Grocery store workers and others stage a protest rally outside the Whole Foods Market, in the South End of Boston, to demand personal protective equipment, added benefits if needed and hazard pay, during the coronavirus pandemic on Apr. 7, 2020.
Pat Greenhouse | Boston Globe | Getty Images
Our essential workers are dying.
Just this week, we learned of three more Amazon warehouse workers who have died due to Covid-19, bringing the total number of confirmed deaths to seven. Unofficial tallies, mostly tracked by concerned Amazon employees who receive text message alerts whenever one of their colleagues catches the coronavirus, peg the total number of cases at 900 or more.
There could easily be more deaths and infections within Amazon’s walls, but the company has declined to disclose the impact the pandemic has had on its employees. Instead, Amazon has only verified deaths when they’re dug up by members of the media, leaving us with a fuzzy picture at best as to how dangerous this work actually is.
Amazon disagrees. In an interview with “60 Minutes” on May 10, Amazon’s operations boss David Clark said disclosing the number of “isn’t particularly useful,” and instead said the focus should be on the rate of cases relative to the number of workers in a warehouse and the communities in which they live. Amazon hasn’t disclosed that rate either.
Amazon should release the number of infections and deaths among its workforce, or, at the very least, figures that show the rate of the infections inside its warehouses.
Our notion of an “essential worker” has dramatically changed since the start of the pandemic. It’s not just doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters and members of the military. In the time of the coronavirus, the definition has expanded to include sanitation workers, grocery store clerks, food-delivery workers and warehouse workers who ship goods ordered online.
Over the last few months, we’ve called these workers heroes. We’ve asked them to show up to work amid a deadly pandemic that has already killed at least 86,000 people and affected at least 1.4 million in the U.S. They’re working in crowded buildings, behind checkout counters shielded with plexiglass and in hotspots like New York City where the virus continues to spread and kill hundreds of people per day.
We’re asking them to do it all without a clear picture of just how dangerous the work actually is. We’re asking them to choose between no paycheck and putting their lives at risk. We’re asking them to do all this just to keep the basic standard of living we’ve become accustomed to humming as a virus ravages the country.
If Amazon disclosed its infection and death data, it would provide valuable insight not just to workers who need to make decisions about their paychecks and health, but also to employers grappling with the same issues as Amazon.
As other businesses slowly begin to open again across the country, they’ll need all the help they can get to make sure they’re protecting their workers and customers, just like the essential businesses who have been operating through the pandemic have done. There are lessons to learn, but those lessons become more difficult without the data.
Amazon’s biggest rival in retail, Walmart, also has a slew of reported Covid-19 cases and deaths, but has routinely declined to disclose its own data and faces a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of one of its employees who died from the coronavirus. Other horror stories have cropped up in essential businesses from Tyson meat plants to grocery store chains like Costco and Kroger that are grappling with long lines and customers angry over social distancing rules.
Amazon has proven it can be a leader. For example, in October 2018, Amazon announced it would raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour. But Amazon went further than just raising wages. It also said it would advocate to bring the federal minimum wage up to the same standard, and CEO Jeff Bezos dared other large employers to do the same.
“We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead,” Bezos said in a statement at the time. “We’re excited about this change and encourage our competitors and other large employers to join us.”
Now it’s time for Amazon to lead again. It’s an icon of American industry, like General Electric and General Motors were decades ago. It’s the company many businesses admire and look to for guidance. Through its innovation and relentless drive, Amazon has earned the burden of setting the standard for how business works in this country.
So far, Amazon has done a great job talking about the safety measures it has taken to protect its warehouse workers. It provides regular updates on its dedicated Covid-19 blog, which reads like a template for just about any large business grappling with how to safely operate during the pandemic. Face masks. Temperature checks. Social distancing. Hand sanitzer. Gloves. And so on. Amazon should be commended for moving as rapidly as it could to implement these changes throughout its sprawling logistics network. That’s no small feat.
On top of that, Amazon said it plans to reinvest all of its profits this quarter — an estimated $4 billion — into its Covid-19 response. Hundreds of millions of dollars of that will go towards its own development of Covid-19 tests, a key to getting all of its employees safely back to work. It said it could spend $1 billion on testing alone this year. Compare that to the White House’s response to the testing shortage.
Workers are scared, even as they do important work for pay that doesn’t match up to the risk they’re taking. Amazon has the opportunity to shine light on just how dangerous this work is by being the first major important to disclose its worker death and infection counts.
Hopefully others would then follow Amazon’s lead.