December 14, 2020 – As a former Secretary of Labor, I often receive mail from workers with job complaints, who apparently believe I still have some authority. But the email I received a few days ago from a worker at Amazon’s Whole Foods delivery warehouse in Industry City, Brooklyn, New York, was particularly distressing.
She said that six of her co-workers had tested positive for COVID since October 22, because “safe social distancing is not only being ignored but discouraged,” adding that “when we express our discomfort to management, we are yelled at about filling orders faster, or told that we can take a leave of absence without pay.”
She ended by noting “we work for a trillionaire.”
Well, not quite. Jeff Bezos is worth $180 billion, making him the richest person in the world. And his corporation, Amazon, which also owns Whole Foods, is among the world’s richest corporations.
Bezos has accumulated so much added wealth over the last nine months that he could give every Amazon employee $105,000 and still be as rich as he was before the pandemic.
So you’d think he’d be able to afford safer workplaces. Yet as of October, more than 20,000 U.S.-based Amazon employees had been infected by the virus. That estimate comes from Amazon, by the way. There’s been no independent verification, nor has Amazon revealed how many of them have died.
Decades ago, employees in most large corporations could remedy unsafe working conditions by complaining to their union, which pressured their employer to fix the problems, or to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (founded in 1970), which levied fines.
Alternatively, they could embarrass their companies by going public with their complaints. As a last resort, they could sue.
None of these routes is readily available to Amazon warehouse workers – nor, for that matter, to warehouse workers at Walmart, or to most workers in other super-spreader COVID workplaces such as meatpacking plants and nursing homes.
Amazon’s workers have no union to protect them. (Throughout its 25-year history, the corporation has aggressively fought union organizing.) Nor, for that matter, do 93.8 percent of America’s private-sector workers. Fifty years ago, more than a third were unionized.
And OSHA? Since the start of the pandemic, it’s been useless. Although receiving more than 10,000 complaints of unsafe conditions, it has issued just two citations.
Amazon employees who go public with their complaints are likely to lose their jobs. The corporation prohibits its workers from commenting publicly on any aspect of its business, without prior approval from executives. So far during the pandemic, it has fired at least two white-collar employees who publicly denounced conditions at its warehouses, as well as several warehouse workers who raised safety concerns to media outlets.
Amazon isn’t alone. A survey conducted in May by the National Employment Law Project showed that 1 in 8 American workers “has perceived possible retaliatory actions by employers against workers in their company who have raised health and safety concerns” about COVID.
The final option is to sue the company, but lawsuits against employers over COVID have been rare because of difficulties proving that the employee contracted the virus at work. A Washington Post analysis found that since the pandemic began, just 234 personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits have been filed due to the virus.
All of which reveals the utter fatuousness of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s and his fellow Senate Republicans’ demand that any new COVID relief package must include a corporate “liability shield” against COVID cases.
Even if such lawsuits were successful, corporations already have limited liability. That’s what it means to be a corporation. In the unlikely event Amazon were sued and plaintiffs won, Jeff Bezos would remain comfortable.
The heinous resurgence of COVID makes clear that corporations need more – not fewer – incentives to protect their workers from the virus.
As millions of Americans lose whatever meager income they had, they should not have to choose between taking a risky job – such as in an Amazon warehouse – or putting food on their family’s table.
Bezos, as well as every major employer in America, can easily afford to protect their workers. And as Mitch McConnell and his fellow Senate Republicans should know, the richest nation in the world can easily afford to provide every American adequate income support during this national emergency.
That they’re not doing so is disgraceful.
Robert Reich’s latest book is “THE SYSTEM: Who Rigged It, How To Fix It.” He is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 17 other books, including the best sellers “Aftershock,””The Work of Nations,” “Beyond Outrage,” and “The Common Good.” He is a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, founder of Inequality Media, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentaries “Inequality For All,” streamng on YouTube, and “Saving Capitalism,” now streaming on Netflix.