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Amazon and Instacart delivery is a coronavirus goldmine. Workers need to use that leverage.

Despite filling roles that are essential to modern life, many American workers remain in a separate, lesser class of employee even as their executives make millions.
Image: Amazon Workers At Staten Island Warehouse Strike Over Coronavirus Protection
An Amazon employee holds a sign during a protest over conditions at the company's Staten Island distribution facility in New York on March 30, 2020.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Over the past decade, tech companies have become a driving force of U.S. economic power. And the COVID-19 shutdown has provided many of them with an opportunity to increase their share of consumer spending as many brick-and-mortar businesses are closed. Brian Merchant, author of "The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone," has gone so far as to call this moment the "Amazonification" of the economy. But it's not just the companies that see an opportunity; their front-line workers have unprecedented leverage, and in the face of inadequate coronavirus protections, they need to use it.

With millions of people now staying home to slow the spread of the virus, delivery services like Amazon and Instacart are seeing significant increases in orders.

With millions of people now staying home to slow the spread of the virus, delivery services like Amazon and Instacart are seeing significant increases in orders. Amazon says it's hiring 100,000 additional workers to staff its warehouses, while Instacart, which uses contractors to pick up and deliver groceries, announced in March that it plans to hire 300,000 new workers to meet demand. But these low-paid workers are also putting themselves at risk as their customers stay safely home. And it doesn't yet seem like either company is doing enough to support them.

Last week, this conflict finally boiled over. After repeated warnings from workers that Amazon wasn't doing enough to keep those in its warehouses safe or was failing to provide adequate cleaning supplies to delivery drivers and Whole Foods clerks and stockers, employees took matters into their own hands.

Amazon workers at a fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, walked off the job on March 30 demanding that their workplace be closed for cleaning after workers tested positive for COVID-19. Whole Foods workers followed on March 31 with a nationwide sickout, demanding a better paid leave policy, free testing for all employees and hazard pay. They were joined by Amazon workers in Chicago who want their workplace closed for cleaning. Workers in Detroit also staged a protest.

In response to this organizing, Amazon announced that it would begin doing temperature checks, providing protective equipment and using artificial intelligence to try to do better with social distancing

These measures address some but not all workers' concerns. Making matters worse, though, Amazon fired the organizer of the Staten Island walkout, an assistant manager named Chris Smalls. The company claimed the firing was not because of Smalls' organizing but because he had broken company policies. As Senior Vice President Dave Clark wrote on April 2, "We want to be very clear that we respect the rights of these employees to protest and recognize their legal right to do so. At the same time, these rights do not provide a blanket immunity against bad actions, particularly those that endanger the health, and potentially the lives, of colleagues."

Clark and Senior Vice President Jay Carney, who was White House press secretary under President Barack Obama, went on to defend the company's actions on Twitter.

That may have been the end of the story, but then notes leaked from a meeting involving high-ranking executives, including CEO Jeff Bezos and General Counsel David Zapolsky, where they said Smalls was "not smart or articulate" and crafted a public relations strategy to discredit him and the larger "union/organizing movement." Now New York City's Commission on Human Rights is investigating the firing. (It should be noted that Amazon has a long history of crushing union organizing, including sending a 45-minute video to Whole Foods managers on how to combat union activities after it acquired the company in 2018.)

Amazon workers are not alone in asking for better protection and benefits during the pandemic. On March 31, Instacart workers also held a nationwide strike. While grocery workers are being praised and treated as essential, Instacart shoppers are filling a similar, albeit less visible, role, with the same risks. They demanded that the company provide sanitizer and protective equipment, improve its paid leave policy and provide hazard pay. (Instacart orders can pay as low as $7 despite sometimes taking an hour or more to complete.) In response, Instacart said only that it would provide "health and safety kits."

Like Amazon, Instacart has a long history of fighting its workers, including trying to reduce their pay and trying to avoid classifying them as employees in California in defiance of the state gig-worker law AB 5. But these companies aren't outliers; they're just particularly high profile. In fact, the tech sector generally employs a two-tier system in which some workers get great pay and benefits while others are paid much less and denied the same benefits, often being classed as contractors instead of employees. This plays out in two ways.

At companies like Google and Facebook, there are often two types of worker doing the exact same job: employees, who get all the perks, and contractors, who get none of them and often are paid less. Google now employs more contractors than its full-time workforce. When full employees found out that contractors didn't have the same COVID-19 work-from-home privileges, they sent a letter asking management to change the policy, and it did — a small win.

This divide is even bigger at companies like Amazon, Instacart and Uber. In Amazon's case, warehouse workers are employees (though its delivery drivers are classed as contractors), yet they receive few of the benefits of its white-collar staff and are subjected to a particularly brutal and dehumanizing form of automated management. Uber helped create a whole segment of gig workers whose labor is mediated through online platforms, dooming them to perpetual precarity, low wages and employment insecurity. That makes them particularly vulnerable to the economic collapse we're experiencing, as they have far fewer customers now and can't stop driving to stay safe. Uber is offering a paid leave option, but only for people who test positive — and even some of those drivers say they're getting rejected.

Luckily, unemployment insurance has been expanded to include these types of gig workers, at least temporarily. But given that Uber and other gig companies don't pay federal or state unemployment insurance premiums because they classify workers as contractors instead of employees, the taxpayer will be forced to cover the full cost even though Uber has billions of dollars in the bank.

Clearly, the pandemic has shown how many thousands of American workers live every day. Despite filling roles that are essential to modern life, they remain in a separate, lesser class of employee even as their executives make millions. On the other hand, this reality has also reinvigorated labor organizers. As Chris Smalls, the fired Amazon organizer, put it in a letter to Bezos: "You think you're powerful? We're the ones that have the power. Without us working, what are you going to do? You'll have no money. We have the power. We make money for you. Never forget that." It seems more workers may be waking up to that realization, and it can't come soon enough.