A surge in pandemic-inspired purchases has the Amazon CEO’s net worth soaring, calling attention this week to a projection suggesting the richest man in modern history was on track to become the world’s first trillionaire by 2026. (The viral study’s numbers are as hazy as Bezos’s wealth is real.)
But workers in Amazon’s warehouses are staring down a more immediate financial deadline: the company is ending a set of coronavirus-related pay increases at the end of the month. It’s the latest blow to a workforce that has already seen members fall ill and die—two more deaths were confirmed Thursday—as the country increasingly avoided IRL retail and organizers waged a dramatic fight for increased protections.
Monica Moody is a worker in an Amazon fulfillment center in Charlotte, North Carolina. She and her colleagues currently receive an extra $2 an hour, plus double overtime pay to account for the hazards of working in a warehouse during a deadly pandemic.
Initially, Amazon had planned to end the COVID-19 benefits in mid-May, but extended them to the end of the month. Moody, a member of worker advocacy group United For Respect, credited the extension to demands from her colleagues.
“My co-workers and I have been putting our lives on the line every day since this pandemic started. Compensating us for the risks we’re taking is the least Amazon could do, and I’m glad to see Amazon listening to our demands to keep hazard pay in place past May 16,” Moody said.
But with no visible end to the pandemic, a May 30 end date isn’t enough, she said.
“Let’s be real: two weeks of extra pay isn’t close to what we need,” Moody told The Daily Beast. “We are literally watching each other get sick every day, and it’s not slowing down. At a minimum, hazard pay should be extended for the entire length of this pandemic.”
Bargaining in a time of near-unprecedented job loss—some 36 million people have filed for unemployment amid COVID-19 lockdown—is difficult, however. That’s especially so at the notoriously union-averse Amazon, which represents a soaring share of the labor market. Even before the pandemic, some economists characterized Amazon as having a monopsony on labor, meaning it represented an outsized portion of jobs. That portion has grown in recent months; as its competitors experience mass lay-offs, Amazon is hiring 100,000 new workers to handle COVID-era demand.
Amazon seemingly being one of the only options could be a problem for wages if and when the economy comes out of pandemic hibernation, according to Olivia Webb, a policy analyst at American Economic Liberties Project, a non-profit with a focus on combating monopoly power.
“Workers can theoretically choose between different businesses at which to work, so theoretically there should be competition for wages,” Webb said. “But when Amazon comes in and has a monopsony over the labor market in some areas, there’s not as much competition for the wages and workers are stuck with basically whatever Amazon will give them. That applies to both their base wage and the hazard pay. Amazon can cut that off at will because workers don’t have that much recourse to say, ‘I’m gonna go work for the mom-and-pop grocery store alternative,’ because it doesn’t exist anymore.”
Reached for comment, an Amazon spokesperson said the two-week extension was the latest addition to an almost-$800 million COVID-19 package for workers.
“These extensions increase our total investment in pay during COVID-19 to nearly $800 million for our hourly employees and partners,” the spokesperson said. “In addition, we are providing flexibility with leave of absence options, including expanding the policy to cover COVID-19 circumstances, such as high-risk individuals or school closures. We continue to see heavy demand during this difficult time and the team is doing incredible work for our customers and the community.”
Of course, $800 million is chump change compared to Bezos’ net worth: $143 billion, according to Forbes. Most of that fortune comes not from his takeaway pay, but from an 11 percent stake in Amazon, which has seen share prices rise more than 28 percent this year, propelled by coronavirus purchases. Since March, Bezos’ net worth has increased approximately $18 billion. In that time, he also purchased a $16 million Manhattan apartment in a building where he already owned three units, bringing his total real estate holdings up to $96 million in that structure alone.
$18 billion is a gain of roughly $12,500 every hour of every day in that span. Again, Amazon warehouse workers’ coronavirus increase, which ends this month, was $2 an hour (not including overtime pay).
Even before the announced cuts, Amazon’s COVID-19 approach sparked protests at fulfillment centers nationwide. In Minnesota, workers staged a walkout after they said a colleague had been fired for choosing to stay home with her children instead of risking contracting the virus. (Amazon’s policy supposedly allowed for unlimited unpaid leave, and the worker was reinstated after the protest.)
Workers at a Staten Island, New York, warehouse staged a walkout of their own in late March, protesting what they described as unsafe working conditions. Shortly after the demonstration, Amazon fired its organizer, Christian Smalls, accusing him of violating social distancing rules. In a leaked memo published by VICE News, Amazon leadership discussed a plan to demonize Smalls and pro-union employees by criticizing Smalls and making him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” (Amazon did not deny the memo. Its author told VICE News that he’d “let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”)
Just like it can affect wages, Amazon’s growing role as the only gig in town can affect unionization efforts.
“If you only have one place to work and they catch you organizing and they fire you, which Amazon has shown that it’s very willing to do, there aren’t many other options for work, especially if you’re a warehouse worker,” Webb told The Daily Beast. (Amazon has denied firing workers explicitly for organizing.)
By May, at least 29 workers in the Staten Island warehouse had contracted COVID-19, and one had died. At least five other employees died in fulfillment centers in Illinois, Indiana, and California. Amazon confirmed the two Indiana workers’ deaths Thursday night. Exact figures on COVID-19 cases in Amazon warehouses are hard to come by, but a group of 13 state attorneys general penned a letter this week asking Amazon for internal statistics on COVID cases and deaths.
After learning of the latest deaths, Moody said Friday her colleagues wanted “the same thing everyone at Amazon is asking for: to close [facilities with cases] and clean professionally.”
“You have seven death cases, you have one facility that has 30-plus coronavirus cases alone, so that should tell you something,” she said.
If working at Amazon is a matter of life and death, and COVID-19 isn’t exactly going anywhere, compensation should reflect it for the foreseeable future, Moody argued.
“If we are putting our lives at risk to pack and deliver Amazon packages,” she said, “we deserve to be paid for it.”