The almost unrelentingly bad news has at least managed to persuade a good number of Americans to stay home, flatten the curve of infection, and attempt to ride out this portion of our public-health crisis in relative safety. As a resident for the past decade, I felt a surge of civic pride watching this drone footage of the streets of San Francisco from earlier this week
. Our streets are as they should be at this moment: all but deserted.
But the thing about locking yourself inside is that you are regularly confronted with the dilemma of how to acquire food and other essential supplies. You can go to a grocery store, and risk catching or spreading the disease, or you can order delivery. And for people in a variety of circumstances, delivery may be the best or only viable option.
And it’s for that reason that I’ve spent so much of this week thinking about Amazon
. Not just because it’s the tech giant that has become synonymous with the rapid delivery of essential items — but also because, as a giant, Amazon would seem to be best equipped to handle both the severe spike in demand and the incredible logistical challenges of managing a workforce that itself may be at heightened risk of getting sick.
Amazon’s struggles, in other words, may portend worse things to come for the delivery economy at large. And the news this week suggests that Amazon is struggling mightily.
First, there are now daily stories about COVID-19 outbreaks in Amazon shipping facilities. On Wednesday, BuzzFeed
’s Caroline O’Donovan reported that a fulfillment center in New Jersey was the latest of the company’s sites to have a worker diagnosed
. “Other Amazon facilities with confirmed cases are in Kentucky
, Staten Island
, and California
,” she wrote.
It’s not a scandal that a worker was diagnosed — COVID-19 is easily spread, and those affected often do not show symptoms for days after they become contagious. But workers are raising valid questions about Amazon’s duty to inform them of their colleagues’ illness. Here’s Josh Dzieza in The Verge:
Six workers at the sortation center DTW5 say they only learned of the case from coworkers or after McIntosh-Butler, frustrated with the lack of transparency, tipped off Local Four News, which received confirmation
from Amazon Tuesday. In the information vacuum, they are left wondering whether they’ve been exposed and whether it’s safe to continue working. Last week, Johnson’s son, who has asthma, began having trouble breathing. This week, her daughter developed a dry cough. She hasn’t been able to get either tested, and she worries she was an unknowing vector for COVID-19. She decided to stay home, without pay, to care for her children and avoid potentially spreading the virus.
“They should have closed that building down and sanitized that whole building before they let us come in,” Johnson tells The Verge. “And they should have given everyone a robocall, because you never know if you bumped into that person in the bathroom or anything, because not only are you putting your life at risk, you’re putting the people that you come in contact with’s lives at stake.”
Workers are at least getting robocalls at affected Amazon-owned Whole Foods locations, Lauren Kaori Gurley reported at Vice
. But the locations remain open, and workers can only get paid sick leave if they are diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in quarantine — prompting many workers who live paycheck to paycheck to come in to work sick, Gurley writes.
Meanwhile, Amazon’s basic delivery service is overwhelmed. When I looked this afternoon, grocery deliveries were unavailable in San Francisco for today and tomorrow. Presumably they will be unavailable on Sunday as well, unless — like my colleague Jason Del Rey
— I set my alarm clock for midnight and manage to nab one of the precious available slots. (Jason noted in a subsequent tweet that this tactic did not work for him.)
Tim Wu highlights the danger here in an op-ed in the New York Times
about what he calls “the touchless economy
Among the touchless economy’s key vulnerabilities are its delivery lines. We usually think about “supply lines” as the connections between producers and retailers — like the delivery of produce from farms to supermarkets. But the coronavirus shutdown has brought into special focus the role played by the warehouse workers at Amazon, the drivers for UPS, FedEx and the United States Post Office and the many delivery workers for local restaurants and grocery stores. These are the people who translate clicks into economic consequence.
Most of those jobs aren’t high paying, and they now have elevated risks of infection. Protests by Amazon warehouse workers in France and Italy may portend our future
; there are reports of postal employees working in close quarters
and of infected delivery workers pressured to remain
on the job to meet demand. There’s a danger of infection spreading to entire companies and some (albeit relatively low) risk of infecting package recipients.
If the number of COVID-19 cases weren’t surging exponentially in the United States, I might have more confidence that the disruptions we’ve seen to Amazon’s service in the near term were were unlikely to worsen. As it is, though, I think we ought to consider the possibility that more cogs in our vital delivery networks may break in the coming weeks.
As Wu put it: “For now at least, the touchless economy is holding firm. But now is the right time to be thinking about its weak spots. Because if it falters, we could end up thinking of our current chaos as the good old days.”