Update: On April 7, workers for Target’s delivery service, Shipt, organized a walkout in an effort to get the company to commit to protective gear, hazard pay, and paid leave. Workers at McDonald’s locations across the country also committed to striking for hazard pay and additional protective supplies, reporting that there is often no hand sanitizer available to them at all. As strikes continue to span major companies, workers and gig workers alike stand in solidarity trying to navigate working during the pandemic.
This story was originally published on March 31, 2020.
As of Monday, March 30, a large percentage of some of the most vulnerable workers in the United States are on strike — and making history in the process. The first mass strike of gig workers came in response to coronavirus concerns, and began with workers for Instacart, the grocery shopper and delivery giant. They announced plans to strike after their work conditions became dire in coronavirus epicenters like New York, and, starting Monday, united by refusing to take orders and make deliveries.
In striking, Instacart workers refused to accept orders until the company provides hazard pay of at least an additional $5 per order as well as free safety gear (hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and soap) during the pandemic. They’ve also demanded that the company expands its paid sick leave to include workers with pre-existing conditions whose doctors have advised them not to work during the pandemic.
But, members of the Instacart community aren’t alone. Workers at both Amazon and Whole Foods (which is owned by Amazon) also announced plans to strike at the same time. While workers in Europe have been striking for weeks, U.S. workers are just now catching up.
Whole Foods workers planned to stage a nationwide “sick-out” starting Tuesday, March 31, with their demands including: guaranteed paid leave for workers who must isolate or self-quarantine instead of coming to work; health care coverage for part-time and seasonal workers; hazard pay; better commitment to ensuring all locations have access to adequate sanitation equipment; and, immediate shutdown of any and all locations where workers test positive for COVID-19.
These strikes are monumental in demanding such dramatic changes in these companies’ conditions, but what’s truly historic about these particular protests is that they are being organized and carried about by a usually defenseless segment of workers: those engaged in the gig economy — comprised of freelance workers who do everything from driving cars to delivering packages, food, and other supplies. Gig economy members are not full-time employees of Instacart or Amazon, and as such, don’t get the typical benefits of those who are. But they’re still working — and are actually the ones on the frontlines of the current COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring Americans receive everything from groceries to staples like toilet paper and cleaning supplies.
At present, workers in at least 11 different warehouses across the country including in New York, Michigan, Florida, Texas, California, and Kentucky, tested positive for coronavirus, but have yet to receive benefits like paid sick leave or hazard pay. Most recently, Whole Foods workers in New York and a Whole Foods worker in Chicago tested positive for coronavirus.
While it’s unknown exactly how many gig workers Instacart employs across the country, Amazon employs almost 800,000 employees (both gig workers and full-time, benefitted employees) nationwide. Whole Foods employs nearly 100,000 workers (both gig workers and full-time) in the U.S. And given the rate that the virus is spreading, it’s inevitable that gig workers will continue to see positive test results from coronavirus without proper protections in place. Still, employees in extremely at-risk positions like these across the country have not been provided benefits for the hazardous, precarious working situations into which they’ve suddenly been foisted.
While it’s a really stressful time for anyone, working a job like this just amplifies that stress.
Sarah Polito, an Instacart worker from the small town of Newark in upstate New York, who has been working for the company as a freelancer for about two years, told Refinery29 that while not all Instacart workers agree with the strike, she still believes it’s ultimately necessary for the good of everyone. “Instacart published something about how they’re committed to protecting workers. However, our demands have still not been met,” Polito says. The accounts they use to work for Instacart can be deactivated by the company for non-compliance at any time, according to Instacart workers. “We are all going to be losing money, which is huge — especially right now with COVID-19. Everyone is struggling.”
One of the main points of the strike is to spread awareness of how Instacart workers are treated and the lack of benefits and protections they have. But according to the workers, who are risking their accounts being deactivated in the process, this calculated risk is worth it — considering the alternative. “Not being given proper PPE, disinfectants and wipes, we aren’t able to take the best precautions, so we’re constantly worrying about everything, so while it’s a really stressful time for anyone, working a job like this just amplifies that stress,” Polito tells Refinery29.
Despite these widespread protests, Instacart claims it’s providing the best benefits the company possibly can at this time, and has even instituted no-contact deliveries to protect both shoppers and customers. But, in the wake of the pandemic, Instacart also moved to hire about 300,000 more full service shoppers, money that might better be used to protect and pay current workers, says Polito. Currently, Instacart workers can make as little as $7 per order, according to Polito.
Another Instacart worker in New Hampshire, Jesse Rogue,* who also occasionally travels and works in the Boston metro area, says that Instacart has been a primary income source for the last two years. In the past month, it’s been their only source of income.
“I delivered to a woman today who has been using Instacart for a while because she has a physical disability and can’t go to the store herself. She had heard about the strike and was really worried that she wouldn’t have a way of getting groceries,” Rogue tells Refinery29. “That’s part of the reason why we need a strike — we know that if Instacart workers are going to work sick and that’s who we are going to be infecting, we know that this job is important right now for public health, but it’s also risky. If gig workers are taking on risk without protection, when we’re also more likely to be uninsured or even undocumented, and we’re not getting benefits, it’s going to cause way more widespread problems.”
If gig workers are taking on risk without protection, when we’re also more likely to be uninsured or even undocumented, and we’re not getting benefits, it’s going to cause way more widespread problems.
In the last four weeks, Instacart says they’ve introduced more than 15 new product features, new health guidelines, new shopper bonuses, new sick leave policies, and new safety supplies, as well as pay for those affected by COVID-19. “Our team has an unwavering commitment to safely serve our shoppers in the wake of COVID-19, and we’ll continue to share additional updates over the coming days, weeks and months ahead as we further support this important community,” Instacart said in a statement sent to Refinery29.
While employees still move to strike for at Instacart, Amazon and Whole Foods workers have reached a similar consensus regarding safety concerns. Aside from seeing minor adjustments to company policy, like now allowing cell phones on the floor for those who need to make emergency calls, Amazon workers say that the company’s inadequate response has left them more vulnerable to becoming infected. “All employers need to prioritize the health and safety of their workforce at this time,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union of Amazon, said in a statement. The company, which is also the parent company of Whole Foods, has continued to “maximize its enormous profits even over its employees’ safety,” says Appelbaum.
According to details provided by the company, Amazon is taking measures to safeguard their employees as much as possible. “In addition to all we’re doing to ensure health and safety at our buildings, we also recently implemented daily temperature screenings at our Staten Island fulfillment center as an additional preventative measure to support the health and safety of our customers and employees,” they said in a statement to Refinery29.
Christian Smalls, an Amazon worker from New Jersey who spoke with Jacobin, says that the situation at the facility he works at, known as JFK8, is “horrendous.” According to Smalls, even workers who have tested positive for the disease have been allowed back in the building again and again, putting others at risk. “The way the policy works is that you only get paid quarantine if you get tested and it comes back positive. But we know you can’t even get a test unless you’re really sick, and even then it takes a while to get the results. So you get people who are obviously sick as a dog coming into work,” Smalls explained. In solidarity with Amazon warehouse and delivery workers going on strike, tech workers for Amazon are also pledging not to work for the company until it meets demands.
In response to accusations from Amazon workers on Staten Island, Amazon says they are simply “unfounded.” When asked for comment, Kristen Kish, a spokesperson for Amazon, said to Refinery29, “Of the more 5,000 employees at our Staten Island site, 15 people — less than half a percent of associates — participated in today’s demonstration. Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis. Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable.”
Despite this, Smalls, the worker who helped organize a walkout from an Amazon fulfillment center that made national headlines, issued a statement after being fired from his position late in the day. “Today, I stood with my co-workers because conditions at JFK8 are legitimately dangerous for workers and the public. Amazon thinks this might shut me up, but I’m going to keep speaking up. My colleagues in New York and all around the country are going to keep speaking up,” Smalls said, adding, “We won’t stop until Amazon provides real protections for our health and safety and clarity for everybody about what it is doing to keep people safe in the middle of the worst pandemic of our lifetimes.”
It is extremely important these stories get out to the public because we are called essential workers but people are still treating us like bottom tier workers who don’t need better pay and protections.
Now, more and more employees are sharing their accounts of working for major companies in the gig economy. A Whole Foods worker from Seattle who wished to remain anonymous said that employees aren’t even allowed to wear protective masks unless they go to HR and go through some sort of special process. “The stores want to maintain an image, and fear that customers will think our workers are sick if they wear a mask. And on top of that, we’re on a point system that can get us fired very quickly if we call out and don’t use PTO,” she tells Refinery29. It is unclear from the company whether or not this is the policy at all Whole Foods stores.
Still, the Whole Foods worker strike, or sick-out, she explains, is important for workers to demand PTO be available to those who have not tested positive for COVID-19. “There are no protections for people who choose to self isolate or have existing health problems that are scared to come to work. Many people cannot get a hold of a test in Seattle. A lot of people do not qualify. If you can’t get a hold of a test in time, then you aren’t eligible for that PTO. It is extremely important these stories get out to the public because we are called essential workers but people are still treating us like bottom tier workers who don’t need better pay and protections.” According to this worker, not many precautions have been taken in her store except for providing extra bottles of hand sanitizer.
While workers are not certain what their companies will do in response to the strikes, they believe the message here serves a greater purpose: They refuse to work during a pandemic without adequate protection. By striking, they’re putting their income at risk, which comes with its own kind of anxiety, but they know it’s necessary to hold companies accountable, and that the gig economy cannot continue to be a loophole for labor rights.
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