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Amazon’s Unlimited Unpaid Time Off Ends May 1, and Workers Say That Could Be Deadly

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Amazon warehouse workers across the country today decried the company’s decision to end a policy of unlimited unpaid time off, and said that working conditions inside Amazon fulfillment centers are putting their lives at risk.

Employees from New Jersey, Minnesota, Michigan and New York, working with Athena Coalition, said on a call today that a policy change announced late last week—which will replace the unlimited paid time off offered to workers as a response to the coronavirus crisis with a more restrictive policy at the end of this month—is “outrageous” in light of the very real level of danger that still persists for those forced to work in close quarters. “People have to choose, do I stay home and risk losing my job, or go to work and risk getting sick?” said Hafsa Hassan, who walked out of work yesterday in protest, along with about 50 colleagues at the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota.

Amazon’s announcement that it will roll back unlimited unpaid time off at the end of April means that employees will soon be required to apply to be granted leaves of absence if they must be away from work for health reasons, or to take care of children who are out of school, or to protect vulnerable family members. But employees say that system is confusing and broken, even for those who should qualify. Rachel Belz, an Amazon warehouse worker in New Jersey who also works with the activist group United for Respect, has not been at work since mid-March because of fears of infecting her family, especially her son. Her attempts to apply for a leave of absence, though, have resulted in multiple dropped calls, unanswered emails, and no response from the company. “H.R. is overloaded. You can open a case, and they won’t get back to you,” she said. “If you’re expecting people at a high volume to apply to these things, you need to work out the kinks in the system.”

Belz, who is in contact daily with other workers at the facility, said that the company’s attempts to keep the warehouse free of coronavirus are inadequate. Among the problems, she said: No soap in the bathrooms, cleaning supplies that are kept locked in cages that can only be opened by managers, and temperature screenings for workers that are being conducted using only a thermal camera—and workers who appear too warm are encouraged to go outside for a few minutes, cool down, and try again.

Amazon spokesperson Rachel Lighty said that “we are providing flexibility with leave of absence options, including expanding the policy to cover COVID-19 circumstances, such as high-risk individuals or school closures.” She also called Amazon employees “heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis.” The company had its first confirmed Covid death two weeks ago, when an operations manager at a California Amazon warehouse died.

Multiple workers said that their facilities lacked cleaning supplies, and that hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes are being kept in one location away from work stations, making it impossible to regularly sanitize your individual work area throughout a shift. They said that Amazon’s current hiring boom is making break rooms and common areas even more crowded, making proper social distancing impossible. They expressed doubt that the single mask being issued per person per shift is enough to keep them safe. And they described the unnerving experience of seeing fully protected cleaning crews descend on their job sites after a coworker reported testing positive for Covid.

Jordan Flowers, who works at the Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island that has been the target of protests and walkouts in recent weeks, said that he knows coworkers who are now choosing to sleep in their cars, rather than going home and risking getting their families sick. “It’s frightening,” he said. Billie Jo Ramey, an Amazon worker in Michigan who has been taking unpaid leave since March after getting ill with Covid-like symptoms, fears what the policy change will mean for her, and for those around her. “I’m in no shape to go back. I’m at high risk,” she said.

Several workers noted the wealth of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos—who’s gotten tens of billions of dollars richer since the beginning of this crisis, thanks to Amazon’s booming stock price—and contrasted his resources with the lack of resources they feel they’re being given on the job. “That’s not just terrifying,” said Rachel Belz, “it’s pathetic that we can’t trust a trillion-dollar company to do the most basic thing, which is to clean.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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Amazon employees across Europe protest ‘inhuman’ working conditions

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Amazon warehouse workers in several European countries took to the streets in protest this week over what they called “inhuman” working conditions.

In the U.K., Germany, Italy, and Spain, workers walked the streets holding signs reading “Treated like a robot at Amazon” and “We are not robots.” According to The Washington Post, some walked off the job, intentionally timing their protest for Black Friday, the busiest day of the shopping year.

“The conditions our members at Amazon are working under are frankly inhuman,” Tim Roache, general secretary of the GMB trade union in the U.K., said in a statement Wednesday.

“They are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious and being taken away in ambulances. We’re standing up and saying enough is enough, these are people making Amazon its money. People with kids, homes, bills to pay — they’re not robots.”

In May, a GMB Freedom of Information request revealed ambulances had been called to one Amazon warehouse in the town of Rugeley, England at least 115 times in a span of three years, according to The Guardian. Three of those calls were for maternity or pregnancy-related problems, and three were for “major trauma,” the outlet noted.

In total, GMB found ambulances had been called out to Amazon’s U.K. warehouses a total of 600 times in three years.

“Hundreds of ambulance call-outs, pregnant women telling us they are forced to stand for 10 hours a day, pick, stow, stretch and bend, pull heavy carts and walk miles — even miscarriages and pregnancy issues at work. None of these things happen in a safe, happy working environments,” GMB national officer Mick Rix told The Guardian.

Amazon officials say the the allegation fail to present  “an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings.”

At the company’s San Fernando logistics center in Madrid, Spain, workers held their fourth major protest to demand better working conditions and increased pay, chanting, “We will not accept discounts to our rights.”

“This is our biggest pressure [action] to date,” Marc Blanes, a trade labor union official for CGT, told Spanish newspaper El Diario.

Amazon issued a statement in response to that protest, claiming, “Most of the employees on the morning shift today in the Amazon logistics center in San Fernando de Henares are working and processing customer orders.”

According to those leading the strike, however, at least 90 percent of the workers at the San Fernando facility had joined the protest. Only two people were left working the loading bay, Douglas Harper of the CCOO trade union confederation told the Associated Press.

“It is one of the days that Amazon has most sales, and these are days when we can hurt more and make ourselves be heard because the company has not listened to us and does not want to reach any agreement,” 38-year-old employee Eduardo Hernandez, who joined the strike, told AP reporters.

Workers at distribution centers in Rheinberg and Bad Hersfeld, Germany also staged protests Friday, demanding higher pay, the latest demonstration in a years-long trade union effort.

“We have a worldwide problem, a boss who wants to impose American working conditions on the world,” Frank Bsirske, head of the Verdi union representing Amazon workers, told The Local in Denmark. “It’s like going back to the 19th century.”

Workers gathered in front of the German publishing group Axel Springer, parent company of Business Insider, where Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was set to receive a business innovation award this week, carrying signs that read “Make Bezos pay.”

Amazon employees from Italy, France, and Poland also joined the demonstration.

The Local noted Amazon, which has around 560,000 employees, reported a profit of around $3 billion last year alone.

The National Retail Federation expects more than 164 million people to shop between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, approximately the same number as in 2017. E-commerce sales, however, are expected to jump 15 percent this holiday season, as consumers ditch brick and mortar stores for online retail giants like Amazon.

According to Adobe, as of 10 a.m. Eastern Time on Black Friday, online spending had skyrocketed nearly 30 percent over last year’s totals. NPR reported online spending was set to reach $6.4 billion by the end of the day, with an additional $3.7 billion from Thanksgiving Day, one day prior.

Target and Walmart are making moves in response to that trend, to rival Amazon’s Prime two-day delivery incentive. Amazon, however, has not missed a beat, announcing recently that it would give Prime subscribers free same-day deliveryon even more items through the holiday season.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Melanie Schmitz is an editor at ThinkProgress. She formerly worked at Bustle and Romper.


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