Dying to Work — Amazon, Other Frontline Workers Bear Brunt Of COVID-19

By Mel Reeves, Community Editor, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

“The organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal,” is how an Amazon official sought to frame the efforts of one of its workers who was fired by the company. The worker, Christian Smalls, had tried to bring attention to unsafe working conditions at an Amazon warehouse in New York City.

Smalls had complained about the lack of gloves and masks and that the company had not been forthcoming in sharing with workers that others in the warehouse had contracted the virus, putting everyone at risk.

The official Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky also wrote in notes during a company meeting that included Amazon head Jeff Bezos, that Smalls who is Black, was not “smart or articulate.” Ironically, Smalls has told his story to several national news outlets, including a major news network.

Nationally, workers have voiced similar complaints about a lack of protective equipment such as masks, inefficient sanitizing of workspaces, and failure by some employers to honor the social distancing as recommended by the CDC to protect themselves from contracting the coronavirus.

Many have expressed anxiety about facing a kind of “Sophie’s Choice,” that is, forced to choose between going to work and possibly risk being exposed to the coronavirus or staying at home and not being able to put food on the table or pay bills.

The MSR last weekend asked a few employees at one of the local Minneapolis Cub stores why they were not wearing masks. Two of them said management had told them they didn’t want them to wear masks. They said management cited the CDC as declaring people do not need to wear masks to be safe from contracting COVID-19.

Asked if management had been informed that the CDC has since changed its guidelines, they said they were not sure. “I hope it changes,” said one employee who wished to remain anonymous.” I definitely want to protect myself.”

Amazon fired Smalls last week after he led a walkout by a number of employees at a Staten Island distribution warehouse. Amazon says he was fired for violating a company-imposed 14-day quarantine after he came into contact with an employee who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Smalls disputes this, saying the employee who tested positive came into contact with many other workers for longer periods of time before their test came back. He said he was singled out because he wanted the company to sanitize the work area and be forthright about the numbers of fellow workers who had contracted the virus.

Amazon workers have been particularly vocal across the country as social media has shared protests by workers holding signs denouncing their working conditions. “This disease is killing people on a daily basis,” one worker who wished to remain anonymous told Business Insider. “As people are testing positive for it where I work, they still expect for us to come there.”

The U.S. Postal Service has confirmed that 259 employees have tested positive for the virus in its workforce of 630,000. To date, two letter carriers in New York City, one in Montgomery, Alabama and one in Detroit have died after contracting the virus.

The Postal Service has sought to make gloves and masks available in all of its work stations, but employees still say basic items are not available. More than 85,000 workers have signed a petition asking for better protections.

The Washington Post recently reported that four grocery store workers have died after contracting the novel coronavirus. Two were Walmart workers who worked at the Evergreen Park Walmart in Chicago, one was a worker at Trader Joes in Scarsdale, New York, and another was a grocery greeter at a Giant store in Largo, Maryland.

A Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove, whose Facebook rant warned people to be careful and be responsible died from the virus only weeks after posting the video. A bus driver in King County, Washington also succumbed to the disease last week; he too had been vocal about having his transit company provide better protection for him and his fellow drivers.

According to the Daily Mail, 22 New York City transit workers have died after contracting COVID-19.

Four workers at New York’s Shop Rite stores have come down with the disease. Frontline healthcare workers have also been contracting the virus in increasing numbers. A number of them have died.

Workers for American Airlines have reported that a few of their co-workers have come down with confirmed cases of COVID-19. A worker for an American Airlines regional carrier in Boston said, “Since my co-workers have come down with it, you would expect that they would at least investigate who the worker has been in contact with and have them quarantined.

“They are basically saying they don’t care if it spreads to our families or the general public. No serious measures have been taken to do anything about exposures.”

Eddie Ortiz, an assistant manager at the New York store Gristedes, described his staff as tireless frontline warriors. “They didn’t hesitate for one minute to stay and meet the needs of the public,” he said.

Several of the country’s most prominent union leaders and a number of New York political leaders have demanded that Amazon rescind Smalls’ dismissal. New York State Attorney General Letitia James and Mayor Bill de Blasio called for an investigation into Smalls’ firing. James called Smalls’ firing “immoral.”

“At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from COVID-19,” James said in a statement. “In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited. At a time when so many New Yorkers are struggling and are deeply concerned about their safety, this action was also immoral and inhumane.”

According to Amazon their workers are heroes: “The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day,” said a company spokesperson.

“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,” said Smalls. “…We won’t stop until Amazon provides real protections for our health and safety and clarity for everybody about what it is doing to keep people safe in the middle of the worst pandemic of our lifetimes.”

Smalls told the MSR that it was important for him to express solidarity with fellow Amazon workers in Minnesota and the rest of the country and urged them to, “take the power back. We are the power. If they are not caring about your well-being, then walk out! Without us they are nothing.” 

Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to [email protected]

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