This arti¬≠cle is part of a series on Ama¬≠zon work¬≠ers pro¬≠duced in part¬≠ner¬≠ship with the Eco¬≠nom¬≠ic Hard¬≠ship Report¬≠ing Project.
Courte¬≠nay Brown spends her day mak¬≠ing gro¬≠cery runs for oth¬≠ers in a¬†foot¬≠ball-field-sized maze of nar¬≠row aisles and refrig¬≠er¬≠at¬≠ed enclaves. At the Ama¬≠zon Fresh unit in a¬†Newark, New Jer¬≠sey ful¬≠fill¬≠ment cen¬≠ter, she works on the out¬≠bound ship dock, help¬≠ing direct the load¬≠ing of trucks and send them off on local deliv¬≠ery routes. Brown says that after near¬≠ly three years at the e-tail empire, her job has been¬†‚Äúhell.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúImag¬≠ine a¬†real¬≠ly intense work¬≠out, like you just got off of the tread¬≠mill, no cool down, no noth¬≠ing,‚ÄĚ she describes one espe¬≠cial¬≠ly gru¬≠el¬≠ing day with a¬†resigned laugh.¬†‚ÄúThat‚Äôs how my legs¬†felt.‚ÄĚ
Ama¬≠zon Fresh employ¬≠ees often have to comb through huge stocks of var¬≠i¬≠ous chilled and frozen items, which means they need to wear full win¬≠ter clothes to work. The stress and phys¬≠i¬≠cal exhaus¬≠tion of the job tends to wear out many new hires with¬≠in their first few days.¬†‚ÄúYou don‚Äôt have that many that have last¬≠ed here,‚ÄĚ she says.¬†‚ÄúIt‚Äôs so¬†hard.‚ÄĚ
With the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic keep¬≠ing con¬≠sumers indoors, Ama¬≠zon gro¬≠cery sales have rough¬≠ly tripled in the sec¬≠ond quar¬≠ter over last year. The num¬≠ber of deliv¬≠ery trucks mov¬≠ing in and out of the Newark ful¬≠fill¬≠ment cen¬≠ter has jumped accordingly.
‚ÄúEvery day I¬†come in, it‚Äôs just more and more and more and more,‚ÄĚ Brown says.¬†‚ÄúLit¬≠er¬≠al¬≠ly every day we break the pre¬≠vi¬≠ous day‚Äôs record for the total num¬≠ber of routes that went out for the entire¬†day.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúOnce we get home [from work], the only thing we can do is show¬≠er and dis¬≠in¬≠fect,‚ÄĚ she con¬≠tin¬≠ues.¬†‚ÄúA lot of us [are] too exhaust¬≠ed to eat. We pass out. Then we repeat the process the fol¬≠low¬≠ing day.‚ÄĚ Some cowork¬≠ers have end¬≠ed up over¬≠sleep¬≠ing, she adds, and¬†‚Äúend up miss¬≠ing the whole¬†day.‚ÄĚ
For its part, an Ama¬≠zon spokesper¬≠son wrote in an email that while some jobs at Ama¬≠zon Fresh are phys¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly tax¬≠ing, work¬≠ers can choose less stren¬≠u¬≠ous labor.
‚ÄúImag¬≠ine your stan¬≠dard nor¬≠mal super¬≠mar¬≠ket aisle, [then] cut that in half,‚ÄĚ she observes.¬†‚ÄúYou‚Äôre expect¬≠ed to go through that aisle with oth¬≠er peo¬≠ple stock¬≠ing the shelves, or clean¬≠ing‚Ä¶ it‚Äôs real¬≠ly, real¬≠ly, real¬≠ly¬†cramped.‚ÄĚ
Ama¬≠zon boasts mak¬≠ing¬†150¬†oper¬≠a¬≠tional changes¬†dur¬≠ing the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic that include dis¬≠trib¬≠ut¬≠ing mil¬≠lions of masks at work¬≠sites, adding thou¬≠sands of jan¬≠i¬≠to¬≠r¬≠i¬≠al staff, and rede¬≠ploy¬≠ing some per¬≠son¬≠nel to help enforce social dis¬≠tanc¬≠ing rules. While it has imple¬≠ment¬≠ed social-dis¬≠tanc¬≠ing rules, and even pro¬≠vides an elec¬≠tron¬≠ic mon¬≠i¬≠tor¬≠ing sys¬≠tem to help keep work¬≠ers sev¬≠er¬≠al feet apart on the ware¬≠house floor, Brown says work spaces are still too crowd¬≠ed:¬†‚ÄúIt‚Äôs pret¬≠ty much a¬†show‚Ä¶Where I¬†work on the ship dock, we‚Äôre all mashed up¬†together.‚ÄĚ
The tense atmos¬≠phere has¬†‚Äúdef¬≠i¬≠nite¬≠ly changed the rela¬≠tion¬≠ship‚ÄĚ among work¬≠ers, she con¬≠tends. Her fel¬≠low employ¬≠ees were friend¬≠lier before, but now¬†‚Äúa lot of peo¬≠ple snap at each oth¬≠er a¬†bit more.‚ÄĚ
The threat of COVID-19¬†has only added to the psy¬≠cho¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal bur¬≠den.¬†‚ÄúWhen the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic first start¬≠ed, I¬†remem¬≠ber a¬†lot of us were watch¬≠ing the news,‚ÄĚ Brown reflects.¬†‚ÄúI was talk¬≠ing to man¬≠agers and try¬≠ing to get them [to lis¬≠ten].¬†‚ÄėHey, you know, this is going on and we might want to start prepar¬≠ing.‚Äô And they [were] just [act¬≠ing] like it [was] not that big of a¬†deal. Peo¬≠ple are dying, and it‚Äôs not that big of a¬†deal?‚ÄĚ
Although Ama¬≠zon even¬≠tu¬≠al¬≠ly enact¬≠ed safe¬≠ty mea¬≠sures, Brown says she and her col¬≠leagues spent¬†‚Äúmonths com¬≠plain¬≠ing‚ÄĚ about what they saw as sub¬≠stan¬≠dard pro¬≠tec¬≠tions, includ¬≠ing inad¬≠e¬≠quate safe¬≠ty gear and social-dis¬≠tanc¬≠ing mea¬≠sures. An Ama¬≠zon spokesper¬≠son main¬≠tains the com¬≠pa¬≠ny moved to pro¬≠tect its work¬≠ers at the out¬≠set of the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, and that masks were¬†dis¬≠trib¬≠uted¬†in ear¬≠ly¬†April.
But Brown bris¬≠tles at the com¬≠pa¬≠ny‚Äôs claims, say¬≠ing the response was slow and devoid of trans¬≠paren¬≠cy. Work¬≠ers were espe¬≠cial¬≠ly upset, she recalls, when they received news of a COVID-19 infec¬≠tion at their site two weeks after the indi¬≠vid¬≠ual had report¬≠ed¬≠ly tak¬≠en ill.
Even¬≠tu¬≠al¬≠ly, Brown con¬≠nect¬≠ed with oth¬≠er Ama¬≠zon orga¬≠niz¬≠ers through an online peti¬≠tion cir¬≠cu¬≠lat¬≠ed by the advo¬≠ca¬≠cy net¬≠work Unit¬≠ed for Respect. Ear¬≠li¬≠er this year, she began work¬≠ing with the Athena coali¬≠tion to pres¬≠sure Ama¬≠zon to rein¬≠state some work¬≠er pro¬≠tec¬≠tions that were insti¬≠tut¬≠ed ear¬≠li¬≠er on in the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic and then dis¬≠con¬≠tin¬≠ued. The work¬≠ers are demand¬≠ing¬†the restora¬≠tion of¬†‚Äúhaz¬≠ard pay‚ÄĚ¬†for ful¬≠fill¬≠ment-cen¬≠ter work¬≠ers, as well as¬†unlim¬≠it¬≠ed unpaid leave¬†for those who opt to stay home to pro¬≠tect their health. (Over the objec¬≠tions of its work¬≠force, Ama¬≠zon end¬≠ed unlim¬≠it¬≠ed unpaid leave and scrapped its $2¬†hourly¬†‚Äúincen¬≠tive‚ÄĚ bonus in May.) The coali¬≠tion is also push¬≠ing for more trans¬≠paren¬≠cy in the report¬≠ing of new cas¬≠es, so man¬≠age¬≠ment will¬†‚Äúactu¬≠al¬≠ly tell us the truth about the num¬≠bers of peo¬≠ple that are¬†sick.‚ÄĚ
In April, Brown par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pat¬≠ed in a¬†media con¬≠fer¬≠ence call with Sen. Cory Book¬≠er, D-N.J., to pro¬≠mote an¬†Essen¬≠tial Work¬≠ers Bill of Rights¬†that would beef up health and safe¬≠ty pro¬≠tec¬≠tions, pro¬≠vide child¬≠care sup¬≠port and uni¬≠ver¬≠sal paid leave poli¬≠cies, and pro¬≠tect whistle¬≠blow¬≠ers. More recent¬≠ly, she was fea¬≠tured in a¬†New York Times video¬†about the work¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions at Ama¬≠zon. She claims her pub¬≠lic cam¬≠paign¬≠ing has drawn the ire of¬†management.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm harassed every day, all day,‚ÄĚ she says. One safe¬≠ty super¬≠vi¬≠sor in par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar is¬†‚Äújust watch¬≠ing‚ÄĚ to see if she vio¬≠lates the company‚Äôs social-dis¬≠tanc¬≠ing¬†rules.
Brown recalls a¬†recent inci¬≠dent in which she was speak¬≠ing casu¬≠al¬≠ly with some co-work¬≠ers about safe¬≠ty issues when the super¬≠vi¬≠sor inter¬≠vened, shout¬≠ing at them to keep six feet apart. Although they were all main¬≠tain¬≠ing their dis¬≠tance, she says,¬†‚Äúhe [yelled],¬†‚Äėyou‚Äôre in a¬†group!‚Äô‚ÄĚ They answered,¬†‚ÄúYeah, but we‚Äôre all six feet apart from each oth¬≠er with our masks on.‚ÄĚ But she says the man¬≠ag¬≠er nonethe¬≠less threat¬≠ened to write them up and warned they could be¬†terminated.
Ama¬≠zon has stat¬≠ed that it oppos¬≠es retal¬≠i¬≠a¬≠tion against employ¬≠ees who voice their con¬≠cerns about work¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions. But like oth¬≠er Ama¬≠zon orga¬≠niz¬≠ers, Brown believes her treat¬≠ment reflects a broad¬≠er cam¬≠paign aimed at dis¬≠suad¬≠ing employ¬≠ees from organizing.
‚ÄúWhat they‚Äôll do is they‚Äôll find an indi¬≠vid¬≠ual, and they‚Äôll kind of make an exam¬≠ple of you. And that scares every¬≠body else,‚ÄĚ she says. Her obser¬≠va¬≠tions are affirmed by a recent Open Mar¬≠kets Insti¬≠tute report that finds that Ama¬≠zon has used sophis¬≠ti¬≠cat¬≠ed work¬≠place sur¬≠veil¬≠lance tac¬≠tics to intim¬≠i¬≠date and sup¬≠press work¬≠ers who seek to union¬≠ize or chal¬≠lenge the company‚Äôs labor practices.
Brown, mean¬≠while, is ded¬≠i¬≠cat¬≠ed to improv¬≠ing her work¬≠place. This is not the first time she has faced hos¬≠tile cir¬≠cum¬≠stances, both inside the Ama¬≠zon ware¬≠house and out. For a¬†stretch in¬†2018, she had to live in a¬†motel with her sis¬≠ter, who also works at Ama¬≠zon, because the two could not secure a¬†rental apart¬≠ment with the wages they were earn¬≠ing deliv¬≠er¬≠ing food for the cor¬≠po¬≠rate behe¬≠moth.¬†‚ÄúWe were lit¬≠er¬≠al¬≠ly starv¬≠ing,‚ÄĚ she says.¬†‚ÄúWe weren‚Äôt mak¬≠ing enough to be able to pay for the room, eat, and make it to and from¬†work.‚ÄĚ
Ama¬≠zon has denied charges of employ¬≠ee sur¬≠veil¬≠lance, dis¬≠miss¬≠ing the Open Mar¬≠kets Insti¬≠tute as¬†‚Äúa peren¬≠ni¬≠al crit¬≠ic that will¬≠ful¬≠ly ignores‚ÄĚ the com¬≠pa¬≠ny‚Äôs record of cre¬≠at¬≠ing jobs with¬†‚Äúindus¬≠try lead¬≠ing wages and ben¬≠e¬≠fits.‚ÄĚ The com¬≠pa¬≠ny claims that it does eval¬≠u¬≠ate work¬≠ers‚Äô per¬≠for¬≠mance¬†‚Äúover a¬†long peri¬≠od of time,‚ÄĚ and pro¬≠vides under-per¬≠form¬≠ing work¬≠ers with¬†‚Äúded¬≠i¬≠cat¬≠ed coach¬≠ing to help them¬†improve.‚ÄĚ
Giv¬≠en the dan¬≠gers of speak¬≠ing out, Brown some¬≠times won¬≠ders if she might end up home¬≠less again. But she‚Äôs less fear¬≠ful about los¬≠ing her job than she is about the health haz¬≠ards she faces every day as she fights to hold her employ¬≠er account¬≠able.¬†‚ÄúIt‚Äôs real¬≠ly ter¬≠ri¬≠fy¬≠ing,‚ÄĚ she says,¬†‚Äúbut if I¬†don‚Äôt do this, then I¬†could poten¬≠tial¬≠ly get sick and¬†die.‚ÄĚ
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission
About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con¬≠tribut¬≠ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con¬≠tribut¬≠ing edi¬≠tor at Dis¬≠sent and a co-pro¬≠duc¬≠er of the ‚ÄúBela¬≠bored‚ÄĚ pod¬≠cast. She stud¬≠ies his¬≠to¬≠ry at the CUNY Grad¬≠u¬≠ate Cen¬≠ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
About the Author: Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer in New York, and is the author of, most recent¬≠ly, Draw¬≠ing Blood and Broth¬≠ers of the Gun, (with Mar¬≠wan Hisham). Her art is in the per¬≠ma¬≠nent col¬≠lec¬≠tions of the Muse¬≠um of Mod¬≠ern Art. Her ani¬≠mat¬≠ed short, A Mes¬≠sage from the Future with Alexan¬≠dria Oca¬≠sio-Cortez, has been nom¬≠i¬≠nat¬≠ed for a 2020 Emmy for Out¬≠stand¬≠ing News Analy¬≠sis: Edi¬≠to¬≠r¬≠i¬≠al and Opinion.