Front line workers in the United States deemed essential for their jobs in grocery stores, retailing, warehouses and manufacturing have been striking, organizing protests, calling out sick, and walking off the job in response to unsafe working conditions and inadequate protections since the Coronavirus breakout. These series of protests culminated on May 1st, International Workers’ Day, when workers from Amazon, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target, Instacart, FedEx, and Shipt coordinated a May Day General Strike across America.
The protestors were mostly non-unionized, low-paid, temporary employees who organised and assembled through social media, Zoom calls, and encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and Signal. The workers’ coalition, including Trader Joe’s employees, urged customers to stand in solidarity with the workers and boycott the corporations by not purchasing their products or services on May 1st. Despite not being too large in scale, the protests received significant media attention and public support considering it is a time when people are grateful and sympathetic to essential workers more than ever; as well as supportive tweets from political actors such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Ed Markey, and Sen. Kamala Harris.
Since early April, retailers Amazon, Target, and Instacart announced new policies, guidelines, and often bonuses to incentivize workers and protect them from the virus; but workers reported the implementations of the policies were uneven, inadequate, ignored, and often took too long. The strikers’ had more or less the same demands for their employers: compensation for all unpaid time off since the pandemic hit in March, hazard pay and paid sick leave, provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies, immediate shutdown of any store where an employee tests positive for COVID-19, and full corporate transparency on the number of cases in facilities.
Amazon has been in the centre of ongoing criticisms concerning worker safety and protections during the pandemic, while its CEO, Jeff Bezos, grew his personal wealth by $24 Billion since the breakout. The May 1st walkouts and sick-outs intensified when Amazon announced ending its temporary unlimited unpaid time off policy on April 30, to which Derrick Palmer, an Amazon employee from the Staten Island warehouse, responded telling the Guardian, “The fact they took it away prior to the sick-out lets you know they’re aware of the sickout and trying to stop people from participating in that (…) Now they’re forcing people to go to work because if you run out of unpaid time off, that’s it, you’re fired.”
Amazon refused to disclose the number of workers who tested positive for COVID-19, but Jana Jumpp, an Indiana Amazon employee, told The Intercept that there have been at least 500 coronavirus cases in 125 Amazon facilities. Also, according to the Whole Worker National Organizing Committee, a labour organization of current and former Whole Foods employees (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon), two Whole Foods employees died due to coronavirus, 265 employees all over the U.S. tested positive, and 138 stores have been affected. Chris Smalls, a former Amazon employee who was fired after staging a walkout on March 30th at the company’s Staten Island facility and helped organise the May Day strike, pointed out that workplace safety is now a public health issue, telling Vice, “Amazon is a breeding ground [for this virus] which is spreading right now through multiple facilities.”
An agency of the U.S. Department of Labor, the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is responsible for ensuring worker health and safety, has been criticized in the last month for their hands-off and slow approach to the pandemic. In an article in The Hill, Thomas Kochan and Barbara Dyer, professors focusing on employment and work research at MIT, pointed out the urgency and method of protecting and caring for the essential workers who put their lives and families at risk to do work that is necessary to our collective welfare -which essentially echoed the demands of the strikers.
Kochan endorsed passing an essential workers bill of rights in the next federal relief package which would provide essential workers protection, compensation, and safety nets. He explained that in the past, times of crisis led to workers gaining rights, and that the current conditions will wake the general public up to long-standing labor issues. Stephen Brier, a labor historian and professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, said, “These workers have been exploited so shamelessly for so long by these companies while performing incredibly important but largely invisible labor. All of a sudden, they’re deemed essential workers in a pandemic, giving them tremendous leverage and power if they organize collectively.”
On May 1st, the Vermont Senate passed a hazard pay grant bill which is expected to cover 33,500 essential Vermont workers that make less than $25 an hour, and on the same day Sen. Mitt Romney proposed the Patriot Pay, a form of hazard pay that would add a temporary bonus of up to $12 per hour for essential workers.