UPDATE: May 1, 2020: In response to Retail Dive's request for comment on the worker strikes planned for Friday, an Amazon spokesperson said in an emailed statement: "While we respect people's right to express themselves, we object to the irresponsible actions of labor groups in spreading misinformation and making false claims about Amazon during this unprecedented health and economic crisis."
The spokesperson added, "What's true is that masks, temperature checks, hand sanitizer, increased time off, increased pay, and more are standard across our Amazon and Whole Food Market networks already."
- Employees at some of the country's largest retailers are planning a strike on Friday to protest what they say are inadequate workplace protections and compensation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Some employees at Amazon, its Whole Foods grocery unit, Instacart, and Target's Shipt unit, plan to walk out on the job or call in sick, according to a press release from the organizers. Workers are also asking customers to boycott the companies. Some reports also indicate Walmart workers will strike.
- The employees said in the release that their companies "have failed us during these unprecedented times." The demands vary among companies. They include company-provided cleaning supplies and protective equipment, hazard pay of $5 per order for Shipt and Instacart orders, and expansions of sick leave policies, among other changes.
Essential retailers like Amazon, Walmart and Target so far have avoided the financial duress confronting many other retailers for the simple reason that those companies have remained open as sellers of food and household essentials. Indeed, sales have surged for all three. Target CEO Brian Cornell called the jump in demand for food and household goods "unprecedented."
Each of the companies have taken steps to protect workers and customers as the pandemic has raced through the U.S., to date infecting more than 1 million people domestically and killing more than 60,000. Target and Walmart are both limiting foot traffic to their stores and providing masks to employees, among other steps.
But the striking workers say they still don't feel safe. "At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic essential workers were subjected to exposure in our workplaces due to the lack of PPE, flawed policies, and dense safety guidelines," the strike organizers said in their release. "Because of the failings of our employers, many of our fellow employees have contracted this deadly virus and some have died."
A Target spokesperson said in comments emailed to Retail Dive that, "[w]hile we take them seriously, the concerns raised are from a very small minority. The vast majority of our more than 340,000 frontline team members have expressed pride in the role they are playing in helping provide for families across the country during this time of need. When concerns have been brought to our attention, we've taken additional action, including increasing the frequency of overhead announcements and adding more signage."
Amazon and Walmart did not immediately respond to Retail Dive requests for comment.
Amazon has already faced walkouts from employees after COVID-19 infected some of the e-commerce giant's warehouse workers. Among the organizers of the May Day strike is Christian Smalls, who was reportedly fired by Amazon for organizing an earlier walkout in New York. Amazon said the worker was fired for violating safety regulations.
Amazon has since come under scrutiny from New York Attorney General Letitia James, who, according to Reuters, told the company in a letter, "Amazon's health and safety measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are so inadequate that they may violate several provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act."
Reports suggest Amazon is sensitive to the publicity around Smalls and the strikes. Notes from an internal Amazon meeting leaked to Vice News reportedly showed plans by the company to "[lay] out the case for why the organizer's conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail."
Walmart meanwhile has faced at least one wrongful death lawsuit, in Illinois. The complaint against the retailer, filed after a longtime employee died of COVID-19, alleges the retailer failed to implement and enforce social distancing guidelines, properly sterilize the store, provide employees with protective equipment, and did not adequately address other employees at the store who informed management they had symptoms of COVID-19.
Taken together, the actions by and on behalf of employees show the strain of retail workers at essential stores that are staying open as COVID-19 sweeps through the country. On the front lines, they have been exposed and many have become sick. Retailers, meanwhile, have chased a moving target on safety as more about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 becomes known.
As states start to unwind movement and business restrictions, and stores re-open, many more retailers are likely to face the same operational challenges involved in maintaining safety during the pandemic — and adequately compensating frontline workers for the risks they take. The stakes of getting it right are high for both companies and their employees.