Two things are true: Amazon makes life drastically easier for everyone who uses it, and drastically harder for almost everyone who works for it.
This conflict is true of most companies; work, in general, is not something that makes life easier. But in the midst of a global pandemic and massive nationwide recession, the disparity between Amazon’s customer convenience and callous labor practices has rarely — if ever — been more stark.
A general timeline of events: Amazon workers have been fighting for better sick leave policies and other workplace improvements for years, but, so far, the company has largely been able to deflect negative press over its barbaric treatment of employees while sidelining their demands and discouraging collective action.
As the coronavirus epidemic spread, however, workers at several locations around the country started pushing even harder. On March 23, workers won a change to the company’s paid leave policy, which extended sick leave benefits to part-time and seasonal workers.
In the past two weeks the epidemic has exploded in size, forcing many businesses to close down and putting over six million people out of work. Amazon warehouses, for the most part, have remained open, with some exceptions, even when there are confirmed cases among the workforce.
As New York City became the epicenter of the disease in the United States, the focus shifted to Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, where on Monday a group of over two dozen workers walked out to protest the company’s insufficient response to the disease. On Tuesday, Amazon responded to the protest by firing the worker who organized it, a man named Chris Smalls. The company claimed that Smalls “violated social distancing guidelines,” a justification so weak and unintentionally ironic that it barely seems real.
Amazon fired Smalls because they could, clearly hoping to quash any further insurrection at the Staten Island warehouse despite the hit they would take in the press. On Thursday, hand written notes from an Amazon executive meeting leaked to Vice News described General Counsel David Zapolsky pushing to make Smalls “the face of the entire union/ organizing movement,” in order to weaken workers’ position, because they thought he would be an easy target.
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” Zapolsky wrote in notes from the meeting obtained by Vice News.
Smalls’ protest did have some effect: On Thursday morning, the company announced that it would provide face masks for workers and check their temperatures before they entered the building, and, in a particularly dystopian twist, use video monitoring and machine learning to enforce social distancing rules inside the workplace. But there’s a catch: Buzzfeed reports that employees sent home from work would be required to use their paid sick leave days, and take unpaid leave when those run out.
Given the circumstances, this response may seem absurd. But it’s largely par for the course for Amazon, which pays several extremely important people enormous amounts of money to smooth over issues like this. Jay Carney, the former White House Press Secretary under Barack Obama who now heads Amazon’s PR, spent the morning angrily replying to people on Twitter and complaining about “ad-hominem attacks” when they told to fuck off. After the leaked memo, the company offered up a lengthy but largely toothless response, blaming the lack of appropriate safety material in Amazon warehouses on global shortages of PPE and minimizing the level of support the protests had, again casting Smalls as an irresponsible worker who put his colleagues at risk.
What Amazon wants is for all of this to go away. The best-case scenario for the company, of course, would be to find the optimal point between minimizing infections between workers while still running each and every facility in the company at full capacity. Unless infection becomes so rampant that distribution centers become death traps, workers falling sick is not a huge concern; the company already treats them as disposable — data analysis by the National Employment Law Project found that the turnover rate for warehouse workers in counties that had an Amazon facility was over 100 percent in 2017 — and shows inadequate regard for their safety. They know they can accomplish this, most likely, though sanitization measures and dystopian surveillance, for a far cheaper price tag than, say, expanding sick leave and staffing to give sick workers time to recover if they fall ill.
That gives customers a choice: stand with workers trying to do their jobs without risking death or unemployment, or continue to accept the cut-rate politics of a company owned by the richest man in the world.