Essential workers contract COVID-19 statewide, giving demands a deadly urgency

Chicago Amazon and Instacart workers join a wave of strikes around the country pushing for warehouse safety, sick leave and more.

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Photo courtesy of Ted Miin, DCH1 Amazonians United

“They call us ‘essential workers’ but they treat us more like essential sacrifices,” said Ted Miin, an Amazon warehouse worker in Chicago.

Workers learned a week ago that two employees at Amazon’s DCH1 delivery station at 28th and Western had tested positive for coronavirus, Miin said. Since then, there have been four “safety strikes” — walkouts by groups of workers to voice demands that Amazon do more to protect its employees. They’ve called for a two-week shutdown of the warehouse with paid leave so workers can self-quarantine and the facility can be thoroughly disinfected, among other things.

The company’s response — including promises of “enhanced cleaning” and promoting social distancing — has been “completely insufficient,” Miin said. He said that in the DCH1 warehouse, the company is using off-the-shelf cleaning products that aren’t approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for use against COVID-19. That’s just to wipe down some surfaces during the workday — not conveyor belts or packages, for instance — and since the warehouse runs 24 hours a day every day of the week, there’s no opportunity to do much more than that.

And while the company has “removed some chairs and moved the microwave in the break room,” effective social distancing is impossible given the way work is organized in the warehouse — particularly what one report last year called “the company’s obsession with speed.” Safer policies would require allowing one worker to wait while another worker is placing a package on a rack to be taken for shipping, for example. That would be a major change in a warehouse where each worker may handle as many as 2,000 packages during an eight-hour shift, handing off several items each minute, Miin said. Company software tracks every movement of each worker and issues automatic write-ups when their pace lags below the minimum, he said.

Miin said some managers have told some workers informally that they will be “less strict about the rate,” but there’s been nothing in writing from the company. The workers have demanded that no one be written up for rate violations during the coronavirus crisis.

The company is also providing 14 days of paid leave for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 or is ordered into quarantine. But the supply of tests for the virus remains highly limited — far more limited than exposure to the virus itself. Workers who can get tested are required to report for work while they await results, which can take days.

Miin said warehouse management has just started supplying masks, but not uniformly — he said about half the workforce had no masks during his Monday shift — and workers are still using their standard work gloves.

Workers at Amazon’s Chicago warehouse organized as DCH1 Amazonians United last year, pressing management with some success to supply basic needs like clean water and air conditioning. They worked with similar groups at warehouses across the country to win paid time off for all employees working more than 20 hours a week — a benefit promised in Amazon’s employee manual but not uniformly offered — though it now looks like the new paid leave will eventually replace accrued sick time

The company has faced worker protests at warehouses across the country. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in 50 Amazon warehouses. Four U.S. Senators recently wrote the company, pressing it to cover the cost of COVID-19 testing for its workers, provide paid sick leave and hazard pay, and “suspend its strident efficiency and disciplinary measures” to allow workers time to “practice good hygiene,” and shut down facilities where workers test positive for the virus, with paid sick leave so workers can self-isolate.

“These cases are going to multiply, the number of infections will increase, and people are going to die,” said Miin. “We hope that pressure from workers, from customers, from elected officials, and from the media will force Amazon to do right by its workers.”

Chicago’s Amazon workers are part of a wave of wildcat strikes among essential workers across the country. In the Chicago area, workers at factories in Romeoville and Bedford Park walked off the job, demanding sick pay while they self-quarantine, after coronavirus cases were confirmed at the facilities. In Evergreen Park, two Walmart workers have died from COVID-19. One worker’s family is suing Walmart — which only announced plans to begin issuing masks and gloves to its workers this month — for wrongful death.

Coronavirus infections have been reported in numerous warehouses in the region, said Roberto Clack of Warehouse Workers for Justice, and at some facilities workers are protesting. “In the next two weeks we’re going to hear about a lot more walkouts in warehouses and essential businesses,” he said.

Chicago workers participated in a nationwide strike at the grocery delivery service Instacart, winning safety kits with masks and thermometers from the company — but not a demand for an expanded sick pay policy, said Ryan Hartson, who works for the company at the Roscoe Village Mariano’s. Like Amazon and other companies, Instacart is providing paid sick leave for anyone who tests positive for the virus. That’s not very meaningful, since “only very sick people and very rich people can get the test,” Hartson pointed out.

Hartson thinks the online organizing effort didn’t do enough to inform and mobilize workers, and he’s working with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in a drive to unionize the small portion of the company’s 200,000-strong workforce that is classified as employees rather than independent contractors. That campaign won its first victory earlier this year when Instacart workers in Skokie voted to join UFCW Local 1546. Another goal, Hartson said, is to get employee status for all Instacart workers.

Hartson said he hopes the current crisis will be “a turning point in people’s mindset about what working people can do if they organize.”

Employers in the “new economy,” including online retailers like Amazon and app-based businesses like Instacart, represent a sustained effort by corporate America to create a brave new world of employment, without unionization, without full benefits or job security, and with sharply limited workers’ rights. Their workers have been pushing back for some time now, but the coronavirus gives their demands a deadly seriousness. And increasingly they are discovering the power of acting in solidarity.