Amazon touts ‘aggressive’ safety as workers plan massive May 1 strike
With at least a dozen fulfillment centers and warehouses in New Jersey, Amazon is under increasing pressure to reexamine its protections for workers deemed essential amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Wednesday, Carteret Mayor Daniel Reiman renewed his call for Amazon to temporarily shut down its fulfillment center in the borough citing concern for COVID-19 cases among its workers.
Meanwhile, an Amazon walkout planned for Friday had the potential to involve an unknown number of New Jersey workers.
Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee turned lead organizer of the "May Day" walkout planned for May 1, said he had helped open the Carteret warehouse during his time with the company.
Smalls was employed by Amazon from 2015 until he was terminated last month from a Staten Island fulfillment center where he had led a work stoppage over concerns for safety.
The Hill has reported that the company said Smalls was let go for not self-quarantining after coming into contact with a co-worker who tested positive.
Smalls, whose Twitter handle is "Shut_downAmazon," has said the main issue is that the
“these facilities have positive cases and unsafe working environments."
Smalls said he has friends at the Carteret location who are "terrified to speak up." He said as for the May 1 walkout, unspecified New Jersey sites he is in contact with “joined the fight kind of late, but it’s better late than never.”
"We urge others to compare the safety, pay and benefits measures we have taken for employees against others. Whether it’s temperature checks, getting masks to all employees and partners, to gloves, procuring necessary cleaning supplies, to moving fast to shift social distancing in our sites, we have aggressively worked to ensure the safety of our teams," Amazon spokesman Timothy Carter said to New Jersey 101.5 News in a written statement.
According to Amazon's website, "We check temperatures across our entire U.S. and European operations network and Whole Foods Market stores testing hundreds of thousands of people daily."
Smalls said despite the publicized list of safety measures, that is not the reality of the situation based on what he's heard from current workers. He said while "they took care of my building," making it a pilot program of sorts for the daily temperature checks after he was terminated, he's heard from workers at other Amazon locations where there have been no such temperature checks.
Smalls said there's also Amazon buildings, including on the west coast, that have not distributed personal protective equipment that has been talked about by the company.
Amazon has provided tens of millions each of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizing sprays and wipes to locations, company wide, in addition to boosting regular hourly pay as well as overtime hours amid the pandemic.
In New Jersey, Amazon employees can now earn up to $17.75 an hour, according to the company's employment website.
A person who tests positive stands to receive up to two weeks of paid leave, beyond any other options for time off and Amazon workers receive health benefits starting with their first day of employment.
Smalls said it's "too late to be reactive," once a number of workers in the same building have tested positive.
“It's kind of inhumane and insanity that they consider us even essential workers because these fulfillment centers don’t just carry essential items,” Smalls said.
He said workers are putting their lives at risk to fulfill orders that include "sex toys and video games and clothing — and definitely Amazon-owned products," like Fire sticks and Echo dots still being sold.
Smalls also said "you can’t narrow down the inventory, [because] if that was the case, [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos wouldn’t have made all these billions of dollars that he’s made during this pandemic."
“At the very least Amazon, at nearly $1 trillion in value, should cover the cost of testing their employees to ensure their health, safety and peace of mind,” Reiman said, adding his office has placed Amazon in contact with a private organization capable of testing all of their employees and "awaits their decision."
On April 24, the Middlesex County Health Department inspected both Amazon facilities in Carteret and found a risk of contamination, particularly in shared spaces like break rooms and locker rooms. A news release from the mayor's office said the department issued guidelines — such as discouraging shared use of items like phone charging stations and increasing the amount of times common surfaces are sanitized.
Another Amazon facility that's been dealing with an unconfirmed number of positive cases among workers is also in Middlesex County, as Business Insider reported the Edison fulfillment center reported its first cases in late March.
“These CEOs dropped the ball — they’re not responding the way that we need to, that’s the reason why we continue to mobilize and that’s the reason why there’s been multiple walkouts over the past couple of weeks,” Smalls said. "After I got terminated, other people felt empowered enough to and the courage enough to speak up and some of them even got fired for it - that’s not going to stop us.”
A GoFundMe campaign set up on Smalls' behalf to help support him financially "until he find suitable employment" has collected $26,000.
"We can't put profits above people," Smalls said, noting the alliance for the May 1 walkout includes employees of some competing companies.
In addition to Amazon and Whole Foods, there's been online mentions of Target subsidiaries, Instacart shoppers, Walmart and FedEx employees also potentially taking part in the walkout on May 1, which happens to be International Workers Day — an annual day of observation of the working class across the world.
Other distribution facilities in New Jersey have been dealing with the same health concerns.
As reported by Bloomberg, luxury brand Burberry has closed its Cumberland County warehouse in Vineland, the only such U.S. site of the company's, after three workers tested positive for COVID-19. As of Wednesday, Vineland had 315 cases based on test results.
The staff said with a handful of positive cases among them, they want to be able to self-quarantine with full pay during that time, as the center undergoes a full sanitizing process, with "additional protections upon reopening."
The same facility was the site of a small April 7 demonstration, as reported by NJ.com, when at least five staff members had tested positive.
Smalls said there needs to be better compliance from these companies in the future.
He said the goal of his collaborative efforts is ultimately some kind of rank and file committee — whether union, organization or coalition run or controlled by employees, so that "something like this never happens again."
Grocery store risks & safety