U.S. workers at a handful of major companies walked off the job Friday, protesting treatment during the outbreak of coronavirus.
Warehouse workers and grocery employees at Amazon and its subsidiary Whole Foods and gig workers for Instacart and Target-owned Shipt banded together for the protest on May Day, or International Workers Day. The workers — whose jobs have become ever more critical because of coronavirus quarantines and stay-at-home orders — called for more personal protective equipment, professional cleaning services and hazard pay from their employers.
A small crowd gathered in front of an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, on Friday, made up of Amazon workers, as well as nurses and other health care professionals offering support. Protests were also planned in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Ohio and Kentucky.
“It was surreal,” said Christian Smalls, an organizer of the Staten Island protests, on his way to a second stop at the governor’s office. “I see heroes — nurses and doctors were out there, transit workers.”
Amazon, Target, Shipt and Whole Foods said their operations were not interrupted. It was not immediately clear how many people participated, although the companies said it was a small number.
Those groups of workers have each previously waged individual protests since March, with what companies described as little impact on operations. But Friday marks the first time that workers classified as essential combined their efforts.
“This is a matter of life or death,” said Smalls, a former Amazon worker who was fired from a Staten Island warehouse in March. “The virus is killing some of our employees.”
Workers at about 25 Amazon warehouses planned to walk out at midday and petition in front of the facilities, Smalls said, and they will often be joined by Instacart, Shipt and other workers.
Smalls said he was fired for helping to organize a protest; Amazon said he violated an order that he stay home after being exposed to COVID-19.
Outside New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, protesters called for the governor to protect Amazon workers.
Posing near body bags, the protestors chanted, “This is our future if you don’t act.”
About 10 people protested at an Amazon warehouse in the Bay Area, said Amazon worker and organizer Adrienne Williams. Others reported seeing a car protest outside a Target in Atlanta, and calls for strikes projected on a large office building in Oakland.
The onset of the coronavirus and the subsequent classification of many of these workers as “essential” have heightened some existing tensions. Workers have accused the companies of being slow to provide protective gear and implement precautions, something that may have put them in danger.
After the previous rounds of individual protests, many of the companies made public promises to provide more gear and safety precautions. But some of the workers say they’ve failed to follow through.
Some Instacart workers received protective gear, but posted unboxing videos showing flimsy masks and spilled hand sanitizer. Other Instacart workers say they have yet to receive protective gear and have had difficulty accessing the COVID-19 benefits for workers who fall ill. Some Shipt workers who spoke with The Post say they have yet to receive free kits with gloves and hand sanitizer that the company promised in early April.
Willy Solis, a Shipt organizer in Dallas and an organizer of the May Day protests, said Target, which owns Shipt, is not doing enough.
“They said they procured PPE for all shoppers,” he said, referring to protective gear such as masks and gloves. “In reality, only a very small portion of us have received it.”
The companies disagree. Instacart spokeswoman Natalia Montalvo said the company has been working to implement new policies, distribute protective equipment and give out bonuses.
Shipt spokeswoman Julie Coop said the company is distributing protective equipment to shoppers and handing out bonuses. Meanwhile, Target is deep-cleaning checkout lanes, limiting customer traffic and adding plexiglass partitions, spokeswoman Danielle Schumann said. “While we take them seriously, the concerns raised are from a very small minority,” she said in an email.
Schumann said the company was aware of fewer than 10 workers who protested Friday.
Amazon expects to spend more than $800 million in the first half of 2020 on COVID-19 related improvements for hourly employees and partners, including raising wages by $2 an hour through May 16, said spokeswoman Rachael Lighty.
“While we respect people’s right to express themselves, we object to the irresponsible actions of labor groups in spreading misinformation and making false claims about Amazon during this unprecedented health and economic crisis,” Lighty said. “The statements made are not supported by facts or representative of the majority of the 500,000 Amazon operations employees in the U.S. who are showing up to work to support their communities.”
Lighty said operations were not impacted by the protests Friday. She said the company observed less than 100 people at a handful of protests.
Whole Foods spokeswoman Rachel Malish echoed those remarks, saying the action isn’t representative of the company’s 95,000 employees and that organizers have misrepresented “the full extent of Whole Foods Market’s actions in response to this crisis.”
“We continue to operate our stores and serve our customers without interruption,” she said.
Solis said message boards made up of Shipt supporters were blowing up with activity on Friday, from gig workers across the country expressing support. Many workers were having trouble finding jobs to claim on the app, though Solis didn’t know if that was due to a customer boycott or not.
More than 62,000 people have died in the United States of COVID-19, prompting federal, state and local governments to order millions of people to stay home. The subsequent economic crisis has led to thousands of layoffs, and only essential businesses have been allowed to stay open.
Fueling workers’ concerns, grocery store employees have died of the virus across the country, pushing others to stay home or quit.
Amazon, Instacart and Shipt have been slammed by orders as people turn online for necessities. On Thursday, Amazon reported a 26% spike in revenue for its first quarter but said profits were hit as it spends $4 billion on COVID-related expenses, including worker safety.
Amazon workers in dozens of warehouses have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least one worker has died.
Companies posting profits in the midst of the pandemic are under a microscope. “If their sales are going up, but they are not passing any reasonable pay on to workers, it could be a huge PR disaster for some of these companies,” said Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank.
Workers were also calling for people to broadly boycott Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart and Target on Friday.
“Support essential workers! Don’t cross the picket line!” a poster circulating on social media reads.
Economists and historians interviewed by The Washington Post said it is unusual to see worker protests when unemployment is skyrocketing.
“People’s backs are up against the wall in a way they haven’t been in quite some time,” Louis Hyman, author of “Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary,” said in an interview in late March. “The idea that you’re going to risk your death to deliver food for a $5 tip, it’s going to make you angry, it’s going to make you feel like you have nothing left to lose.”