Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos quoted Dr. Seuss to close his annual letter to shareholders, released Thursday as the global coronavirus pandemic rages:
“When something bad happens you have three choices. You can either let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you.”
Bezos added, “I am very optimistic about which of these civilization is going to choose.”
The letter, which in past years Bezos has used to share insights or anecdotes and other unique views from the top, revisits many of the announcements Amazon has made over the last six weeks as its response to the pandemic has evolved.
Bezos depicted the Amazon of 2020 as a multifaceted juggernaut plowing through a chaotic time to bring needed goods, computing services and jobs to people and organizations dealing with the pandemic around the world.
Amazon has seen demand, and its stock price, spike as many other businesses have crumbled. The company’s shares have traded at record levels this week, and were up nearly 4% early Thursday afternoon, to about $2,398, giving the company a stock market value of $1.2 trillion. Bezos’ own wealth, largely in Amazon stock, stood at $140 billion yesterday, up nearly $25 billion so far this year, and the only person in the top five of the Bloomberg Billionaires Index to see gains in 2020.
Early in the letter, Bezos points out the company’s efforts to prioritize high-demand, essential items for customers sheltering at home, including household staples, medical supplies and groceries. He said that while Whole Foods Market stores have remained open, Amazon has closed its other physical retail formats that don’t sell essential products.
The discussion of what within Amazon’s vast inventory is and is not essential comes as six of the company’s warehouses in France have closed. Unions representing the company’s workers there sued over safety and working conditions, and a court outside of Paris ruled Tuesday that Amazon may deliver only essential goods.
In the U.S., Amazon in March limited some inbound shipments from third-party sellers to its warehouses as it prioritized essential items, but this week lifted those restrictions after hiring more than 100,000 people in the last month. That said, shipping times, even for the company’s Prime members who pay ahead for unlimited one- or two-day shipping on many items, have stretched to weeks for certain categories.
Amazon has removed up-selling and promotions from its website meant to encourage impulse purchases, canceled promotions for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and indefinitely postponed its Prime Day sale, typically held in July to mark its anniversary, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
The company is seeking to fill an additional 75,000 jobs in a hiring push that resembles the company’s usual ramp-up for the holiday season. It has boosted pay rates, which are already well above the federal minimum wage. Bezos said the wage increases will cost the company $500 million through the end of April, “and likely more than that over time. While we recognize this is expensive, we believe it’s the right thing to do under the circumstances.”
As with its seasonal hiring, Bezos suggested these jobs would be temporary.
“We are happy to have them on our teams until things return to normal and either their former employer can bring them back or new jobs become available,” he wrote.
Bezos said Amazon’s total direct employment stood at 840,000 people — 590,000 in the U.S. — and that the company supports the work of more than 3 million more through facility construction, contractors and third-party sellers.
Bezos recounted the steps Amazon has taken to protect its workers, including more than 150 process changes in its operations.
“Crucially, while providing these essential services, we are focused on the safety of our employees and contractors around the world — we are deeply grateful for their heroic work and are committed to their health and well-being,” he wrote.
But employees have had uneven experiences, particularly early in the virus outbreak in the U.S., as the company struggled to roll out policies and provide adequate supplies, including hand sanitizer and face masks to its workers. It took weeks for Amazon to begin checking employees’ temperatures each day, despite guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention issued March 11 that all companies in the Seattle area do so.
Bezos reiterated an announcement last week that Amazon is developing its own coronavirus testing laboratory and is considering testing all employees, even those who are asymptomatic. He said regular, universal testing would help reopen the economy. “If every person could be tested regularly, it would make a huge difference in how we fight this virus,” Bezos said. “Those who test positive could be quarantined and cared for, and everyone who tests negative could re-enter the economy with confidence.”
Amazon’s responses to the coronavirus pandemic have also spurred labor unrest, with a handful of walkouts from U.S. facilities, a high-profile firing of an organizer in New York (for what the company said was endangering other employees) and a flurry of petitions, investigations and letters from U.S. senators and labor unions.
Scores of Amazon employees have fallen ill with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and at least one has died — though this human toll is not directly addressed in Bezos’ letter.