By Kellie Chudzinski
Local Amazon workers joined their colleagues nationwide, along with employees of Target and Instacart in organized walk out and “sick out” protests on Friday, May 1 — also known as May Day or International Workers’ Day — to demand better treatment, pay and protections amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Roughly a dozen protesters, including Amazon workers, union advocates and supporters, gathered on an El Segundo Boulevard sidewalk outside of Amazon’s Hawthorne warehouse to stand with workers nationwide. The facility handles the final stages of deliveries for much of West Los Angeles.
As the COVID-19 crisis has shut down many forms of business, work for retail giants has been deemed “essential” though workers claim they are being treated as “disposable.”
“[We] just want to remind everyone that there was an existing problem the working class faced prior to the pandemic,” said one worker from the Hawthorne facility who asked to be identified only as Gabby over fears of retaliation for participating in the protest. “Having to choose between rent and health. We are not only fighting for better work conditions for Amazon workers, but for a better precedent for all workers, all industries, in solidarity.”
Employees of Amazon held signs saying, “If we are essential, treat us as such,” “Amazon has made $74B during COVID while we risk our lives,” and “Our work is essential, Jeff Bezos is not.”
Cars zooming by on the busy street offered honks in support, while one driver pulled over to offer words of encouragement and to voice why he thought essential workers should be treated as “heroes.”
Around the country, employees of the retailer are asking for a range of protections, including paid time off to await COVID-19 test results (Amazon offered unlimited unpaid time off through the end of April), protective and cleaning equipment at work and guaranteed hazard pay, among others. Target, Instacart and Shipt workers also joined in with a separate list of demands that included hazard pay and protective equipment.
Amazon, which employs over 750,000 people, has had one publicly reported worker death from COVID-19 at a fulfillment center in Tracy, California. According to the Los Angeles Times, employees at six Amazon facilities in Southern California had tested positive for coronavirus in early April.
Reports have circulated of Amazon employees being fired for protesting conditions or refusing to work without protections. Gabby said she had been alerted to three COVID-19 cases at her location by the company though employees were circulating a number closer to seven, which led protesters to ask for transparency from Amazon.
“We need to know what’s going on. We need to know if we’re being exposed,” Gabby said. “We need to know if we’re bringing this to our family. We’re asking for unity amongst all essential workers.”
Gabby, along with another Amazon worker from a different facility who asked to be identified only as Pacey, were the only Amazon workers out at Friday’s Hawthorne demonstration. They both claimed that the protections the company has said it would put in place, including checking for COVID-19 symptoms beginning with heat checks, and PPE, have been slow to materialize.
“My co-workers didn’t join because they fear retaliation, which I anticipate, and they need the money Amazon is offering albeit an inadequate and unfair wage,” Gabby said. “They feel like coming out would have had no impact, made no change. Basically, they figured it was a waste of time. It was disheartening. … [But] they have been backed into a corner by capitalism, institutionalized racism, poverty, lacking degrees.”
At the protest, Pacey reiterated the group’s desire for unity among workers across sectors to fight for better conditions and hold those in the company responsible for the care of workers.
“We’re heroes in name only. We’re treated as disposable,” said Pacey adding later in a larger app-based group chat for workers participating in the demonstrations across the country that “not everyone is prepared to be a martyr. Even if some don’t appreciate what you’re doing, you’re making a difference not only for them but for people who do recognize that your stand is helping them.”
As the pandemic has forced lockdowns and closures of non-essential businesses, many consumers have turned to the shipping and retail giant. Marketwatch reported that Amazon has made $75 billion in sales during 2020’s first quarter, but that the company would likely spend the entirety of its second-quarter operating profits — an estimated $4 billion — on its COVID-19 response.
In a company email, shared by an employee, Amazon wrote, “Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our employees. We continue enhanced deep cleanings… And we have made over 150 process changes to promote everyone’s health and safety.”