After a month of frenzied shopping, stay-at-home measures and the escalation of the coronavirus crisis, the pressure cooker of the workplace appears ready to boil over.
Workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, New York, walked out during lunch Monday, over concerns about safety at the job site. "How many cases we got? Ten!" went a call-and-response chant outside the fulfillment center that afternoon, in reference to workers who had tested positive there with COVID-19.
Co-workers there feared for their own health because workers weren't always physically distanced and the site was not closed to be sanitized. "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,” said Rina Cummings, a worker at the center, in a statement released by Athena, 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.
Fears of contamination and risk also led to as many as 150,000 workers for grocery delivery service Instacart to execute a nationwide strike on Monday. Their action got wide support on Twitter from notables such as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and concerned consumers such as Ifeanyi Ezeh, a computing engineer living near Columbia, Maryland.
"I support all workers who are risking their health to help save lives during this crisis," he tweeted with the hashtags #InstacartStrike and #AmazonStrike. "Thanks to these brave people, many families like mine are able to stay home safe with our families."
Amazon faces another potential workplace disruption Tuesday as some employees have planned a "sick out" over demands for better conditions including double pay because of the hazards of working during the pandemic.
Workers who would not give their names for fear of possibly being fired said they worried not only about getting the virus themselves from customers or co-workers as some staffers at stores had tested positive.
Christian Smalls, an organizer for the protest against Amazon, said he was fired Monday for violating "multiple safety issues." The company said it instructed Smalls to stay home with pay for 14 days due to being in close contact with an infected employee, but Smalls went to the warehouse Monday, CNET first reported.
"Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe," Smalls said in an emailed statement to protest organizers.
"COVID-19 is a very real threat to the safety of our workforce and our customers. We cannot wait for politicians, institutions, or our own management to step in to protect us," read a petition being spread on social media about the Whole Foods #GlobalSickOut #March31st.
Anxiety about potentially contracting the COVID-19 virus has intensified as the number of cases and deaths rises. Workers say they often don't have enough cleaning supplies, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizers, and may not have gloves or masks – or may be asked not to wear them.
At the same time, business managers may be scrambling to provide protective measures at a time when supplies aren't always available and cash flow may be down as customers monitor their spending amid layoffs and furloughs.
It's a dynamic intensifying across the nation. "The ongoing pandemic has made working in the kitchen uncomfortable. Does my co-worker have it?" posed Brian Baer, a food and beverage director at a country club within a northern Virginia community for residents 55 and older.
"We use gloves and sanitizer but sometimes we can’t stay 6 feet apart," Baer said. "Employees share their concerns with me, and I forward them to upper management. I support all the employees that stand up for their right to proper training and equipment."
The actions by workers at Amazon, Instacart and Whole Foods got support from The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents 1.3 million workers in grocery, retail and other industries.
“Amazon, Instacart and Whole Foods workers are sending a powerful message that it’s time to stop putting corporate profits ahead of the health and safety of the men and women who are critical to our food supply, and are on the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak," said UFCW International President Marc Perrone in a statement.
Each of the companies hit by worker actions has seen the need for more employees as demand has changed for each during the crisis. Instacart last week said it needed another 300,000 workers to meet demand.
The company said Monday's strike did not have a big effect on its business. It had 40% more shoppers working on the platform compared to a week ago and "over the last 72 hours, more groceries were sold on our platform than ever before," Instacart said in a statement sent to USA TODAY.
Two weeks ago, Amazon announced plans to hire 100,000 workers to assist with online deliveries during the pandemic. The company also said it is temporarily raising minimum pay to $17 an hour. Amazon is also seeking current warehouse workers who would want to work in its Amazon Fresh and Amazon Prime Now services, loading groceries at Whole Foods, Reuters has reported.
Amazon, which owns Whole Foods, has reportedly had coronavirus spread to at least 17 warehouses in the U.S., according to Reuters. The online retailer has 175 fulfillment centers globally and more than 150 fulfillment centers, sorting centers in the U.S., according to Amazon's website. Several workers tested positive at the Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island; workers are striking until the building is sanitized, Chris Smalls, a manager assistant who helped coordinate Monday's walkout, told USA TODAY.
Amazon had not responded to a request for comment at publication time. But CEO and founder Jeff Bezos praised the Amazon workforce in a statement March 21 and noted that "much of the essential work we do cannot be done from home. We’ve implemented a series of preventative health measures for employees and contractors at our sites around the world – everything from increasing the frequency and intensity of cleaning to adjusting our practices in fulfillment centers to ensure the recommended social distancing guidelines. We are meeting every day, working to identify additional ways to improve on these measures."
Whole Foods has had several employees test positive for COVID-19 across the U.S., according to various news reports. "As we address unprecedented demand and fulfill a critical need in our communities, Whole Foods Market is committed to prioritizing our Team Members’ well-being, while recognizing their extraordinary dedication," Whole Foods said in a statement to USA TODAY.
The planned Whole Foods sick-out comes just days after 15 attorneys general sought improved protection for workers including paid sick leave in a letter to Bezos and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.
"By limiting paid sick leave only to those who have been definitely diagnosed with COVID-19 or who have been placed into quarantine, Whole Foods and Amazon are placing their employees, customers and the public at large in significant risk of exposure," wrote the AGs from states including California, New York and Washington.
Those organizing the Whole Foods sick-out said the grocery chain, which Amazon acquired in June 2017 for $13.7 billion, has temporarily relaxed its strict attendance policy, "which means that team members can participate in this act of protest without reprisal," said the event's promotional flyer.
Demands by the Whole Foods sick-out organizers:Guaranteed paid leave for all workers who isolate or self-quarantine instead of coming to work Reinstatement of health care coverage for part-time and seasonal workers. Increased FSA funds to cover coronavirus testing and treatment for all team members, including part-time and seasonal. Guaranteed hazard pay in the form of double pay during scheduled hours. Implementation of new policies that can facilitate social distancing between workers and customers. Commitment to ensuring that all locations have adequate sanitation equipment and procedures in place. Immediate shutdown of any location where a worker tests positive for COVID-19. In such an event, all workers should continue to receive full pay until the store can safely reopen.
Contributing: Dalvin Brown, Charisse Jones