Skip to main content

Coronavirus may bring a labor reckoning for Amazon

Images: Getty Images, Enhanced by: Chris DeGraw/Digital Trends

From the Bubonic plague in the Middle Ages to the 1918 flu epidemic, pandemics in the past have wreaked havoc on — and restructured — how society treats its workers.

With pressure on mega-retailers like Amazon to deliver essential goods to people stuck at home — coupled with increased scrutiny over labor practices and a long-simmering labor movement that has been nipping at the heels of these huge suppliers — could this coronavirus pandemic bring about the labor reckoning that activists have been seeking?

“It should,” said Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “I certainly hope that one of the lessons we’ll learn from this horrible experience is how important so many low-wage workers are, and how precarious their positions are.”

Amazon had already been under increasing fire for its labor practices. Last November saw the launch of the Athena Coalition, a conglomerate of pro-labor rights groups pushing for better wages and conditions for Amazon workers. Athena joined a chorus of other grassroots groups all fighting Amazon on everything from its warehouse conditions to its environmental impact.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, has only exacerbated the tensions between Amazon and its workers — which came to a head last month as thousands fell ill across the country.

Workers at a New York warehouse staged a walk-out to protest what they claimed were lax safety measures by Amazon to protect its workers. Days later, on March 30, Amazon fired Chris Smalls, the warehouse worker who organized the strike, according to CNBC.

Amazon claims Smalls was fired for breaking social distancing guidelines and denied he was canned for organizing the protest.

“I hope that one of the lessons we’ll learn from this horrible experience is how important so many low-wage workers are, and how precarious their positions are.”

In a statement to Digital Trends, Amazon spokesperson Kristen Kish called the allegations of retribution “simply unfounded.”

“We did not terminate Mr. Smalls employment for organizing a 15-person protest,” she said. “We terminated his employment for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of the terms of his employment. Mr. Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines.”

Since Smalls’ firing, Amazon has said the company is tracking its workers and could fire them if they violate social distancing rules, CNBC reported.

Still, it seems like labor pressure may be building elsewhere. A group of warehouse workers in Chicago staged a demonstration on March 30 as well. Workers in Detroit did the same two days later, and Amazon quickly announced thereafter that they would provide masks and temperature checks in warehouses, the Verge reported.

But Block told Digital Trends she was unsure if the labor movement can successfully leverage this moment to have its demands met.

“Part of recovering from this nightmare will be giving workers the tools they need to have the voice they’re demanding,” Block said.

A post-coronavirus world could offer opportunities for workers to snatch more rights for themselves.

The Bubonic plague in the Middle Ages killed an estimated 50 million people across several continents over the course of a century — but by the time the disease had run its course, the working population in Europe was so dramatically reduced that society completely restructured itself, with some historians claiming the plague allowed the middle class to be born.

Some historians claiming the Bubonic plague allowed the middle class to be born.

The 1918 flu epidemic killed millions as well, but following a global economic depression and war, the U.S. saw the relative prosperity and stability of the 1950s, and a stronger middle class.

“I’m always skeptical when other people make mega-forecasts,” said David Weil, Dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, when asked whether the U.S could see a great restructuring a la those of the post-Bubonic plague and post-1918 flu eras. “What I can say is that in my lifetime, in this country, we have never faced a pandemic situation like this that has affected every aspect of how we’re living. Whenever we’ve had this kind of major change, it’s hard not to see that there are systematic effects in terms of how we act as a society.”

Dania Rajendra, the director of the Athena coalition, told Digital Trends she was hesitant to explicitly call the pandemic an “opportunity.”

“The specter of suffering is so large,” she said. “But, the leadership we’re seeing from workers in terms of their forthrightness of what’s inside Amazon’s operations stands in stark contrast to what we’re seeing from executives …clearly this is a level of militant worker activity is unprecedented in Amazon’s American operations.”

NurPhoto/Getty Images

Rajendra, Block, and Weil all told Digital Trends the pandemic was further exposing and sharpening the rifts that were already present in the U.S. economic system, particularly those involving the conditions for low-wage and gig workers.

“I can’t believe someone will walk away from this experience and not say ‘it’s insane we don’t have simple paid sick leave rules,’” Weil said.

Weil and Block said much of the organizing and negotiating that would need to be done to adequately protect these workers falls outside the boundaries of where current U.S. labor and environmental law stands. This doesn’t mean that won’t change.

Both experts pointed to the sudden, swift passage of measures like unemployment insurance for contract workers as evidence the laws can be rewritten — despite widespread fear of the deadly disease’s spread.

“The American labor movement’s history is a history where sometimes the greatest bursts of activity happened outside traditional boundaries of movement,” Weil said.

Maya Shwayder
I'm a multimedia journalist currently based in New England. I previously worked for DW News/Deutsche Welle as an anchor and…
New coronavirus dashboard offers astonishingly detailed data by county
Coronavirus dashboard john hopkins

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases globally nears the 2 million mark, a new dashboard has launched showing county-by-county data for confirmed cases, recorded deaths, testing rate, fatality rate, hospital capacity, and more.

It comes from Maryland-based Johns Hopkins University, which received much praise for the launch early in the crisis of its dashboard showing coronavirus cases by nation.

Read more
‘A staggering problem’: Working from home could lead to massive data leaks
man working from home

The corporate security situation right now is like trying to quickly assemble a shelter during a rainstorm, experts say: Even if you get something set up, you're still likely to have some water leaking through.
Everyone working from home, plus a reported increase in attempted cyberattacks means security systems straining under these unique conditions are especially vulnerable to massive hacks and data breaches -- which could be underway right now and may not be reported about for another six months.
“I’m terrified about it” said Ben Goodman, senior vice president of global business and corporate development at ForgeRock. “A lot of users are being thrust into a work from home environment, and they’re not at all used to this.”

It takes a lot to make sure users are properly implementing security best practices, he told Digital Trends -- practices that most companies didn't train for before employees were forced to work remotely.
“I think we’re going to have an unprecedented number of breaches being announced following the pandemic,” said Kayne McGladrey, member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
“The amount of risk is at an all-time high,” agreed Chris Hertz, chief revenue officer for the cybersecurity company DivvyCloud. “If I were a cybersecurity professional, I would not be sleeping right now. It’s a staggering problem.”
An annual survey from DivvyCloud reported that 49% of respondents who use the public cloud in their jobs said “their developers and engineers at times ignore or circumvent cloud security and compliance policies.”
In addition, cyberattacks are on the rise, a trend that was already happening before the pandemic, and now has dramatically increased, said Hertz. 2018 and 2019 saw a record number of ransomware attacks that totaled $5 trillion in damages.
“Right now is one of the most critical periods for IT security professionals that we’ve had in last decades,” Hertz told Digital Trends. “As one of my colleagues says, we’ve planned for hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, but not for a pandemic that would send literally everyone home for six to 12 months. That was never the framework we’re thinking of.”

Read more
New Amazon grocery delivery customers placed on wait list due to high demand
Amazon Go Grocery Store

With many cities passing shelter-in-place orders and most regions encouraging people to practice social distancing due to the global pandemic of coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, grocery delivery services have exploded in popularity as people seek to avoid going to busy supermarkets. But services are struggling to keep up with demand. Now, even the massive Amazon delivery service is no longer accepting new customers for the time being.

As reported by Reuters, new customers who want to sign up for grocery deliveries from Amazon through its Amazon Fresh and Amazon Prime Now services will be placed on a wait list, starting today. Shoppers have reported problems getting delivery slots over the last few weeks, and now Amazon is formalizing its approach to the issue by limiting new customers. It says it is working on making more slots available by increasing its capacity, and it will also introduce a queue system to allow customers to reserve a delivery slot.

Read more