Amazon should do better by its workers

The first time I heard, in mid-September, that Jeff Bezos’ wealth increased $70 billion since the start of the pandemic, I was just finishing an eleven-hour shift. “Maybe…

The first time I heard, in mid-September, that Jeff Bezos’ wealth increased $70 billion since the start of the pandemic, I was just finishing an eleven-hour shift.

“Maybe they could afford to give us face masks that reach our ears and don’t fall apart the moment they’re unwrapped,” I thought.

When Amazon came to Staten Island in 2018, I leapt at the opportunity to work there. I even gave a speech at work where I said I hoped my son would grow up to be like Bezos.  

Now I see more clearly how billionaire owners like Bezos can claim all the profits during the pandemic while frontline workers like me take all the risks.

When the pandemic started, Amazon was slow to respond. When I clocked in on March 29, there weren’t any masks or social distancing protocols, even though we were selling masks by the pallet full. I could hear horror movie music in my head as I gazed at hundreds of unmasked workers. 

I walked out that day. Amazon says I took a voluntary unpaid leave. 

I’ve got a medical condition, and I’m caring for children and elders. I can’t afford to get sick. I stood up and spoke out. I kept my job.

Now I see more clearly how billionaire owners like Bezos can claim all the profits during the pandemic while frontline workers like me take all the risks.

I returned to work in July. There were better systems in place: a temperature scan at the door, masks provided and required for everyone, and monitors to enforce safety rules. Amazon now staggers the beginning and end of shifts and breaks — but only by 15 minutes, so there’s still crowding, especially when a shift ends.

On Oct. 1, Amazon announced that nearly 20,000 of its U.S. workers had been infected with COVID-19. That number is surely higher by now.

I run a flat sorter on the shipping dock, two big machines with a conveyor belt. I have to scan 1,800 packages an hour. That’s thirty scans per minute and 18,000 per shift. The pace skyrocketed during the pandemic. I also must work alongside another person and it’s impossible to stay six feet apart. 

Many of my coworkers have gotten sick. One died from COVID-19. We get a text whenever someone in the plant tests positive, but we are not told who they are where they work. It’s a big plant, and it’s scary getting multiple texts each week. I’ve counted more than 200 texts since returning to work.

Since the start of the pandemic, Amazon has been on a hiring spree, further crowding the plant and the buses to work without plans to improve commuting conditions for our growing workforce. The company’s fortunes are booming, as more people choose to shop without leaving their homes.

A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, titled “Billionaire Wealth vs. Community Health,” reveals that the combined wealth of 647 U.S. billionaires increased by almost $1 trillion since mid-March. Bezos’ wealth increased by 62%, totaling $188.3 billion as of mid-November.

Amazon can afford to invest more to protect workers

Amazon can afford to invest more to protect workers through measures like hazard pay, a dedicated express bus for commuting workers, sturdier masks, and a workplace council of frontline workers to advise the company on safety systems. And Amazon and other mega-corporations profiting from the pandemic should pay their fair share of taxes to fund public transportation and public health protections for employees.

I like my job. We’re getting our customers the things they urgently need during the pandemic. But Amazon could do a lot better by its workers.

This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service. 


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