Amazon contractors hit hard by pandemic

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Adrienne Williams with her daughter Gia, 7, at her mother's house in Pinole, California, on May 13, 2020

Adrienne Williams with her daughter Gia, 7, at her mother's house in Pinole, California, on May 13, 2020 (AFP Photo/Virginie GOUBIER)

Pinole (United States) (AFP) - She delivers for Amazon, but Adrienne Williams says the e-commerce and tech giant did not deliver for her.

The 42-year-old California single mother is among the legion of drivers for Amazon's third-party delivery firms which have been struggling amid surging demand for goods and supplies to locked-down consumers during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We don't work for Amazon, even though I wear an Amazon uniform, drive an Amazon van into an Amazon warehouse to pick up Amazon packages," the former junior high school teacher told AFP.

Williams, who stopped working in March when her seven-year-old daughter's school closed, joined protests in recent weeks calling for better pay and benefits for "gig" workers, or independent contractors.

She said her "delivery service provider" (DSP) promised to offer health care benefits, but failed to do so.

"They are expected to pay for health benefits, but most of them can't," she said.

- Temporary pay raise -

As one of the 27.5 million Americans who lack health insurance, Williams has had to be creative in order to manage her asthma. When relatives with insurance see a doctor, they ask for the medicine she needs.

Amazon has announced several exceptional measures in response to the added risks and burdens imposed on workers by the pandemic: temperature checks for those entering its warehouses, distribution of masks, support funds for workers in difficulty, and a temporary $2-an-hour salary boost (now set to expire on May 31) for lower-paid workers.

But Williams says the company, one of the world's largest, hasn't done enough to help the third-party providers.

She said she was told the Amazon "relief package" for distressed employees and contractors did not apply to her, and later that it does. But she has not received anything.

She said pay levels that might be sufficient in some parts of the country fall far short of allowing someone to live in an expensive region like the San Francisco area, where she lives. With a $2 an hour pay bump, she said, "we're still broke."

- 'Safety ... is important' -

Williams said her immediate boss had been supportive, but when she tried to explain her situation to managers at Amazon, "one of them laughed."

Amazon says it has some 800 third-party delivery providers globally, but did not provide details on the number of people working for the enterprises. It also uses Fedex, UPS and the US Postal Service for some deliveries.

Last year, Amazon said it would offer its employees $10,000 to quit their jobs and create their own delivery business for Amazon packages. But Amazon has canceled contracts with some operators that failed to live up to its standards.

"When the virus hit it became apparent how much the DSPs are not financially able to really take care of their businesses the way they should," Williams said.

As the services struggle, she said, some have fallen short on sanitizing vehicles and training drivers.

On May 1, she joined a protest in front of an Amazon warehouse in Richmond, California, wearing a black mask and holding a sign saying, "I should be able to pay rent if I work full time."

"COVID just kind of exacerbated the problem and that's why I'm here," she said. "Because the safety of my co-workers is important.... I'm here trying to fight for that."

Williams knows that such protests carry risk. Strikes are rare in the US in non-unionized companies, which can retaliate by firing employees.

Amazon, which has long faced criticism about conditions in its mammoth warehouses, has fired some employees who complained publicly this year about their safety concerns.

Employees of Walmart, FedEx, Target, Whole Foods and Instacart have also protested their working conditions during the pandemic, and some have gone on strike.

Amazon says it is spending an extra $4 billion in virus-related expenses in the April to June period, covering wage bonuses, protective equipment for personnel and enhanced cleaning of facilities.