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Protests at Amazon, Instacart may lead to more coronavirus-related labor unrest

Amazon.com Inc. and other e-commerce retailers could face increasing labor unrest and worker backlash at their warehouses and grocery stores in the coming weeks if essential workers continue wielding their collective power to advocate for better working conditions in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, experts said.

Worker frustration took center stage March 30 when some Amazon employees at the company's Staten Island fulfillment center in New York City walked off their jobs, calling on the retailer to close the facility for a deep-clean and pay during a closure after an associate tested positive for coronavirus. Meanwhile, shoppers who work for online grocery delivery service Instacart began walking off the job nationwide March 30 to protest for more protections such as hazard pay and safety gear for essential workers on the front lines of the outbreak. And some employees at Whole Foods Market Inc., Amazon's grocery arm, are staging a national "sick-out" protest March 31.

The protests highlight growing health and safety concerns among food delivery workers, online fulfillment employees and independent contractors whom society has often considered unskilled and replaceable, experts say.

Now that those employees are on the front lines of a virus outbreak that has killed more than 40,700 worldwide, they may organize more strikes and other labor actions to lobby for better worker protections and wages in the U.S., said Erin Hatton, a labor expert and associate professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

"It certainly is a moment in which they could leverage their very real power," Hatton said. "Some of the most vulnerable workers are very important in keeping our economy going."

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

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Experts say the coronavirus outbreak has given a voice to vulnerable front-line workers, who may organize more protests at company warehouses and stores for higher pay and better working conditions amid the pandemic. Pictured is an order picker at an Amazon fulfillment center.

Source: Amazon

Hiring bottleneck

If labor protests continue, organized worker backlash could slow Amazon's efforts to hire thousands of workers at a time when the company and other retailers are experiencing a surge in online demand for groceries and other merchandise, experts say.

Amazon alone is adding 100,000 new full- and part-time positions across the U.S. to its fulfillment centers and delivery network at a time when it is also warning consumers of delays with customer orders. Walmart Inc., The Kroger Co. and Instacart are also working to collectively hire thousands of workers.

If the companies fail to address workers' health concerns in a meaningful way, "there will be disruption in their logistics-related efforts," said Tom Forte, an analyst with D.A. Davidson.

"It will take longer to get [parcels] to consumers because they will have to reroute them to different fulfillment centers," he said. "The Krogers, the Walmarts and the Amazons may have a difficult time with adequate levels of staffing because some employees may not feel safe at work."

Julia Pollak, labor economist with jobs marketplace ZipRecruiter, said she expects more labor protests in the coming weeks, given that many low-wage workers who have been laid off are being compensated through federal and state unemployment benefits. The federal government's emergency economic aid package is also providing $1,200 checks for adults with an annual income of up to $75,000.

"I'm surprised that there haven't been more strikes," Pollak said in an interview. "We expect this to increase as the cost to workers who are taking these jobs rises."

She noted that many of these workers will be getting 100% of their pay, especially those who are cashiers, delivery drivers and warehouse workers.

"Economically, it makes almost no sense for these workers to be taking these jobs for the next four months at least," she said. Retailers "are going to have a hard time convincing them to take these jobs, and they are going to have to pull out all the stops," she said.

Worker protections

Amazon, Kroger and Walmart have all extended extra worker benefits in the wake of the virus, though unions and other labor advocates have said such measures are not adequate.

In recent weeks, Amazon has rolled out a series of measures to ensure the safety of its workers, including enhanced cleaning and sanitation, social distancing enforcement, extended paid leave options for full-time employees, an additional $2 per hour worked through April from the current rate of $15 per hour or more depending on the region, and paid time off benefits for regular part-time and seasonal employees. All Amazon employees diagnosed with the virus or placed into quarantine will receive up to two weeks of pay, ensuring employees have the time they need to return to good health without the worry of lost income.

In a statement, Amazon said "we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable. We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances and in Staten Island, we are now temperature checking everyone entering the facility."

Despite this, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million workers in grocery retail and other industries, threw its support behind the protests of Amazon, Instacart and Whole Foods workers, saying the workers should have increased protections, including the emergency pay increases, paid leave and protective gear "that they have earned and deserve."

"Amazon, Instacart, and Whole Foods workers are sending a powerful message that it's time to stop putting corporate profits ahead of the health and safety of the men and women who are critical to our food supply, and are on the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak," said UFCW International President Marc Perrone in a statement.

Walmart and Kroger did not respond to inquiries for this story.

Kroger did say March 21 that it would pay employees a one-time bonus of up to $300 and pay employees for up to 14 days if they display COVID-19 symptoms and are ordered to isolate by a doctor.

But Joe Duffle, president of UFCW 1167, which represents employees at Kroger-owned chains in Southern California including Ralphs and Food 4 Less, wrote in a letter the same day that the bonus was "shameful" and that the company has "not gone far enough."

Instacart workers are striking to protest the lack of masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectant products needed to keep them safe on the job.

Ahead of the strike, Instacart responded, saying it would offer its shoppers hand sanitizer and set the default tip on repeat orders to the amount that customers applied to their previous delivery. But in its own subsequent blog post the same day, the nonprofit activist group Gig Workers Collective called those steps "a sick joke," pointing out that Instacart had not even addressed its request for hazard pay.

Amazon, Walmart and Kroger are the top three biggest digital grocery retailers in the U.S. as of 2018, according to data from Edge by Ascential.

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More pay not enough

Experts say paying these workers more money will not solve the problem alone; the companies need to step up efforts to protect the health of employees as the highly contagious virus spreads.

"I think Amazon has levers it can pull; they can continue to increase wages and efforts to protect their employees on the front lines with time off," said D.A. Davidson's Forte. "They are trying to find an equilibrium as far as what can they do from a compensation standpoint, what can they do from a work safety standpoint. Many of these people are not being compensated for the risk they are taking."

James Thomson, a former Amazon executive and partner with Buy Box Experts, agreed that the company will have to go further to alleviate concerns but that part of Amazon's challenge is the shortage of safety equipment. The company is experiencing the same lack of gloves and masks as hospitals and healthcare organizations, he said.

"If Amazon was able to get millions of masks, and all the Purell they needed and all the Lysol wipes they needed, they could at least say 'listen we are at least as good as everybody else on this front,'" he said.

Pollak, of ZipRecuiter, said she thinks the equipment shortage will be temporary, adding that many U.S. companies are stepping up efforts to make protective gear such as masks.

"It may become somewhat easier to meet workers' demands in the coming weeks," she said.