Jeff Bezos is nothing if not consistent. Again and again, he descends to meet or exceed expectations. Latest example: the firing on Monday of Christian Smalls, an employee at Amazon’s Staten Island, New York warehouse, and an organizer of a walkout to protest what he and others consider an insufficient response to safety concerns at the site in light of the coronavirus pandemic. After a worker was diagnosed with COVID-19, many workers thought the facility should have shut down for intensive cleaning. Amazon thought otherwise. A company spokesperson confirmed Smalls’ dismissal, attributing it to his refusal to observe a self-quarantine after exposure.
The aggressive move by Amazon resonated. On Wednesday, representatives of seven labor unions penned a letter to “Jeff Bezos and Amazon Executives.” Those unions — the AFL-CIO; Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; United Food and Commercial Workers International Union; American Federation of Teachers; Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — were joined by a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.
The writers said they are “shocked at reports that Amazon warehouses are not practicing the protocols necessary to protect the well-being of your workers and of the public” and are “outraged” over Smalls’ firing. They called for his reinstatement, “to reassure all workers and observers that speaking out about improvements needed to health and safety practices right now is not only tolerated, but WELCOMED as critically important to all of our well-being.” They also pushed for closure of Amazon warehouses with full pay for employees until “real solutions — with independent monitors” are put in place. In addition to the union reps, 45 New York City and State public officials signed as well. Among them: the City’s Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, New York State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris and Labor Chair Jessica Ramos.
On the positive side, Bezos has pledged $20 million in the fight against COVID-19, via the establishment of the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Diagnostic Development Initiative which, according to its web site, “provides support for innovation in rapid and accurate patient testing for 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and other diagnostic solutions to mitigate future outbreaks.”
That’s great and essential. Particularly in the United States, where the lack of access to testing continues as a critical issue. But, as the old proverb goes, charity begins at home. Bezos’ employee-related actions indicate a remarkable callousness, and a hardline approach to dealing with even the smallest degree of dissent. That attitude is a pre-existing condition and no secret. Amazon’s brutal working conditions and culture have been scrutinized by, among others, The New York Times (Aug. 15, 2015) and John Oliver (June 30, 2019).
While in sharp focus now, during this COVID-19 crisis, the concept of “essential worker” has been clarified. In our terrible new normal, that it’s those workers in the trenches, the too often invisible people getting us those essential things we need — food and pharmacy items — those in warehouses and fulfillment centers, the drivers. Those people are showing up for work because they are in some way on the front lines of fueling the world’s basic functions. Many feel both lucky to still have a job and fearful for their safety.
From the onset of the pandemic, when it became clear that employment as we knew it would be rocked to its core, Bezos has behaved like, well, Bezos toward his employees. Which is to say, horribly. At the start, which now seems like a very long time ago, he revealed his attitude not directly but through a senior surrogate. In a March 12 e-mail to employees, John Mackey, chief executive officer of Amazon subsidiary Whole Foods, informed employees that they were welcomed to donate their PTO to “Team Members who have a medical emergency or death in their immediate family.” Wow.
Also last month, the company revealed the launch of the Amazon Relief Fund, through which contract and seasonal workers can apply for grants for sick leave or acute financial need. Amazon launched the fund with $25 million, accessible for applications via a web site run by the nonprofit Emergency Assistance Foundation. The site solicits public donations. After that news broke to unsurprising backlash, Amazon insisted that the public donation element was just a misunderstanding due to standard EAF language, and that contributions are not expected. Bezos and Amazon should probably be given the benefit of the doubt on that one, not because a shred of prior good behavior indicates they deserve it, but because it’s hard to believe that anyone, let alone someone brilliant enough to become, from humble beginnings, the richest person on Earth, could be so tone-deaf. Nevertheless, two big “Donate” buttons, for U.S. and international donations, remain intact and functioning on the Amazon Relief Fund page.
Meanwhile, there are examples of billionaires doing right by their employees. After the suspension of the NBA season, Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban was quick to promise support for the hourly workers at American Airlines Center where the Mavericks play their home games. He has also stated that any companies receiving federal assistance should be prohibited from using the funds to buy back stock.
(Off the topic of major employers, but philosophically relevant: New Orleans Pelicans’ rookie Zion Williamson, who’s just one of many athletes and celebrities making major contributions. They all deserve praise, but Williamson stands out because of his age; really, he’s just a few years post-childhood. Though there are a lot of shiny playthings for purchase to catch the eye of a newly wealthy 19-year-old, Williamson stepped up to pay the wages of all suddenly out-of-work workers at the Pelicans’ home arena for 30 days. His reason was simple. He noted how kind and welcoming those workers had been upon his arrival in New Orleans, saying, “My mother has always set an example for me about being respectful for others and being grateful for what we have.” (If you’re a parent, that had to bring a lump to your throat.)
But back to the billionaire employers, another example: Sheldon Adelson, the controversial founder and ceo of Las Vegas Sands Corp., is paying his entire staff for as long as his hotel properties are closed. Like Bezos with Whole Foods, he had a lieutenant make the statement. It was worded simply, with zero ambiguity. “Our team members and their families will rightly be concerned about their health and safety, but we do not want them worried about their jobs, income or health care,” said Rob Goldstein, president and chief operating officer. “Like we have done in the past, we are fully prepared to support our team members over an extended period should it be needed.”
Bezos had made no such promises. But then, much of his workforce can’t do the job from home. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, he has temporarily increased the pay of hourly workers $2 per hour, making the starting wage $17 an hour. And through May 9, those working more than 40 hours a week will get double time rather than time-and-a-half. Significant increases, though still tough to raise a family on.
But no wage increase makes up for unsafe work conditions — or knowing that your job is at risk should you walk — even speak — out against dangerous conditions. Smalls’ firing sent a very clear message across Amazon’s network of warehouses and fulfillment centers: “Protest at your own risk.” It was egregious enough for New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio to say in his press briefing on Tuesday that he would refer the matter to the City’s Commission on Human Rights, shortly after New York Attorney General Letitia James called for a probe of Amazon over Smalls’ firing. Also on Tuesday, Whole Foods employees staged a “sickout” over working conditions at the stores.
Meanwhile, an article posted March 24 to the About Amazon blog addresses the issue of clean working conditions. Its title: “How Amazon prioritizes health and safety while fulfilling customer orders.” “We have increased the frequency and intensity of cleaning at all sites, including regular sanitization of door handles, handrails, touch screens, scanners, and other frequently touched areas,” it reads. “We’re also requiring employees and delivery service partners to clean and disinfect their work stations.”
That means whopping sections of Amazon fulfillment and other sites are not being cleaned professionally, and that the degree of cleanliness therefore depends upon the individual resolve and housekeeping skills of thousands of already overburdened individual employees whose primary jobs are not to scrub away a killer virus.
Last week, workers at an Amazon warehouse in the Detroit area claimed they found out through the rumor mill that a coworker had tested positive. The Verge reported that when some confronted management, they were told that five workers who had been in direct contact with the COVID-19-positive person had been informed. Five people — in an Amazon warehouse. According to reports, similar cases have arisen at other Amazon sites, with only some of the locations evacuated for cleaning.
Amazon didn’t become Amazon in a vacuum; Jeff Bezos didn’t become the richest person in the world all by himself. He attained that status on the strength of a genius idea voraciously developed, implemented and grown over 25 years. He’s had help all along — from millions and millions of people who jumped at his retail concept of breadth and depth of merch and extreme efficiency: whatever I want, whenever I want, end of story.
Only that’s not the end of the story. Buying whatever I want with a touch of my phone while sitting on my sofa — terrific. Having it delivered this afternoon — even better. Once I’m finished phone shopping, I can focus on binge-watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
Even now, at this darkest of moments, we have choices to make when we’re deciding where to order from or in which physical store to keep our six-foot distance. When this is over — as, God willing, it will be at some point — we’ll maybe be more conscious of the choices we have — what to buy, how and where, even what shows to stream. At that point, sadly, many small local favorite shopping locations will likely be gone and two titans of retail, Amazon and Walmart, will be even more important.
From the start of this, Walmart has shown sensitivity to its workers. Today, April 2, it is paying out cash bonuses to all hourly associates “for their hard work and dedication to serving customers in a time of an unprecedented national health crisis.” It has waived the $4 fee for telehealth visits. It also implemented reduced hours at its 24-hour locations in part to allow time for proper sanitizing, and is installing sneeze guards, first at its pharmacy lanes in both Walmart and Sam’s Clubs stores, and soon, at all Walmart registers.
There’s still a long way to go, particularly with entry-level hourly pay. But with the bonuses, and doing its best to sanitize its stores, Walmart is at least recognizing those most essential employees who typically get no recognition and making a good effort to ensure the cleanliness and safety of their work environment.
At WWD, we hear constantly from major brands that consumers care about a company’s values, increasingly so over the past few years. Often, that conversation focuses on sustainability, that consumers want to know if a brand is engaging in responsible environmental practices.
Humans are natural resources, too. They should be respected as much as the air and the oceans. Jeff Bezos won’t change, not on his own. He doesn’t have to. Millions and millions of consumers tell him so every day with their purchases and their show-streaming. Bezos can be changed. But it will take millions and millions of consumers flexing their values-driven purchasing power to deliver the message that while convenience is great, respect for those delivering it matters more.
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