Workers protested this afternoon in front of Amazon’s JKF8 855,000-square-foot mega-warehouse in Bloomfield, Staten Island’s industry-laden West Shore, site of one of our region’s major Amazon shipping hubs, where nearly 5,000 workers are employed, helping to sort and pack customers’ orders.
A number of other employees standing to the side, not part of the demonstration, perhaps finished with their shift as they were walking to their cars, yelled at the protesters, chiding them to, “get back inside.” Clearly, not all employees were behind the effort to shut down the site.
In fact, it was difficult to determine which employees were protesting, and which were merely observing the planned walk-out; besides the few individuals holding signs, there was no clear way to ascertain which group any specific employee belonged to.
Media representatives were out in full force, from all major NYC news stations and newspapers. A helicopter hovered overhead, taking in the scene, no doubt.
Reporters interviewed disgruntled workers fearful of contracting Covid-19, who passionately complained about working conditions at the fulfillment center that might lead to workers contracting the virus.
NYPD officers were present, a usual occurrence for announced protests in NYC, as patrol cars sat in front of the building with emergency light bars flashing atop the stationary vehicles.
Amazon, employing more people than any other company on Our Island, denies that any of its workers are being exposed to conditions that are unsafe or might foster the spread of Covid-19.
In an e-mailed statement sent to PCMag, Amazon had this to say regarding this matter:
“These accusations are simply unfounded. Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis. Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable….”
“…We [are] tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances. The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day.”
The company has taken various measures to help keep the workspace safe, including spreading out work stations by several feet, cancelling large meetings of workers that usually took place at the beginning of each shift, staggering shifts, and spreading out seating and tables in employee break rooms.
Additionally, job training is now being conducted via cell-phone apps, and new hired are interviewed via video conferencing, rather than in-person, as had been the case prior to the Coronavirus pandemic.
When an employee is not feeling well, they are not to report to work, but instead visit their doctor, a health clinic, or the emergency room.
Mandatory security screenings of each employee have also been suspended at the end of workers’ shifts, a practice that had been customary at the warehouse prior to the pandemic, but which resulted in long lines of workers queuing up, waiting to have their bags inspected as a loss preventative measure.
Workers also have their body temperatures checked at work, and anyone with a fever is sent home.
Anyone testing positive will be granted up to two weeks of sick pay, and will not lose their jobs for remaining on mandatory quarantine.
Even so, workers remain skeptical, as there are so many people working together in the warehouse breathing, sweating, and handling totes and equipment.
Gloves and masks are not supplied by Amazon, although employees are free to bring these from home for use during the workday.
The Staten Island facility is running at peak capacity during this crisis, much like during the holiday season rush, according to workers wishing to remain anonymous.
According to these same workers, this leaves little time for employees to stop and clean their hands.
Under usual non-peak workload conditions this is already difficult, workers claimed, stating that bathrooms are sometimes an unbelievable distance from their workstations, and pausing for a quick bathroom break can bring down an worker’s efficiency rating.
Of course, productivity is a factor in deciding which employees stay, and which will be let go, mathematically determining “Time On Task.”
According to Staten Island News Service sources working at the Bloomfield site, this system is automated, much like the entirety of the facility’s operations.
To make matters more disconcerting, at least one employee working at JKF8 has come down with Covid-19, with the total possibly being closer to ten at this point.
Some workers want the warehouse temporarily shut down for deep cleaning. Others expressed that the warehouse should be shuttered for the duration of the health crisis.
Amazon rebutted this request by pointing out that the warehouse on Staten Island, as well as all other facilities, are now carefully cleaned each day, since the crisis began.
Threats of a walkout persist, however, it is not clear whether even a sizable number of workers would get behind such a protest, as the money coming in helps to feed family members, including children.
Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse, and other facilities, have become crucial to Americans’ ability to order essentials online.
It would be no exaggeration to state that keeping Amazon running is necessary for maintaining civil order and citizens’ well-being during this time of crisis.
March 31, 2020 Update: According to CNN, one of the chief walk-out organizers, Chris Smalls, has been terminated from Amazon. According to CNN, Amazon representative Kristen Kish had this to say:
“Mr. Smalls was found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14 days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world…Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite today, March 30, putting the teams at risk.”
If this is indeed the case, Amazon’s assessment of the situation is right-on. And, not only were co-workers put at risk, but members of the media interviewing Mr. Smalls were, as well. This is clearly irresponsible behavior.
Undoubtedly Mr. Small had good intentions, but to commit an act that is precisely what he was protesting his former employer for allegedly doing is ironic and inconsistent.
New York Attorney General Letitia James disagreed, and expressed that Chris Smalls’ firing was against the law:
“…it is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues…At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from COVID-19.”
Was Amazon actually not taking proper precautions? Or was this merely the perception of concerned and fearful workers?
New York Attorney General Letitia James added, “Today, Chris Smalls was fired. In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited.”
While the right to organize is, indeed, a lawful activity, there is no specifically protected right to endanger the health and well-being of others, and there are, in fact, new laws specifically regarding Covid-19 and self-quarantine.
The National Labor Relations Act does protect a worker’s right to organize. However, in breaking company rules and setting foot on the Amazon property while on a paid sick leave for Covid-19, Mr. Smalls was fired for a violation of company health policy, and not for organizing or speaking up.
And so, it’s quite doubtful that state or Federal legal protections might extend to him.