and air pollution at the tech giant’s vast warehouse network come as a global pandemic has boosted Amazon’s e-commerce business but also heightened the safety risks faced by its employees.
Workers will voice coronavirus fears less than two weeks after the company announced that nearly 20,000 of its frontline workers had been infected with or were presumed to have COVID-19 during a six-month period. (Amazon says that this number represents 1.44% of its employees, less than the 2.3% of the U.S. population that has tested positive for the virus.)
“For Amazon, it’s their special day. People are unaware that shopping there is harming their communities,” says Chris Smalls, an Amazon warehouse worker who was fired the same day he participated in a walkout, though Amazon says it terminated him for violating social distancing guidelines.
“COVID-19 exposed a lot about this company. It’s life and death,” he adds. “If we won’t fight back, we can’t expect others to do it for us.”
‘People are risking their health and their family’s health’
The combination of virtual and in-person demonstrations will highlight what protesters say were inadequate and inconsistently enforced safety measures put in place during the pandemic. Protesters will also call out Amazon for its alleged retaliation against workers who have spoken out about health concerns in a series of protests since March. (Amazon says it has “zero tolerance for retaliation against employees who raise concerns.”)
Workers and community members will hold protests in regions with a large warehouse footprint, including the inland empire of Southern California, the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, and New Jersey.
“We’re shipping more soap and hand sanitizer but it’s mostly the same stuff,” says William Stolz, a warehouse worker at a facility in Shakopee, Minn., for the past three years. “People are risking their health and their family’s health to be able to get a DVD to your house in two days.”
He praised Amazon for implementing safety measures like daily temperature screenings and social distancing requirements but said the company has invoked the new rules to retaliate against workers who demand better working conditions.
Earlier this month, workers at the Shakopee, Minn., warehouse walked off a shift demanding the reinstatement of Farhiyo Warsame, a coworker who had advocated for improved working conditions. She was fired for “time off task” violations that penalize excessive breaks, according to a Vice report from earlier this month.
But Stolz said “time off task” violations are more common amid pandemic-related safety requirements, since bathroom breaks take longer due to occupancy limits and workstations require additional cleaning to meet higher standards.
At a protest on Wednesday afternoon, he will join coworkers outside their facility to oppose what they say is the inconsistent application of the rules and advocate for improved conditions.
“Amazon is abusing different safety mandates to drop a hammer on a lot of people,” Stolz says. “They’re trying to catch people instead of trying to enforce safety.”
‘Largely low-quality’ jobs
The spike in demand for online shopping during the pandemic prompted a hiring blitz of 175,000 warehouse workers in March and April as other sectors endured layoffs in the early weeks of the pandemic. In September, the company said it plans to hire another 100,000 employees to keep up with increased demand.
Since Amazon workers are non-union, the protests offer an avenue to put pressure on the company amid increased dangers posed by the coronavirus, said John Logan, a professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. He credited protests in the early months of the pandemic for pushing the company to implement additional coronavirus protections.
“The protests have switched a spotlight on the issues and put more pressure on Amazon to step up,” he says. “It’s a combination of worker action, media coverage, and political pressure.”
‘Those who have asthma have been affected by the air quality’
The protests will not just involve Amazon workers, though. Edison Hernandez, a certified instructor with the federal labor enforcement agency Occupational Safety and Health Administration who lives near an Amazon warehouse in Elizabeth, New Jersey, said workers at the facility complained to him about insufficient implementation of social distancing and mask-wearing requirements. (Amazon refutes the claim that it has insufficient social distancing at its Elizabeth, New Jersey facility.)
“The negligence of Amazon not providing work safety for employees is shameful,” he says.
Hernandez will participate in a protest in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on Tuesday that will call on the company not only to improve the safety of its warehouse but to also address air pollution emitted by the facility, he said. The protest will mark the launch of an air quality testing project to monitor air around the warehouse, community organization Make The Road New Jersey said.
“Those who have asthma have been affected by the air quality near the facility,” Hernandez says. “What worries me most is the contamination Amazon has put out into our community.”
In response to concerns about air pollution, Amazon cited its “Climate Pledge,” which includes a commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040 but does not specifically address air pollution.
‘They’ve really worked very hard’
In a statement to Yahoo Finance, Amazon said: “Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our employees, which is why at the onset of the pandemic we moved quickly to make more than 150 COVID-19 related process changes. Today, we are anything but complacent and continue to innovate, learn, and improve the measures we have in place to protect our teams.”
Since the outbreak, Amazon has made efforts to take the temperature of workers before they entered U.S. facilities, provide all workers with protective masks, and give partial pay to workers who were sent home with a fever.
Dale Rogers, a professor of logistics and supply chain management at Arizona State University, said Amazon deserves credit in its own right for the commitment it has made to worker safety amid the pandemic.
“If you look at what Amazon has done in spending resources on trying to keep workers safe, they’ve really worked very hard,” he says.
In a second quarter report in July, Amazon said that its e-commerce business brought in $46.78 billion in revenue and $1.34 billion in operating profit — the latter amounted to over four times the operating profit reported over the same quarter a year ago. The increased popularity of Amazon’s shopping service in recent months owes to its high value for consumers spending more time at home, Rogers noted.
“It’s likely Prime Day will set some new records,” he says. “But if you look at what’s in the near future for Amazon, it’s kind of like every day is Prime Day these days.”
Editor's note: This post has been updated with additional comments from Amazon.