Frightened workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, and Instacart demand coronavirus protection in walkouts

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The balance of power between workers and their employers has consistently shifted to the large corporations ever since the Republican assault on labor unions began back in the Reagan era.

The result has been a predictable widening of the compensation gap between the lowest-paid staffers and senior management as fewer workers are represented by unions and collective bargaining power falls by the wayside.

The COVID-19 pandemic epidemic — despite leading to massive layoffs as businesses are forced to shutter amidst quarantine orders across the country — has actually shifted the balance of power towards those few workers still allowed to continue in their jobs because they work in areas considered essential to the survival of everyone else sheltering in place, like medical personnel, first responders, delivery workers, gas station attendants, and supermarket stockers and cashiers.

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Some of these workers now unexpectedly find themselves on the front lines of the nation’s response to the disease and are risking their own health — and that of the families that they return home to each night — to provide those essential services.

Many are growing highly uncomfortable with the perceived lack of concern for their own health and safety being exhibited by their employers on their behalf as their jobs become increasingly hazardous as the virus spreads rapidly through their communities.

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That discomfort exploded into job actions today as gig workers at Instacart walked off their jobs of shopping for and delivering groceries for homebound customers while non-unionized workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York staged their own walkout both demanding more paid sick leave, hazard pay, and that basic protective gear be provided to them by their companies.

Both companies are advertising to hire tens of thousands of new workers to meet the sudden rapid expansion of demand for goods to be delivered to customers who no longer are able to go to stores themselves as they isolate at home, but the protests by current workers show that the rule of supply and demand is a two-way street and that the wealthy corporations may find it difficult to find people willing to risk their lives for a pittance.

Workers at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island reportedly chanted the number of workers at their facility who had already been infected with the coronavirus as they left their stations at lunchtime.

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“How many cases we got? Ten!” the fulfillment center employees shouted.

“We are working long, crowded shifts in the epicenter of a global pandemic, and Amazon has failed to provide us with the most basic safeguards to protect us, our families, and the public’s health,” according to Rina Cummings, an Amazon worker at the facility, as quoted in a statement released by Athena, described by USA Today as “a coalition of groups that represent Amazon workers and others concerned about the company’s influence.”

“We are walking out to protest the impossible choice of coming to work at a toxic workplace and possibly spreading the virus or going unpaid during an economic crisis,” she said.

Whole Foods, another company owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, is also facing a labor action scheduled for tomorrow by its non-union workforce concerned over the lack of protections being offered to employees during the pandemic.

The Whole Foods workers are reportedly planning a ‘”sick-out” on Tuesday to demand paid leave, free coronavirus testing, and hazard pay that is twice their current wage after the company kept locations in New York, Chicago, Louisiana, and California open despite reported cases of coronavirus infections among employees in those stores.

“COVID-19 is a very real threat to the safety of our workforce and customers,” a statement from Whole Worker, the  organizers of the strike, said. “We cannot wait for politicians, institutions, or our own management to step in to protect us.”

While the companies all insist that they are doing everything they can to protect their employees, the employees themselves obviously don’t believe that enough is being done on their behalf by executives far from the frontlines.

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Perhaps America will be able to look back at the coronavirus crisis one day and mark it as a turning point in the fight for workers’ rights and for compensation commensurate with the value that they generate for their companies. If that indeed happens, then at least the virus would have one positive result.

Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter.

Original reporting by Julia Arciga at The Daily Beast, by Alina Selyukh and Shannon Bind at NPR, and by Mike Snyder at USA Today.

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Vinnie Longobardo

Vinnie Longobardo is a 35-year veteran of the TV, mobile, & internet industries, specializing in start-ups and the international media business. His passions are politics, music, and art.

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