The richest man in the world is now responsible for the workers on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis, who risk their lives daily to provide groceries and basic goods to people confined to their homes. But Whole Foods delivery workers say new measures implemented by Jeff Bezos and Amazon are failing to protect them and hundreds of thousands of customers from contracting and spreading the virus.
In response to what many see as an unsafe situation, Whole Foods workers are pushing for a company-wide “sickout” on Tuesday, demanding double-time hazard pay over the course of the crisis, paid leave for all workers who self-isolate, health care for part-time and seasonal workers, better sanitation equipment and social distancing policies, and the immediate shutdown of any location where a worker tests positive for Covid-19, with full pay for workers during store closure. Amazonians United, a broad coalition of Amazon employees and contract workers, has launched a petition with similar demands, which now includes more than 4,600 signatures.
On March 21, Bezos, whose net worth is around $117 billion, sent a thank-you letter to the thousands of low-wage workers he employs at Amazon and Whole Foods. “Your efforts are being noticed at the highest levels of government,” he wrote. To demonstrate his gratitude, Bezos has temporarily raised employees’ pay by $2 an hour and offered two weeks’ paid time off for those quarantined or diagnosed with the virus. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey noted in an email to employees in mid-March that they could donate their paid time off to co-workers whose pandemic needs were going unmet, an acknowledgement that the benefits are insufficient.
For the large proportion of delivery workers who are not employed directly by Amazon, the new benefits are even more inadequate. To qualify for two weeks of paid sick leave, contract workers must apply for a grant from the newly created Amazon Relief Fund and submit documentation from a health care provider, a government health official, or Amazon stating that they can’t work because of a Covid-19 diagnosis or exposure. The multibillion-dollar company generated controversy when it solicited public donations for the $25 million fund.
In New York City — where hospitals are overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, and more than 900 people have died, representing about a third of U.S. deaths from the virus — three contract Whole Foods delivery workers say that no one has informed them of the existence of the relief fund or otherwise offered additional sick pay. While they continue to come into close contact with colleagues and customers, they say they lack personal protective equipment and clear guidance as to what to do if they are exposed or how they will be compensated if they get sick.
The situation in New York is emblematic of the contradiction between the emerging recognition of grocery and delivery workers as essential to a functioning society and their low pay and lack of benefits.
“Do I feel safe? Of course not,” said one of the Whole Foods delivery workers. The three workers interviewed by The Intercept declined to name their stores or the third-party contractors they work for out of fear that Amazon would simply drop their companies’ contracts if they were identified. Cornucopia Logistics, Dutch Express, and Breakaway are among the courier services that deliver for Whole Foods in New York. None responded to requests for comment.
“It’s more on the Amazon level where I’ve seen the problem. The local guys are trying their best to make it work,” one of the delivery workers said. “These companies are at their mercy because they have to do whatever Amazon says or else they lose the whole thing.”
The New York delivery workers said rules implemented by Whole Foods and Amazon are full of contradictions. Disposable gloves and disinfecting wipes are available to protect workers’ hands and clean delivery carts, but in an environment where speed comes first, they are not always used. Delivery workers are given a window of time to pick up orders assembled at Whole Foods stores by workers known as Amazon Shoppers and then travel by foot or bicycle to customers’ homes, often dragging large carts. If they take too long, they are penalized. Workers continue to share equipment that multiple people touch with bare hands.
Bezos attributes the fact that Amazon and Whole Foods do not offer masks to their workers to the national shortage. Instead, the companies encourage social distancing. But delivery workers say maintaining 6 feet of distance from colleagues and customers, as advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is “virtually impossible.” They’re often jostling for space, especially in the areas where delivery personnel pick up orders.
Close contact is also common when it’s time to deliver the orders, which have increased in volume as customers buy in bulk. Whole Foods now offers “contactless” delivery, but it does not always prevent close proximity to clients. As one of the workers put it, “When you knock on someone’s door, they’re going to open it.”
“I’m resigned to the fact that most of us are going to get sick. That’s why what’s important to me right now is us getting sick and hazard pay.”
Perhaps most disturbing is the likelihood that workers are continuing to show up for shifts even if they feel ill or think they may have been exposed. Managers encourage the delivery workers to stay home if they fall sick, assuring them that they will not be fired, but workers say no one has shared information about new sick pay.
Two of the workers said they fear that if they took time off, they could lose some of their shifts when they return. “It makes people second guess what’s right — for fear of messing up not just now, but what happens after that,” one worker said.
Another worker decided to self-quarantine because he suspected that he’d been exposed to someone with Covid-19. He assumed he would not be paid, since he had already used all his paid time off. He said that if he didn’t have vulnerable people in his life, he would likely have continued to go to work.
In fact, a number of Whole Foods personnel have contracted the virus. New York’s Columbus Circle location in Manhattan closed early last Thursday for the second time in two weeks because of Covid-19 cases among its staff, the company confirmed to The Intercept. Whole Foods did not say how many employees had tested positive. “We have been performing daily enhanced sanitation measures, have had professional deep cleanings throughout the facility, and are following the guidance of health and food safety authorities,” a spokesperson told The Intercept. “However, out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to temporarily close the store.”
An Amazon Shopper working at the location said they received an automated call Thursday evening saying that the infected Whole Foods worker hadn’t been in the store for the past week and that it would reopen Saturday morning. The first time the store closed early, on March 18, it was only from co-workers that the Shopper learned that an employee had tested positive. The Bryant Park store in Manhattan also recently had a Covid-19 case among staff, and workers at Whole Foods stores in Chicago; Huntington Beach, California; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Arlington, Maryland; and Sudbury, Maryland, have also been diagnosed with Covid-19.
In an emailed statement, an Amazon spokesperson described the company’s protocol when it encounters a coronavirus case among staff. “We proactively inform all employees, and will alert any associate who had close contact with this person at our building and will ask them to not return to the site and to self-quarantine for 14-days, and we will pay them for their time at home.”
The spokesperson said that the company shared information about the Amazon Relief Fund with delivery contractors the day the project launched on March 11 and has also sent the contractors detailed lists of health and safety procedures. They added that the World Health Organization does not recommend the use of masks for people who are not ill and that Amazon encourages sick workers to stay home. The Washington Post reported on Monday that CDC officials are considering recommending people cover their faces during the pandemic, potentially with cloth coverings that could help prevent wearers from unintentionally transmitting the virus to others.
“We deeply value our employees and partners around the world as they continue to come to work and serve the people in their communities in a way that very few can — delivering critical supplies directly to the doorsteps of people who need them. We are going to great lengths to keep the buildings extremely clean and help employees practice important precautions such as social distancing and other measures,” the spokesperson said in response to the Amazon workers’ petition. “We believe direct communication is the best avenue to discuss feedback.”
“Whole Foods Market is committed to prioritizing our Team Members’ wellbeing, while recognizing their extraordinary dedication,” a Whole Foods spokesperson said in response to the sickout. “Whole Foods Market’s longstanding open door policy encourages direct dialogue between Team Members and leadership.” The company will continue to roll out new safety protocols.
Many of the rules at Whole Foods so far seem to be aimed at “putting on a cosmetic sheen for customers,” one of the Whole Foods delivery workers said. “I’m resigned to the fact that most of us are going to get sick. That’s why what’s important to me right now is us getting sick and hazard pay.”
Gratitude Isn’t Enough
Nearly three years ago, Amazon purchased Whole Foods, merging the online delivery company’s grinding labor model with a grocer branded as a holistic and healthful, offering its customers organic, gourmet, and ethically sourced products, as well as homeopathic remedies. In the midst of a health crisis that demands home delivery, people are turning to Whole Foods more than ever to protect their health.
Whole Foods locations have effectively become Amazon warehouses shoehorned into grocery stores. In a typical store, Amazon Shoppers pull items from the shelves for delivery alongside in-store customers. Amazon Shoppers from New York and Seattle, who earn around $16 per hour as part-time employees, told The Intercept that Amazon had put in place a few new protocols. In some stores, Amazon is staggering shifts and offering longer breaks, so that workers are not coming in all at once and have time to wash their hands. A new category of work — someone in charge of disinfecting surfaces throughout the shift — has been added. On “surge days,” Amazon Shoppers can earn an extra $5 on top of the $2 per hour raise.
Still, the measures have failed to inspire much confidence. The Columbus Circle worker received an email from Amazon describing the two weeks’ sick pay but said it wasn’t clear how Shoppers would access it, since schedules are not set. Shoppers choose shifts via a daily bidding process; if they don’t act quickly to claim shifts, they’ll be left without work. Recently, when the Shopper developed symptoms associated with Covid-19, they simply canceled their scheduled shifts and went without payment.
Asked how Shoppers and workers with irregular schedules can access sick leave, an Amazon spokesperson said they should visit the Amazon Relief Fund website.
After Shoppers package orders, they are handed off to delivery personnel who frequently work for contract companies. Interviews with Whole Foods and Amazon delivery employees working in other states, some of whom pick up Whole Foods delivery gigs via an Amazon app or deliver retail orders out of Amazon warehouses, suggest that the company is implementing health protections and sick pay inconsistently across the United States.
In some regions, Whole Foods delivery is carried out by Amazon Flex drivers, who use an app akin to Uber that connects gig workers with orders across a given region. Two Amazon Flex workers interviewed by The Intercept from Chicago and Missouri said their work had been dominated by Whole Foods orders since the coronavirus crisis began. Both said they were aware of the Amazon Relief Fund.
But two Amazon delivery workers operating out of warehouses in Richmond, California, and Kent, Washington, said they had heard nothing about the relief fund. Their experiences reflect those of the three New York Whole Foods delivery contractors.
The California driver, who works for a contractor called NorCal LastMile, told The Intercept that as many as 10 contract delivery companies operate out of his warehouse. Asked why Amazon has so many contractors at one location, he said, “so that we don’t unionize.” He said two of the lower-performing contract companies were recently cut.
“We support Delivery Service Partners as they grow and manage their operations but take action when they aren’t meeting our high bar for safety and customer experience,” an Amazon spokesperson told The Intercept.
The worker said that NorCal had placed hand sanitizer in most vehicles and told drivers to use disinfectant to wipe down delivery vans each day. However, he added, “I’d be surprised if more than half of the people are actually wiping down their vans.” NorCal did not respond to requests for comment.
He has been unimpressed by the outpouring of thanks from the public. “I think people who say thank you to me are misunderstanding the situation,” he said. “I’m not at work because I’m trying to help people. I’m at work because I need to pay rent or die.”
“I’m not at work because I’m trying to help people. I’m at work because I need to pay rent or die.”
The Washington delivery worker, Matt Smith, said that neither Amazon nor the contract company he works for has provided hand sanitizer for drivers, and they only received gloves a few days ago. He delivers large-size orders, sitting in the passenger seat of a truck within 3 feet of the driver for hours at a time. Although Amazon says it is no longer accepting shipments from suppliers of nonessential items at its warehouses, Smith said last week he delivered a hot tub, exercise bikes, cat trees, and bean bag chairs.
“Amazon Delivery Service Partners and drivers all have access to adequate wipes and sanitation supplies to clean their vans before and after a shift. If a delivery stations runs out, there is a path to order more,” an Amazon spokesperson told The Intercept.
Of course, the situation is changing quickly. On Friday, NorCal emailed the California delivery worker a PowerPoint presentation describing new federal regulations that require companies with fewer than 500 employees to provide up to two weeks’ paid sick leave if workers have Covid-19 symptoms and are awaiting diagnosis, are following a doctor’s advice to self-quarantine, are providing care for someone who fits those criteria, or are caring for a child whose school or day care is closed because of Covid-19. The presentation was designed for employers and included no further instructions for the Amazon delivery driver to follow if he falls ill.
Smith got a call from his Washington workplace on Saturday informing him that delivery workers who sit in the passenger seat and assist drivers in carrying packages to customers’ homes should not come in for the next two weeks while the warehouse implements social distancing protocol. A worker at a nearby Amazon warehouse had been diagnosed with Covid-19, a fact that Smith only learned from a co-worker and news reports, rather than Amazon or the contract company. The coronavirus has now infected workers at 19 Amazon warehouses across the U.S., a number that may be only the tip of the iceberg. At times, Amazon has failed to notify staff of diagnoses in their workplace until pressed to do so.
The Workforce of the Future
The Whole Foods delivery model is poised to become a new norm. “I’m sad to tell you I predict things are going to get worse before they get better,” Bezos stated in his letter. As the crisis deepens, Amazon will be hiring 100,000 new workers. “We hope people who’ve been laid off will come work with us until they’re able to go back to the jobs they had.”
A year ago, the Whole Foods delivery grocery model seemed to be floundering, according to the Amazon Shopper in Seattle. “Now we’re in a situation where it makes sense to convert a lot of these Whole Foods locations to pickup and delivery only,” the Shopper said.
Amazon’s new benefits are far from radical; in fact, the $2 raise has become a retail industry standard during the Covid-19 crisis, also offered by Target and a number of grocery chains. The pay raise in some ways serves to exacerbate the crisis, said a worker at an Amazon delivery station in New York City. “Since Amazon is not taking significant precautions to stop the spread of the virus within warehouses, paying more to incentivize people to come in is creating a public health crisis,” he said, adding that the demands outlined in the Amazonians United petition would better account for the risks workers are facing.
In many locations, even direct employees for Amazon have reportedly been unable to access sick time promised for those who follow doctors’ recommendations to quarantine.
“Amazon is working with employees to gather the information we need to approve extra time off with pay for quarantine and/or diagnosis of Covid,” an Amazon spokesperson told The Intercept. “Because we are continually revisiting policies to ensure the safety of our employees, going forward, this information may include self-report of patterns of symptoms and exposure, particularly when the employee cannot obtain medical certification at all.”
Advocates say the government’s efforts to support grocers and Amazon workers has fallen short too. Michigan, Minnesota, and Vermont have classified food distribution workers as essential personnel eligible for free child care, but most state governments are offering few new protections. And newly signed federal legislation, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, guarantees Covid-19 sick leave only for companies that have between 50 and 500 employees — leaving out millions of people.
“For a lot of these companies, being able to stay open right now is a huge privilege. They’re making tons of money and they’re not being asked to do anything extra.”
Tyler Crawford, founder of the Bicycle Worker Advocacy Project in New York, said the government should be requiring businesses to provide delivery workers with training, equipment, and benefits so that they can protect themselves. “For a lot of these companies, being able to stay open right now is a huge privilege. They’re making tons of money and they’re not being asked to do anything extra.”
Workers are increasingly fighting back. In Queens, Amazon employees staged a walkout on March 18 after they learned of a co-worker’s Covid-19 diagnosis. Amazon claimed that it notified workers late in the evening that they were not required to come in, but employees argue that management only called off the shift after learning they would refuse the unsafe conditions, a right protected under labor law.
This week, in addition to the Whole Foods sickout, workers for the grocery delivery app Instacart went on strike, demanding hazard pay and protective gear, and Amazon workers at facilities in Staten Island, New York, and Robbinsville, New Jersey, walked out in protest after multiple workers contracted Covid-19 at their warehouses. Amazon fired one of the key organizers of the Staten Island walkout, claiming, ironically, that the worker had violated social distancing protocol and failed to quarantine after coming into contact with one of the diagnosed workers.
“Amazon’s burn-and-churn labor model is something they have been able to get away with for years while doing irreparable harm to hundreds of thousands of workers, but now they’re putting lives at risk,” the Seattle Whole Foods worker said. “The only thing that can really change that is action by all of us.”
Fighting back is difficult when keeping a job is a matter of survival. One of the New York delivery workers summed up a common sentiment. “I’m not complaining about the job, because it’s actually been a savior for me in some ways,” the worker said. However, “Amazon is a very harsh company to work for. They are interested in the bottom line. They are not interested in the worker.”