Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega, and you're listening to The Takeaway. If you're among the millions of Americans who's been ordering everything online, you need to stay socially distanced, here's something to consider. Nearly 20,000 Amazon workers have contracted the coronavirus since the pandemic began, and so far 10 people have died. Those numbers stand in stark contrast to new television ads that feature a different side of the experience of being an Amazon worker.
Male Speaker 1: To all of our Amazon retail heroes on the floor, in the air and behind the wheel, we want to thank you. We'll continue to do everything we can to keep you healthy, safe and protected. The work you're doing means everything right now. Thank you.
Tanzina: As the holiday season approaches and more Americans are expected to order their gifts online, some Amazon workers across the country are attempting to organize for better working conditions, but that's had mixed results so far.
Chris Smalls: Business is as usual, and this is such a juggernaut of a company. It's so hard to put it in their operations, even with all the boycott advocating that we've been doing, they put profits above people all the time. Once again, it's going to be a very busy, probably the most busiest peak season thus far for Amazon employees. I can only imagine.
Tanzina: That was Chris Smalls, an Amazon worker who says he was fired for trying to organize his colleagues at an Amazon warehouse in New York City. We're going to hear more from Chris in a moment. We're talking about Amazon workers, unionization efforts, and the company's response. Lauren Kaori Gurley is a staff writer at Motherboard, Vice’s technology website. Lauren, thanks for joining.
Lauren Kaori Gurley: Hi, Tanzina. Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: What were the conditions for warehouses and workers at the peak of the pandemic, at least here in New York, back in March and April?
Lauren: At the beginning of the pandemic, Amazon announced that it would be providing hazard pay to its workers. $2 extra an hour at Amazon, the minimum wage is $15 an hour. They also announced that you could call out sick basically any time, but pretty quickly, lots of people got sick. Amazon's warehouse in Staten Island was one of the first Amazon warehouses in the country to really take a hit.
I think one of the big problems that workers had was that they had no idea how many people and their work site had tested positive. They were still positive. They'd get these text messages and phone calls that would announce each time, but they wouldn't know what the name- for privacy reasons, Amazon didn't share the name of the person, and so they would have no idea really, if they had come into contact with them. I think there was a lot of fear and a lot of questions that were unanswered. Workers really felt they wanted to hold Amazon accountable for sharing this data, and Amazon wasn't complying.
Tanzina: We know that back at the height of the pandemic again here in New York, because the pandemic is peaking across the country and other states right now, workers at Amazon wanted to strike. Have they gotten better working conditions right now?
Lauren: There hasn't really been any-- I guess there was a walkout on May 1st, which is May Day, but there hasn't really been any massive strike across the country. There have been walkouts to individual facilities, that are still going on. There was one a week or two ago in Minnesota, in Chicago, and there's been some in New York. Amazon, like I said, they cut off hazard pay, just as things were getting bad in the rest of the country, and they haven't reinstated it.
Amazon loves to tout all of its health and safety measures, its taking, but I don't really feel like people feel more protected. They really are upset that they don't have that hazard pay, and that they're risking their lives and their family's lives, and if they live with anyone who's immunocompromised lives, in addition to that, because of that, their mental health showing up to work, and they're like, "Amazon can't even pay us two more dollars." They had did that for two months. You can choose to take a personal leave of absence, but in that instance, you're just not paid. You have to be financially secure in order to not show up to work. I wouldn't say things have gotten better, no.
Tanzina: 20,000 workers for Amazon have allegedly contracted COVID-19. What happens to those workers now?
Lauren: If you're able to prove that you've had COVID, or that you have COVID, you get two weeks of paid leave, I believe. A lot of people who get coronavirus, the effects of it on you last much longer than two weeks, and so people don't feel like that is sufficient. I think the part that Amazon- which is obviously the hardest part about this is that, what if your family member gets COVID? I think there are a lot of other scenarios that Amazon isn't accounting for in a way that makes workers feel safe.
Tanzina: Amazon workers have also tried to unionize, Lauren. Where do those efforts stand?
Lauren: As you can imagine, the injured people are working at such high rates, especially last week, which was prime day week. Then, in the next few months during cyber Monday, some of the worst weeks, in terms of productivity, being super high and workplace injuries, serious injuries, doubling. As you can probably imagine, people really think that one of the best ways to improve their conditions is to unionize and to create workplace protections because Amazon hasn't been able to do that for them by having a contract that lays out some of these things.
There is an active campaign in Staten Island, that is with the retail wholesale and department union store union. There has never been-- No Amazon warehouse workers in the country and no Amazon workers anywhere in the country have unionized, but beyond that, there are smaller campaigns where unions are working with organizers or warehouse workers, not necessarily on active campaign, but leading up to that.
There's workers who have organized in Chicago and the greater Chicago land. They're organized warehouse workers. I would say some of the best organized warehouse workers are in Minnesota. There's a group called The Awood Center, which is sort of East African, mostly Somalian, worker center. There are workers organizing in Sacramento and the Inland Empire in California, which is Amazon's hub in California, its interiors, Los Angeles. I think those are the big ones, but we're nowhere near having a union for Amazon workers.
Tanzina: Lauren Kaori Gurley is a staff writer at Motherboard. Lauren, thanks so much.
Lauren: Thank you so much.
Tanzina: We're continuing to talk about Amazon. Now, a former Amazon worker, Chris Smalls worked for Amazon for just under five years, and most recently worked at a facility in Staten Island. When the COVID 19 pandemic reached their warehouse, Chris began organizing his fellow workers to demand better conditions. After staging a strike in late March, the company fired him for allegedly violating social distancing guidelines. Now, Chris joins me, and he's the founder of the Congress of Essential Workers. Chris, thanks for being with me.
Chris: Hey, how are you doing? Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: Chris, tell me a little bit about what the working conditions you experienced were like in the Staten Island facility here in New York?
Chris: I've been with the company since 2015, opened up three buildings for them, started from New Jersey, spent some time in Connecticut, and then I lost the building in Staten Island when it first opened up.
I've been with the company since I was a level-one entry before I was promoted up to a supervisor role. I know the ins and out of what Amazon workers go through on a day-to-day basis. I used to tell my new hires when they came into the building, "You have a gym membership, you might want to cancel it because it's definitely 10 hours of calisthenics. You're up and down on ladders. You're pulling, you're reaching, you're walking miles on top of miles a day, it's ran on productivity. It separates Amazon from its competitors is the fact that as soon as you clock in, you're on the clock until you clock out."
The working condition there was definitely strenuous on your body. I always used to say that it was 90% mentally and 10% physical because you have to mentally prepare yourself to come to work every day.
Tanzina: You were there at the peak of the pandemic, which here in New York was around March. Why did you begin organizing, what were you starting to see, Chris?
Chris: This is taking me back down to a late February, early March. I'd seen my coworkers and my employees get sick on daily basis. I was just being a concern supervisor and a concerned parent. I have kids, twins at home, and I didn't want to bring this deadly virus home. I'm watching the news and I'm seeing this virus sweep the nation. As it transitioned into New York and New Jersey, we weren't doing anything as a company to protect ourselves, we weren't protected at all. We had no facial masks. We had no cleaning supplies. We had no real guidance on how to protect the workers that was coming here. I went through the proper channels at first. I went to my local HR and I'm like, "Hey, what are we doing to protect ourselves? What about single parents? Can we stay home?"
That was the only thing they really offered was to stay home if you feel sick. If you don't want to come to work, you can stay home without being reprimanded for it. It wasn't enough for me, because as a supervisor working with these associates for 40, 50, 60 hours a week, they're my extended family too. Yes, I did stay home for a few days, but at the same time I was thinking about everybody else that is coming in and out this building, these 5,000 people. New York became the epicenter, like you mentioned, in March, and I'm like, "What are they going to do?"
When I noticed that they didn't really have a real plan, that's when I decided to take for the action. I started fighting behind the scenes at first, though. I sent out emails to the Health Department, to the CDC in New York to governor Cuomo's office. You name it. I tried to do that, I try to get some media involved. When New York was the epicenter, I didn't get anything. I didn't get any response, everywhere it was overwhelmed. That forced me to take even more action. I returned back to work on March 24th.
That's when we learned about our first case that happened in the building over a week and a half ago on March 11th. I was like, that's very alarming that's I just now tell him this, and what are we going to do? Are we closing the building down? That's when I was told by my higher ups that we're not going to do anything, and don't tell any of the employees anything. That was the last time I worked for the company.
I took my stance right then and there. An hour later I left the building. I texted my manager that day, told him, "I'm not coming to work the rest of the week as a supervisor. You don't have to replace me." When I came back to the building, the following days, the rest of the week, I sat in the cafeteria off the clock with 10 hours a day, on my own free will telling all the employees that I came in contact with the truth that Amazon didn't one side didn't know that you're possibly working next to somebody with this virus.
That definitely started up a little organizing right there. I got some groups that walk with me to the general manager's office, voice our concerns all week. At the end of the week, they decided to just quarantine me. I knew right then and there, when they quarantined me and nobody else, not even my person that I ride to work with, my friend that I ride to work with. I knew that I was being targeted to be silenced, to stop organizing workers and stop telling the truth.
Tanzina: Chris, you were fired from Amazon, at least, in your opinion, because you were organizing, you've now started the Congress of Essential Workers. What is that?
Chris: Yes. The Congress of Essential Workers, this group that I founded throughout the course of my journey, it pretty much came together around May 1st, is a collective workers, former, current Amazon employees, some other essential workers, they have different talents and they come from different corporations, some are teachers, some are students, some are just regular people.
This group came together when they pretty much believed in the fight that I was fighting against the company, and they decided to just join forces with me. On May 1st was our first demonstration as a collective, we did a nationwide protest against Amazon on May Day. That resulted in Tim Bray, one of the VPs of Amazon, AWS, the top VP at the time, engineer, he resigned. That's when I knew that the power of people and the power of organizing workers was really working. It was, small victories mattered for us.
One thing I would like to highlight as well, a week after I was fired, Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, he had a meeting about me with his top general council, David Zapolsky and then that meeting, a leak memo that came out and hit the media was Jeff Bezos trying to run a smear campaign on me, that he signed off on saying that I was not smart or articulate, and ironically, to make me the face of the whole union organizing efforts against Amazon.
They gave me a great idea by saying that, but just to know that this man, the richest man in the world, was really going to try to run a smear campaign on me really motivated me to really continue to fight that I have till this day. I was able to find this amazing group of people, we've been able to organize with other alliances across- coalitions across the country.
Once again, our vision, as an organization, is to get into work as power, starting with the workforce of Amazon who has 600,000 nationwide, get this workers power behind us so we can negotiate a rank-and-file democracy, something like a union, like structure, where we're now negotiating our demands that we want, 30,000-hour minimum wage, free Medicare childcare, PPE to be provided by the company at all time, hazard pay. We're still dealing with this pandemic, and Amazon took away the 2$ hazard pay.
We want that back, and we also want overtime for any hours over 40. We want to have paid medical leave, something that they don't have unless you get the virus and you get quarantine pay, which is only a percentage. It's not enough. Ultimately, we want to absolutely have a wealth tax on the 1% in the country, starting with Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world.
Tanzina: Chris, I'm wondering in terms of, the holiday season is going to be approaching us very soon, people have already been using and relying on Amazon while they quarantine and during this pandemic more so than they probably have ever in the past, and I can't imagine what the holidays are going to look like this year as more people rely on Amazon instead of actually going to visit friends and family, what do you think the holiday season is going to look like for Amazon workers this year?
Chris: Same as always, business as usual. This is such a juggernaut of a company. It's so hard to put a dent in their operations, even with all the boycott advocating that we've been doing. They put profits above people all the time. Once again, it's going to be probably the most busiest peak season thus far for Amazon employees. I can only imagine, they are on mandatory overtime as we speak.
They're just getting out over a prime day, and it's going right into the holiday season. I feel sorry for them because I know what they're going through. They're working an extra day, or they're working extra two days, or they're working an extra hour of their shifts. It was 10 hours, they're working 11 hours. They're taking time away from people's families and just to be a service of other people, which is good as well, but at the same time to what expense. You [unintelligible 00:17:37] strain on your body, like I mentioned. You're also possibly putting yourself at risk.
This virus is very much still here. The numbers are still spiking. The numbers are still in the building as well. There's still texts that's being sent out on a daily basis saying that somebody could track this virus, who they failed to actually disclose, they failed to disclose the amount of people that's in these facilities, that have this virus. They just released, six months later, the actual numbers, which I believe is way watered down. That is 20,000 employees.
Tanzina: You are talking about the 20,000 people, Chris, right?
Chris: Right, yes, and that's very watered down. There's no way out of 600,000, you're telling me only 20,000. I don't believe that. It's way higher than what they're saying. It's a very scary situation for workers right now. I can guarantee that.
Tanzina: Chris Smalls is a former Amazon worker and the founder of the Congress of Essential Workers. Chris, thanks so much for joining me.
Chris: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me, anytime.
Tanzina: We reached out to Amazon for comment on this story and we're waiting on their reply. We'll add their statement online when we receive it, you'll see that at thetakeaway.org.
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