Amazon workers hold Juneteenth vigils demanding Jeff Bezos reflect on company’s treatment of ‘unskilled workforce’

Amazon workers hold Juneteenth vigils demanding Jeff Bezos reflect on company’s treatment of ‘unskilled workforce’

20 Jun    Finance News

Amazon AMZN, +0.79% CEO Jeff Bezos says Juneteenth should be a moment for reflection about the ways we can eradicate systemic racism and create a more just country.

But some Amazon workers are holding Juneteenth vigils where they say they want to draw a link between “slavery, racism and Amazon’s treatment of its ‘unskilled workforce.’” At Juneteenth gatherings in New York and California, workers will demand that Bezos reflect on the working conditions and salaries inside his own company.

June 19 is Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in America. On this date in 1865, enslaved African-Americans in Texas learned that they were free when Union Gen. Gordon Granger read an order declaring that the Emancipation Proclamation was in effect in the state. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the proclamation more than two years earlier in the Civil War against the Confederacy.

Racism isn’t just about using slurs or waving the Confederate flag, says Adrienne Williams, co-founder of Bay Area Amazonians, a newly-formed worker advocacy group for staffers at the retail tech giant that is hosting one of the Juneteenth vigils.

‘The systemic racism is in all American institutions, and that includes Amazon. If Amazon really stands in solidarity with us, they should prove it by listening to us about solutions.’

— Adrienne Williams, co-founder of Bay Area Amazonians

“It’s things like Jeff Bezos saying slavery ended a long time ago while not paying a living wage,” Williams, a driver for the company, said in a statement.

“The systemic racism is in all American institutions, and that includes Amazon. If Amazon really stands in solidarity with us, they should prove it by listening to us about solutions,” said Williams, who is a critic of the company’s working conditions.

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Full-time workers at the 840,000-person company have a $15 an hour minimum wage. When Amazon announced the $15 wage rate, some tough critics, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, gave the company credit. Intense working conditions have been a common criticism of Amazon — and a pending federal lawsuit alleges the company isn’t meeting requisite safety conditions as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

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Amazon has previously has said it offers fair, competitive pay and safe conditions. Last month, Bezos said the company was planning to spend approximately $4 billion in profits on “getting products to customers and keeping employees safe” and on “higher wages for hourly teams.”

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Williams’ group organized a vigil at a Richmond, Calif. fulfillment center, and another organization, Amazonians United New York City, will convene a Juneteenth vigil in New York City. That group consists of logistics workers “seeking improvements in our workplace,” according to its Twitter TWTR, -1.82% profile.

“For Juneteenth we honor the lives stolen by white supremacy, from the founding of the US, through slavery, up to modern police violence. We honor those workers lost to covid as Amazon and others prioritize profits over human life,” the group wrote on Twitter.

“We stand in solidarity with the Black community and are committed to helping build a country and a world where everyone can live with dignity and free from fear,” said Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski. “We understand many of our employees feel passionate about this issue and may want to join demonstrations — we respect and encourage their choice to do so.”

An alleged ‘facade of compliance’ at one fulfillment center

The Juneteenth vigils come just weeks after a lawsuit alleging Amazon is violating workplace safety laws at its Staten Island fulfillment center amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The 5,000-employee fulfillment center has a “façade of compliance,” but it prizes cost-efficient worker productivity over everything else, according to a Brooklyn federal lawsuit filed this month by three Amazon workers and relatives who live with them.

Many workers at the site “are people of color who travel hours every day by public transportation to work ten- to eleven-hour shifts for low wages,” the lawsuit noted.

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One plaintiff said she got coronavirus from coworkers who were “who were explicitly or encouraged to continue attending work.” She alleges that she brought it home with her, and that weeks later she found a cousin who lived with her dead after he came down with COVID-19 symptoms.

The company allegedly tracks exactly how much time employees spend on “time off task” and issues written warnings for workers who have 30 minutes per shift and above, not including paid break time. Sixty minutes results in a final written warning, the lawsuit said. Employees who don’t handle enough merchandise during a shift also allegedly face consequences. The policies “are oppressive and dangerous, even absent a pandemic,” the lawsuit said.

When the lawsuit was filed, an Amazon spokesperson sent a statement to MarketWatch that read in part: “We are saddened by the tragic impact COVID-19 has had on communities across the globe, including on some Amazon team members and their family and friends. From early March to May 1, we offered our employees unlimited time away from work, and since May 1 we have offered leave for those most vulnerable or who need to care for children or family members.”

Levandowski, the Amazon spokeswoman, told MarketWatch that the company is planning to spend more than $800 million in the first half of the year on coronavirus-related safety measures and equipment. It’s also spending more than $85 million to re-assign certain workers to safety and audits at work sites, she said. Amazon has already provided 100 million masks to workers, almost 2,300 extra hand-washing stations, and tacked on nearly 5,800 extra workers to its janitorial staff.

A lawsuit is focused on a fulfillment center where many employees are people of color.

Several unions and 16 Democratic representatives and senators — including Senator Sanders — filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of the workers.

The lawsuit alleges Amazon isn’t complying with workplace safety laws. Company attorneys say that “could not be further from the truth.” They say the allegations are “meritless” and call the lawsuit a “publicity stunt.”

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The lawsuit is “meritless” and a “publicity stunt,” Amazon’s lawyers said in court papers.

The cleaning staff size has tripled at the Staten Island site and restrooms and breakrooms are cleaned eight times more often than they used to be, Amazon said in court papers.

The fulfillment center now has portable hand-washing stations and 120 hand-sanitizer dispensers. Any workers who are quarantining or diagnosed with coronavirus will get two weeks paid time off so they can “focus on their health and protect others,” the company says. The center passed an unannounced inspection from the city’s sheriff’s office, it noted.

The emphasis on sanitation is missing the point, the workers’ lawyers replied. The case is trying to make the company change its “efficiency-maximizing human resource policies, which discourage workers from taking time off work if they feel sick or have a known exposure to COVID-19,” they wrote.

Judge Brian Cogan will hold a hearing on the case in mid-July.

Months before the lawsuit, one worker, Chris Smalls, organized a walkout at the same fulfillment center and says he was fired as payback. Smalls is a black man. In a memo, David Zapolsky, Amazon’s senior vice president and general counsel, said Smalls was “not smart, or articulate.” Zapolsky later apologized for the comments.

“Smalls wasn’t fired in retaliation for organizing the protest, Levandowski said. “We terminated his employment for putting the health and safety of others at risk and violations of his terms of his employment.” Smalls was warned several times for allegedly violating the company’s social distancing guidelines, she said. Smalls was in close contact with a worker who had coronavirus, and was told to stay home with pay, Levandowski said. “Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite further putting the teams at risk.”

Shares of Amazon have been up 44.76% this year compared to a 9.35% decline for the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -0.80% and a 4.12% dip for the S&P 500 Index SPX, -0.56%

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