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Amazon workers fight for better COVID-19 conditions

(BUSINESS NEWS) Amazon workers organize locally, nationally, and globally in an attempt to get Jeff Bezos’ attention to gain safe working conditions at warehouses.

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Amazon workers

While Amazon claims it has taken serious measures to increase facility cleanings and encourage social distancing measures at its fulfillment centers, workers nationwide feel the tech giant’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been inadequate.

Workers have complained that Amazon has maintained standard work procedures such as fulfilling an hourly pack rate to meet customer demand, which can be used to track and reward (or demote) worker performance. Employees claim the metrics don’t allow them time to practice safe sanitary practices like visiting the bathroom to wash their hands after sneezing or coughing. They also raised concerns about standing meetings, where workers are gathered shoulder-to-shoulder to receive updates.

Many workers have also lodged concerns about lack of transparency regarding confirmed cases at their warehouses. Multiple walkouts have been staged after confirmed cases were reported and the warehouses continued operations. Workers believe their managers are not disclosing the real number of cases.

The following is a non-exhaustive timeline of employee unrest at Amazon, and some of the company’s reactions.

  • March 13: Two Amazon HQ office workers are diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • March 16: Amazon announces effort to hire 100,000 additional employees and qualifying employees will receive increased pay of $2/hour in the US, Canada, the UK, and EU countries.
  • March 17: Amazonians United NYC write a post on Medium petitioning for coronavirus protections from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. As of this writing, 5,210 workers from around the world have signed this petition.
  • March 18: Workers at the DBK1 warehouse in Queens, New York, receive confirmation that a worker has been diagnosed with COVID-19. This is the first confirmed case at an Amazon warehouse.
  • March 29: Two workers are diagnosed with COVID-19 at the EWR4 warehouse in Robbinsville, New Jersey.
  • March 30: At least a dozen workers walk off the job at EWR4 in Robbinsville. Workers at Staten Island JFK8 warehouse stage an organized walkout led by Chris Smalls. He is fired later that day.
  • March 31: Whole Foods workers organize sick-out demanding “guaranteed paid leave for employees who isolate or self-quarantine instead of coming to work; reinstatement of health care coverage for part-time and seasonal workers; hazard pay for coming to work; and the implementation of policies to facilitate social distancing between workers and customers.”
  • April 1: A third confirmed case of coronavirus is announced to workers at the DTW1 warehouse in Romulus, Michigan. A handful of workers walkout.
  • April 3: Chicago workers stage walkout after a colleague tests positive for COVID-19 a week earlier, demanding the facility be closed and sanitized.
  • April 7: Amazon pilots disinfectant fogging, mandates social distancing, temperature checks, and masks throughout shifts.
  • April 10: Amazon fires UX designers and outspoken members of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa. A warehouse operations manager from Hawthorne, California dies of COVID-19, the first reported death at Amazon.
  • April 13: Amazon says 100,000 jobs have been filled and another 75,000 will be added. Amazon encourages workers from especially impacted industries like hospitality, restaurants, and travel to apply.
  • April 14: Amazon confirms firing Bashir Mohamed, a Minnesota worker who had also been calling for safer work conditions.

It is unclear exactly how many employees participated in each of the walkouts. It is unlikely that a protest by even 300 workers of the nearly 300,000 Amazon employees would have a major impact on production, or Amazon’s practices, for that matter.

But their efforts are gaining traction. New York Attorney General Letitia James, Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have all made public statements denouncing Amazon’s treatment of its workers. Attorney General James is considering legal action for Chris Smalls firing.

Amazon has made significant efforts to use its resources as a positive force in the pandemic. The Amazon coronavirus blog tracks its charitable efforts, including donating laptops to Seattle students for remote learning and opening a Neighborhood Small Business Relief Fund in Seattle, among many other charitable moves. Though commendable, how a corporation treats its workers reveals a fundamental truth about its priorities.

According to Forbes, Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world with an estimated net worth of $145.1 billion. Amazon recorded $280.5 billion in revenues and a record $11.5 billion in net profit in 2019.

One New Jersey warehouse worker has been on unpaid leave since March 13. Rachel Belz told Yahoo! Finance that she elected to stay home when at least 12 workers at her warehouse tested positive for the coronavirus, fearing exposing her son and parents to the deadly virus. “Money is a renewable resource – they’re not.

Heather Buffo is a Cleveland native, a recovering Bostonian, and an Austin newbie. Heather has her Bachelor of Arts in Neurobiology from Harvard University, and is a City Year Boston AmeriCorps alum. When she's not writing for AG, you can find her pouring beers at the Brewtorium, but only one at a time.

Business News

Hobby Lobby increases minimum wage, but how much is just to save face?

(BUSINESS NEWS) Are their efforts to raise their minimum wage to $17/hour sincere, or more about saving face after bungling pandemic concerns?

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Hobby Lobby storefront

The arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby announced this week that they will be raising their minimum full-time wage to $17/hour starting October 1st. This decision makes them the latest big retailer to raise wages during the pandemic (Target raised their minimum wage to $15/hour about three months ago, and Walmart and Amazon have temporarily raised wages). The current minimum wage for Hobby Lobby employees is $15/hour, which was implemented in 2014.

While a $17 minimum wage is a big statement for the company (even a $15 minimum wage cannot be agreed upon on the federal level) – and it is no doubt a coveted wage for the majority of the working class – it’s difficult to not see this move as an attempt to regain public support of the company.

When the pandemic first began, Hobby Lobby – with more than 900 stores and 43,000 employees nationwide – refused to close their stores despite being deemed a nonessential business (subsequently, a Dallas judge accused the company of endangering public health).

In April, Hobby Lobby furloughed almost all store employees and the majority of corporate and distribution employees without notice. They also ended emergency leave pay and suspended the use of company-provided paid time off benefits for employees during the furloughs – a decision that was widely criticized by the public, although the company claims the reason for this was so that employees would be able to take full advantage of government handouts during their furlough.

However, the furloughs are not Hobby Lobby’s first moment under fire. The Oklahoma-based Christian company won a 2014 Supreme Court case – the same year they initially raised their minimum wage – that granted them the right to deny their female employees insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Also, Hobby Lobby settled a federal complaint in 2017 that accused them of purchasing upwards of 5,000 looted ancient Iraqi artifacts, smuggled through the United Arab Emirates and Israel – which is simultaneously strange, exploitative, and highly controversial.

Why does this all matter? While raising their minimum wage to $17 should be regarded as a step in the right direction regarding the overall treatment of employees (and, hopefully, $17 becomes the new standard), Hobby Lobby is not without reason to seek favorable public opinion, especially during a pandemic. Yes, we should be quick to condone the action of increasing minimum wage, but perhaps be a little skeptical when deeming a company “good” or “bad”.

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Business News

RIP office culture: How work from home is destroying the economy

(BUSINESS NEWS) It’s not just your empty office left behind: Work from home is drastically changing cities’ economies in more ways than you think.

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An empty meeting room, unfilled by work from home employees.

It’s been almost six months since the U.S. went into lockdown due to COVID-19 and the CDC’s subsequent safety guidelines were issued – it’s safe to say that it is not business as usual. Everyone from restaurant waitstaff to start-up executives have been affected by the shift to work-from-home. Even as restrictions slowly begin to lift, it seems as though the office workspace – regarded as the vital venue for the U.S. economy – will never truly be the same.

Though economists have been focusing largely on small businesses and start-ups, we are only just beginning to understand the impact that not going back into the white-collar office will have on the economy.

The industries that support white-collar office culture in major cities have become increasingly emaciated. The coffee shops, food trucks, and food delivery companies that catered to the white-collar workforce before, during, and after their workday, are no longer in high demand (Starbucks reported a loss of $2 billion this year, which they attribute to Zoomification). Airlines have also been affected as business travel typically accounts for 60%-70% of all air travel.

Also included are high-end hotels, which accommodate the traveling business class. Pharmacies, florists, and gyms located in business districts have become ghost towns. Office supplies companies, such as Xerox, have suffered. Workwear brands such as J. Crew and Brooks Brothers have filed for bankruptcy, as there is no longer a need to dress for the office.

In Manhattan – arguably the country’s most notorious white-collar business mecca – at least 1,200 restaurants have been permanently lost. It is also is predicted that the one-third of all small businesses will close.

Additionally, the borough is facing twice as many apartment vacancies as this time last year, due to the flight of workers no longer tied to midtown offices. Workers have realized their freedom to seek more affordable and spacious residence outside the city. As companies decentralize from cities and rent prices drop, it isn’t all bad news. There is promise that particular urban white-collar neighborhoods will start to become accessible to the working class once again.

Some companies, like Pinterest and REI, are reporting that their shift to work from home is in fact permanent. The long-term effects of deserted office buildings are yet to make themselves evident. What we do know is that the decline of the white-collar office will force us to reimagine the great American cities – with so much lost due to the coronavirus, what can now be gained?

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Business News

2020 Black Friday shopping may break the mold

(BUSINESS NEWS) Home Depot states their new plan for deals and discounts over two months, in place of a 1-day Black Friday event.

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Men shopping in an empty aisle, Black Friday to come?

Humans change and adapt – that’s just in our nature. Retail stores have struggled to maintain their sales goals for years as more and more people move to ordering online. Online prices still seem to be within customer expectations and often come with free shipping. Additionally, people that may have preferred to shop in an actual brick-and-mortar store have changed their shopping habits dramatically in 2020; it’s hard to social distance and be safe in crowded stores or in small aisles. Black Friday may be next to change.

Amazon and other big box store’s online ordering platforms have simplified getting what you need delivered right to your front door. According to Statista, “Amazon was responsible for 45% of US e-commerce spending in 2019 – a figure which is expected to rise to 47% in 2020.”

Retailers count on the holiday season, specifically Black Friday deals (the day after Thanksgiving), to bring in up to 20% of their annual revenue. It’s hard to just remove that option completely. But considering the times of social distancing, wearing masks in public, and especially avoiding large crowds, the tradition of Black Friday will need to look different this year.

It will also be interesting to see what supply chain disruptions from early 2020 will have the most effect this shopping season. We saw predictions in March that said the United States would see the biggest disruptions in about six months. Black Friday falls right on that timeline.

Home Depot has announced their plans to go ahead and give the deals over a two month span, starting in early November through December (both online and in stores with the possibility of adding some special deals around the actual Black Friday date) to help encourage a more steady stream of shoppers versus so many packing in on the same day.

The home improvement chain has actually seen a great sales year. This is likely due to people working from home and being interested in doing more home projects (and possibly having a bit more time to do them as well). As of May 2020, “The Home Depot®, the world’s largest home improvement retailer, today reported sales of $28.3 billion for the first quarter of fiscal 2020, a 7.1 percent increase from the first quarter of fiscal 2019. Comparable sales for the first quarter of fiscal 2020 were positive 6.4 percent, and comparable sales in the U.S. were positive 7.5 percent.”

Home Depot, along with many other retailers like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy have confirmed that they will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, which may not be new for all of them but has always signaled the kickoff of the holiday shopping season.

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