Prime responsibility

In 2019, Amazon had over $280 billion in revenue and $11.9 billion in profits. Its owner, Jeff Bezos, was worth $130 billion as recently as February. Since then, Amazon stock is down about 20% since its peak, but Bezos is still doing very well. 

While local businesses suffer, Amazon "plans to hire an additional 100,000 employees in the U.S., according to a company spokesman, as people are turning to online deliveries at a breakneck pace to help contain the spread of the new coronavirus." 

But, as the coronavirus spreads, a significant number of Amazon's workforce — particularly part-time employees and contract workers — are not receiving paid sick time. This decision incentivizes Amazon's most economically vulnerable workers to show up to the job sick.

A part-time associate at an Amazon warehouse in Georgia told Popular Information that they receive no paid time off. The associate, who has worked for Amazon for two years, works 20 to 22 hours a week doing what they described as "grunt work" — "moving packages, scanning, repairing, etc." The associate estimates that there are more than 200 part-time employees at the Georgia facility in a similar situation. Many of them, the associate said, "can not afford to miss a paycheck." 

Is this associate worried about working in close proximity to so many people who won't get paid if they call out sick? "Yes, I am. In fact, I'm scared, but I have to make a living as well." 

A part-time worker at Whole Foods in Texas also reports that they receive no paid sick leave. The worker says they see part-time workers reporting to work sick "almost every day" because they cannot afford to miss a shift.  Another part-time worker at a Whole Foods in Minnesota says they receive no paid sick leave and has observed other employees showing up to work sick. 

A contract driver who delivers packages for Amazon in Illinois tells Popular Information that they do not receive paid sick leave. The driver does receive a limited amount of paid time off, which must be scheduled in advance. After working for the company for two months, the driver — who works as much as 52 hours per week — has about two hours available. 

As part of the job, the driver interacts with doormen, security guards, and homeowners. A woman recently asked him to bring a package inside her house. There is a large phone-like device that the driver must hand to customers to collect signatures. 

Despite the obvious risks, they have received no communications from Amazon or the contractor about any precautions to take in light of the coronavirus outbreak. The driver has also not received hand sanitizer or any other protective equipment. 

Is the driver worried about doing this work during a pandemic? "This is a serious matter. There is a good chance I will come across someone who has it. And I can bring it home and give it to my family."

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. 

Whole Foods' dangerous suggestion

In the face of a pandemic, even generous paid leave policies may not be enough to protect workers and the public. Full-time workers at Amazon and Whole Foods generally do receive paid sick leave. But if those employees are currently out of sick leave and feel ill, they are in the same situation as Amazon's part-time workers. 

That's why the House coronavirus bill immediately provides 14 days of additional sick leave in a public health emergency. For part-time workers, the bill provides additional sick leave equivalent to the worker's average hours over a two-week period. Because in this situation, you can't have people showing up to work sick. But, at the insistence on the White House, companies with more than 500 employees are exempt from the legislation. (The legislation has yet to pass Congress. The Senate took a long weekend, and now Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) is holding up the legislation in the House.) 

Is Amazon following the model in the House legislation? No. Instead, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey suggested that workers with extra sick leave donate it to people who need more. Motherboard obtained the internal communication:

Team Members who have a medical emergency or death in their immediate family can receive donated PTO [paid time off] hours, not only from Team Members in their own location, but also from Team Members across the country.

This approach has a couple of issues. First, why is a subsidiary of a highly-profitable company owned by the richest man in the world suggesting that its modestly-paid workers provide the necessary flexibility to respond to a pandemic? Second, no one really has "extra" sick leave in a time like this. They have sick leave they might not need to use now, but they may need it in the future. And if they don't have it when they need it, Whole Foods is creating another dangerous situation.

What is Amazon doing?

Amazon has taken a number of steps in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The company's actions, however, all fall short of providing paid sick leave for all workers. 

Amazon announced that it would offer "unlimited unpaid time off for all hourly employees through the end of March." This is of little use for most hourly employees, who in most cases can't afford to take unpaid leave. 

The company also says, "all Amazon employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two-weeks of pay." This is similar to Kroger's policy. But testing is still extremely limited, and most employees will not be able to evaluated and be "placed into quarantine." 

For contractors, like the driver in Illinois, things are bleaker. Amazon will not guarantee paid leave even for contractors that are diagnosed with COVID-19. Instead, "our independent delivery service partners and their drivers, Amazon Flex participants, and seasonal employees under financial distress" can "apply for grants approximately equal to up to two-weeks of pay if diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine by the government or Amazon." The company has made an initial contribution of $25 million for this grant program. That's how much revenue Amazon brought in every 47 minutes in 2019. Contractors are supposed to apply for grants through a website that does not appear to be online yet. 

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