It’s been clear for weeks that Amazon faces an unprecedented challenge in coping with the fallout from COVID-19. With tens of millions of Americans now dependent on online delivery for their food, medicine, and other essential items, the nation’s No. 1 e-commerce company is buckling under increased demand. And as fulfillment center employees are diagnosed with the virus across the country
, Amazon’s already-restive workforce has escalated its efforts to win better pay and safer working conditions. Among other things, employees at affected locations have simply walked off the job.
You’ve likely felt the affects of the crisis on Amazon if you attempted to order anything from the company in March. Once lightning-fast delivery times stretched into days and weeks. In the case of grocery deliveries in San Francisco, Amazon had no available slots for Tuesday or Wednesday.
Fortunately, the Wall Street Journal
is here to shed some light. Reporter Dana Mattioli and Sebastian Herrera lay out the company’s struggles today in a must-read piece that brings new data to the conversation. They write
Amazon has been processing from 10% to 40% more packages than normal for this time of year, according to an employee tally at one delivery center. The company’s website had 639,330,722 visits for the week of March 9, according to data from Comscore, up 32% from the year earlier.
From Feb. 20 to March 23, Amazon’s sales of toilet paper increased 186% from the year-earlier period, according to analytics firm CommerceIQ, which said that before the coronavirus hit it had forecast a 7% increase for the period. CommerceIQ said sales of cough and cold medicine grew by 862%, compared with a forecast growth rate of 110%, and children’s vitamins by 287%, compared with a forecast rate of 49%.
Even after 25 years, Amazon still tends to white-knuckle it through every holiday season
, barely keeping up with demand despite months of preparation. The Journal
story illustrates how every day of March was essentially Black Friday for the company. According to the analytics firm CommerceIQ, sales of home and kitchen items on Amazon are up 1,181 percent
year over year. Even if a business sees a surge in sales coming early — and Amazon did begin ramping up supplies of face masks and health care supplies in January after spotting the initial spike in demand — I’m not sure there’s a company on earth that could have handled the deluge in orders.
But the story of Amazon’s struggle against the coronavirus is not simply one of demand. It’s also a story about the company’s increasingly fractious relationship with its own workforce. For years now, a growing body of journalism has documented how Amazon’s relentless drive for efficiency in its fulfillment centers has led to injury
and even death
. And now these employees are working shoulder to shoulder with colleagues who may be infected with a deadly virus and spreading it before they even show symptoms.
It’s an incredibly fraught moment for these workers — but it’s also a moment when they have more leverage with their employer than perhaps they’ve ever had before. The Journal story notes that Amazon caved on several longstanding worker demands — including raises and paid time off — after the majority of workers at some sites did not show up for their shifts.
On Monday and Tuesday, these workers — as well as workers at Amazon-owned Whole Foods and the independent grocery delivery service Instacart — pressed their advantage. Across the country, workers staged walkouts, strikes, and sickouts to demand hazard pay and better health protections. Nitasha Tiku and Jay Greene captured the moment in the Washington Post
Amazon’s warehouse workers have asked the company to offer paid time off for those who feel sick or need to self-quarantine, as well as to temporarily close warehouses for cleaning where workers test positive. One sign at Monday’s protest read, “Alexa, please shut down & sanitize the building,” referring to the company’s digital assistant.
About 50 workers walked out Monday, according to Chris Smalls, a worker at the warehouse who helped organize the action. Amazon, which is trying to hire 100,000 workers
to address the crush of coronavirus-related orders, disputed that figure, as well as the complaints that it’s not doing enough to protect workers. Only 15 employees participated in the demonstration out of 5,000 who work at the warehouse, Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski said in an emailed statement.
Here’s Amazon’s choice in a nutshell. It could grant workers paid time off if they feel sick but haven’t tested positive for the coronavirus, further reducing its shipping capacity in the short term. Or it could deny their requests for as long as possible, buying the company time as it rolls out a plan to bring on 100,000 new workers. The former choice strikes me as the moral one. The latter is the one that will be justified as “customer obsession
But the previous few weeks have made me wonder where Amazon would be today if it were as “obsessed” with the well being of its workers as it was with the people buying all those household products. My colleague Josh Dzieza wrote earlier this year
about how the company has increasingly come to treat its warehouse workers as robots, automating every possible aspect of their jobs in the name of efficiency. This passage about eliminating “micro rests” has stayed with me:
Every Amazon worker I’ve spoken to said it’s the automatically enforced pace of work, rather than the physical difficulty of the work itself, that makes the job so grueling. Any slack is perpetually being optimized out of the system, and with it any opportunity to rest or recover. A worker on the West Coast told me about a new device that shines a spotlight on the item he’s supposed to pick, allowing Amazon to further accelerate the rate and get rid of what the worker described as “micro rests” stolen in the moment it took to look for the next item on the shelf.
People can’t sustain this level of intense work without breaking down. Last year, ProPublica
, and others published investigations about Amazon delivery drivers careening into vehicles and pedestrians as they attempted to complete their demanding routes, which are algorithmically generated and monitored via an app on drivers’ phones. In November, Reveal
analyzed documents from 23 Amazon warehouses and found that almost 10 percent of full-time workers sustained serious injuries in 2018, more than twice the national average for similar work. Multiple Amazon workers have told me that repetitive stress injuries are epidemic but rarely reported. (An Amazon spokesperson said the company takes worker safety seriously, has medical staff on-site, and encourages workers to report all injuries.) Backaches, knee pain, and other symptoms of constant strain are common enough for Amazon to install painkiller vending machines in its warehouses.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the limits of a workplace that continuously pushes workers to the point of harm in the name of efficiency. When 60 percent of those workers stop coming into the office for fear of death, as happened recently at a fulfillment center in Southern California, the “efficiency” of the system is revealed as a lie. It’s true that few businesses could have capably prepared for the havoc that will be wreaked by a global pandemic. But it’s also true that Amazon’s delivery delays are a long time in the making — and it’s the company itself, just as much as the coronavirus, that deserves the blame.