Amazon, Instacart Grocery Delivery Workers Demand Coronavirus Protection And Pay

Mar 30, 2020
Originally published on March 30, 2020 5:11 pm

Updated at 6:01 p.m. ET

Some Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, N.Y., and Instacart's grocery delivery workers nationwide walked off their jobs on Monday. They are demanding stepped-up protection and pay as they continue to work while much of the country is asked to isolate as a safeguard against the coronavirus.

The protests come as both Amazon and Instacart have said they plan to hire tens of thousands of new workers. Online shopping and grocery home delivery are skyrocketing as much of the nation hunkers down and people stay at home, following orders and recommendations from the federal and local governments.

This has put a spotlight on workers who shop, pack and deliver these high-demand supplies. Companies refer to the workers as "heroes," but workers say their employers aren't doing enough to keep them safe.

The workers are asking for a variety of changes:

  • Workers from both Amazon and Instacart want more access to paid sick time off. At this time, it's available only to those who have tested positive for the coronavirus or get placed on mandatory self-quarantine.
  • Amazon workers want their warehouse to be closed for a longer cleaning, with guaranteed pay.
  • Instacart's grocery delivery gig workers are asking for disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer and better pay to offset the risk they are taking.

Workers at Amazon's Staten Island facility have said that multiple people at the warehouse have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Some of them plan to walk off the job on Monday to pressure the company to close the warehouse for an extended deep cleaning.

At Amazon, which employs some 800,000 people, workers have diagnosed positively for COVID-19 in at least 11 warehouses, forcing a prolonged closure of at least one warehouse in Kentucky. The company says it has "taken extreme measures to keep people safe," including allowing unlimited unpaid leave time for employees who feel uncomfortable working.

Amazon says its decision on whether to close a warehouse for cleaning or for how long depends on where the sick workers were in the building, for how long, how long ago and other assessments. The company has also temporarily raised its pay by $2 an hour through April.

"I touch over 2,000 different items every day I work there. I have to grab products out of the shelf and put them in the bins. ... And I'm not wearing any protection," said Terrell Worm, one of the thousands of workers at the Staten Island warehouse. "Amazon says we're all a family there. If they really saw us as family, they'd care about keeping us safe and keeping us home."

He says he left work last week an hour after learning of the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the facility, taking advantage of new unpaid leave. But he plans to return next week because he can't afford to remain unpaid.

Instacart's army of grocery delivery workers are not employees, but independent contractors. They say the company has not provided them with proper protective items like disinfectants, hazard pay of an extra $5 per order and a higher default tip in the settings of the app.

Instacart on Sunday said it would distribute supplies, including hand sanitizer, to more workers and that it would change some tipping settings, but did not address paid sick leave for its contractors.

"Actions speak louder than words," Instacart worker Sarah Polito told NPR. "You can tell us that we're these household heroes and that you appreciate us. But you're not actually, they're not showing it. They're not taking these steps to give us the precautions. They're not giving us hazard pay."

It was unclear how many Instacart gig workers participated in Monday's action and refused to work. A spokeswoman for the company said it has seen "absolutely no impact to Instacart's operations." She said in the last week, 250,000 new people signed up to work through the app and a fifth of them have already started picking up gigs.

At Amazon, the organizers said some 50 people joined the protest outside of the warehouse. An Amazon representative said only 15 people participated.

In a statement on Monday, the company said its staff was "tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available ... and in Staten Island we are now temperature checking everyone entering the facility." Amazon has declined to disclose how many workers at the warehouse have tested positive for COVID-19.

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Americans are stuck at home, but groceries, household supplies, board games, books - they're all just a click away. Behind those clicks, of course, are people filling orders and delivering groceries, and some of those workers are walking off the job today. Amazon warehouse workers in New York and Instacart grocery delivery workers across the country say they want more protections for their health and safety and higher pay.

NPR's Alina Selyukh is here to tell us more.

Hey, Alina.


KELLY: So what all are these workers asking for?

SELYUKH: Well, just for context to begin with, I just want to point out that the reason this is happening is because we're in the situation where it - hourly and gig workers find that their low-paid work has become extremely critical. To your point, they pack, shop, deliver - all those things you named - human food, pet food, medicine. And, in fact, the demand is so massive right now that both Amazon and Instacart and others like them are hiring hundreds of thousands of new workers, and that puts a spotlight on their current workers. Companies have started referring to them as heroes. Amazon has bumped their pay by $2 an hour, but the workers say they don't feel their bosses are doing enough to keep them safe.

KELLY: All right. So these are workers from, we said, Amazon and some from Instacart. Start with Amazon. What exactly are their concerns?

SELYUKH: Right. So one warehouse in question is in Staten Island. It's a borough in New York, which is now the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., but it's also a huge market for Amazon. Amazon has acknowledged that at least two workers there have tested positive for the coronavirus. The company says it's consulted with health officials, overall decided to keep the warehouse open after taking what it says are extreme measures for safety and cleanliness. But the workers there want the warehouse closed for a long time for deep cleaning while also getting paid. I spoke with one worker there, Terrell Worm, who says he left the warehouse an hour after he found out about the first case.

TERRELL WORM: I touch over 2,000 different items every day I work there. I have to get products out of the shelf and put them in bins. Like, two-, 3,000 items every day is being touched by one person, and I'm not wearing any protection there. Like, I'm going in there without anything.

SELYUKH: He does confirm that Amazon has, in fact, started checking temperature when workers arrive at the office, and they have been adding sanitizer stations and pushing tables further apart in the cafeteria, doing some measures to help workers.

KELLY: Meanwhile, what are the demands of the workers at Instacart, which is a little bit of a different situation, right?

SELYUKH: Exactly. We're talking about contract workers who get paid to deliver grocery orders through an app. They're not employees. They want more access to protective items like disinfectants. They want higher pay for the risks they're taking, like an extra $5 per order. My colleague Shannon Bond spoke this weekend with one gig delivery worker, April McGhee from California, who says despite a crush of orders, the company itself is not paying more.

APRIL MCGHEE: There is a lot of work, and the pay has not gone up. I open the app sometimes, and I see $10, $10. And they want me to drive literally 15 miles to the opposite side of town. It's a $10 gig for risking my life, and it's insulting.

SELYUKH: Instacart is now saying it will distribute hand sanitizer to more workers, make other changes. But it did not address paid sick leave for its contractors.

KELLY: Stay for a second, Alina, with that issue - paid sick leave - because it sounds like both Amazon and Instacart workers are asking for that. What does that look like? What are the options?

SELYUKH: Indeed, this is the heart, to me, of the frustration faced by low-wage workers across the board. It's Amazon, Instacart, Walmart, McDonald's. Workers have been saying they wish their companies gave them more generous paid sick leave. Since the pandemic, most companies have expanded access. Usually, it's two weeks paid but only if you officially test positive for the coronavirus or if the company confirms you were in contact with someone else who did. So in essence, it all hinges on folks getting tested and diagnosed, which has been difficult for a lot of people.

KELLY: And just briefly, Alina, what about workers who have pre-existing conditions?

SELYUKH: Exactly - or those living with elderly grandparents. There are a lot of concerns for them going into the office and - or into their workplace and hanging out with other folks at a time when the rest of the country is asked to stay away. And, you know, companies are offering unpaid leave. Amazon has extended unpaid leave that's unlimited. But a lot of people say they cannot afford to take even a few days of being unpaid.

KELLY: NPR's Alina Selyukh.

Thanks, Alina.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

KELLY: And we should note Amazon is one of NPR's financial sponsors. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.