Amazon, Instacart Workers Strike Over COVID-19 Conditions

By Braden Campbell
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Law360 (March 30, 2020, 9:49 PM EDT) -- Amazon workers at the company's Staten Island warehouse and grocery couriers across Instacart's national network walked off the job Monday, with Whole Foods workers poised to follow suit, in an attempt to influence their employers' response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

The Amazon workers demanded that the e-commerce giant shut down and sanitize its Staten Island warehouse after workers there tested positive for the virus, and the Instacart workers called for better pay and sick leave benefits as they continue to deliver groceries to homebound customers during the pandemic.

"This was a cry for help," said Chris Smalls, the Staten Island worker who organized the Amazon walkout. Amazon fired him after the protest, he said. 

The strikes come amid growing unrest among delivery and other "essential" workers, who continue to work on the front lines of the pandemic as other businesses close their doors or shift online.

Smalls, who was an assistant manager in the center's outbound department, told Law360 he began planning the protest last week after an associate working under him showed up to her shift looking "horrible." Amazon recently gave paid leave to workers who test positive for COVID-19 or are quarantined, but workers who feel sick without a diagnosis must choose between a paycheck and their colleagues' health, he said.

The worker told Smalls she was tested for the virus but had not gotten a diagnosis, and he sent her home. The next day, her test came back positive. Several more Staten Island workers have been diagnosed in the days since, but Amazon has largely kept workers in the dark about the spread in the facility, he said.

About 25 workers took part in Monday's rally and another 50 or so watched, said Smalls, who has been quarantined for two weeks with pay.

"Our objective today was to … let people know they're being lied to, they're being duped into coming to work, working around people who tested positive," Smalls said. If the company does not close the facility for cleaning in the next day, Smalls will hold another rally at city hall later in the week, he said.

Amazon called the accusations underlying Monday's protest "simply unfounded" and claimed only 15 people out of about 5,000 workers in the facility took part.

"We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe," including by "tripling down" on deep cleaning the facility and implementing daily temperature screenings, the company said. The company also disputed that it hasn't kept workers up to date, and noted that it has raised workers' pay by $2 and begun offering double overtime during the pandemic.

Organizing group Gig Workers Collective on Friday announced that "shoppers," as Instacart's grocery couriers are known, would walk off the job Monday and refuse to work until the company met several demands, including that it provide them protective equipment, hazard pay, and expanded paid time off for workers affected by the virus.

It was not clear Monday how many shoppers are taking part in the protest, and a representative for the organizers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Instacart said the health of its workers and customers "is our first priority" Monday and noted the company has taken several safety measures in recent weeks, including adopting new sick leave policies and health guidelines. The company also said it had 40% more shoppers on its platform Monday compared to the same period last week.

"As it relates to today's actions, we've seen absolutely no impact to Instacart's operations," the company said.

Workers for other companies are also planning protests over coronavirus-related working conditions. On Monday, organizing group Whole Worker demanded paid leave for Whole Foods workers who isolate or self-quarantine and other benefits, calling on the company's employees to skip work Tuesday.

And as the white-collar workforce continues to lean on low-wage workers for groceries and other services, these protests will continue, said workers' advocate Saru Jayaraman, whose group One Fair Wage campaigns to end the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.

"There's an awakening among workers … and absolutely an awakening among consumers that maybe never really took these workers seriously before," Jayaraman said.

She was not involved in the protests, but has a hand in others that will be announced soon, she said.

--Editing by Amy Rowe.

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