For the last 10 years, the war for talent steadily escalated. Companies, desperately in need of help, had to cater to job seekers. The corporations, with growing businesses, found themselves with significantly more open roles than people available to fill them. The problem was particularly acute for companies that sought after lower-wage workers in sectors such as restaurants, travel and leisure, airlines, hotels, hospitality, medical assistance, warehouse and fulfillment facilities, sports and music venues.
It now looks like the tables have turned. With 10 million people recently unemployed and an anticipated 50 million more out of work by the summer, corporate executives recognize that they now have the upper hand.
As the job-loss crisis continues to grow and millions of people start looking for work, corporate management will feel free to summarily dispense employees. Managers will realize that they don’t have to deal with a difficult worker, as there will be a line of people forming to take the person’s place if he or she is fired. There won’t be a need to offer larger wages and better benefits, as there will be someone else who would gladly take the job to put food on the table and roof of their family’s head.
This is the beginning of large corporations asserting their power over their workers. We’re now seeing this tension take place in real time. Recent events at Amazon and Instacart highlight perhaps the last thrust of workers trying to win some dignity, safety precautions and fair remuneration in the face of a global pandemic.
A majority of Americans are relatively safe at home under self-quarantine. Many have been told to work remotely and some, unfortunately, don’t have jobs to go to. There are, however, people working under potentially hazardous conditions that fear getting infected with the coronavirus.
Amazon warehouse laborers in Staten Island—a borough of New York City— and Instacart’s grocery delivery contractors across the country walked off their jobs last week in protest over their health-safety and compensation. The workers demanded better protection against the COVID-19 outbreak. They are also calling for more pay commensurate with the risks that they’re taking.
As shopping malls now look like ghost towns, non-essential retail stores have been ordered by state government officials to close. Even beloved retail giants, such as Target, if they’re open, lack in-store customers. Potential shoppers are leery to enter the store and possibly catch the virus from another customer or cashier. This scenario benefits the already-mighty Amazon and the on-demand shopping tech company Instacart. Due to the overwhelming demand, Amazon and Instacart are hiring 100,000and 300,000 new employees, respectively.
It’s much easier and safer to shop at Amazon online from the comfort of your couch. The same holds true for food shopping. Rather than venturing out into a supermarket, you can use an app to have an Instacart shopper roam the aisles for your order, take the risk of interacting with a carrier of the virus and deliver the food directly to your doorstep. The massive pivot away from brick-and-mortar stores to online and on-demand models results in an insatiable demand for workers to process orders and deliver the goods to people who are cocooned at home.
These generally low-wage, gig-economy workers are now the superstars and backbone of the economy, as almost everyone is holed up at home. They are the hardworking people you don’t think about. They schlep and stack boxes, load trucks, pack supplies, go up and down the grocery store aisles and deliver your goods. However, they are now protesting the lack of safety and fair compensation.
The workers at both companies are demanding that the companies make important changes. These include paid sick leave, warehouses to be closed for thorough cleaning (accompanied by guaranteed pay) and disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers, as well as an increase in pay to compensate for the potential risks to their health.
It’s been reported that workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in at least 11 warehouses. Although Amazon says that the company has “taken extreme measures to keep people safe,” this health-safety concern has triggered a walkout in one of its fulfillment centers.
Chris Smalls, an employee who helped coordinate the walkout in Staten Island, said, “We’re not returning to work until they close the building down.” Smalls complained, “If you don’t come in because you choose to be safe with your family, they’re not paying us.” Amazon said in a statement that Smalls was paid for the two weeks he self-quarantined.
Amazon generally denies any and all accusations of unsafe environments asserting, “These accusations are simply unfounded. We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available and changing process to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances.” Amazon has also raised its pay by $2 an hour for a certain time period.
Instacart’s workers are independent contractors. They claim that they are not appropriately equipped with the necessary protective gear and products, such as disinfectants and hand sanitizers. The contractors have also called for an additional $5 per order and a higher tip rate of at least 10% on the app. Exemplifying the frustration of an Instacart shopper, Shanna Foster, a single mother, decided to stop working at her gig-job over fear of contracting the virus. Foster simply encapsulated the workers’ frustrations by plainly stating, “It wasn’t worth the risk.”
An Instacart spokesperson said that the company would distribute supplies, including hand sanitizer, to more workers and change tipping settings. Instacart also said the company would offer two weeks of paid time off for workers who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
After he helped organize the protest walkout, Smalls was fired from his job. Amazon claims that Smalls violated a company order to self-quarantine. The online retailer also alleges that he put his co-workers at risk of contracting the virus.
According to a report from VICE , “Leaked notes from an internal meeting of Amazon leadership obtained by VICE News reveal company executives discussed a plan to smear fired warehouse employee Christian Smalls, calling him ‘not smart or articulate’ as part of a PR strategy to make him ‘the face of the entire union/organizing movement.’”
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” wrote Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky in notes from the meeting forwarded throughout the company.
This battle between the corporations and its workers will continue to play out. For now, Amazon and Instacart need to cater to their workers due to the unprecedented demand for their services. It’s also a necessary public relations move. The companies would not want to alienate their customers by coming across as heavy-handed with their employees and placing them in situations that endanger their health and well-being.
Despite the current skirmish, in the long run, the job crisis and economy will favor big monopolistic companies, such as Amazon. The company will exert more power and control over its workers. As more people become unemployed, there will be an overflow of applicants for jobs at the giant online retailer. With a vast amount of potential job applicants, the existing and newly hired workers will have much less bargaining leverage.
Instacart contractors will see a similar fate. Once we eventually exit the COVID-19 environment, shoppers will return to their favorite local supermarkets. There will be less of a need for on-demand shoppers—especially since it’s a high-cost, luxury-type purchase—in a time when people will be careful about spending their money. The Instacart workers will ultimately lose their clout.
Whether they realize it or not, the move to pressure companies now is a smart decision for the workers to lock in concessions for the future—before it’s too late.