Credit…Photo Illustration by James Casebere for The New York Times
- Feb. 18, 2021
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When Abdul Tokhi, a father of two small children, arrived in the United States from Afghanistan in 2017, a local church group helped him and his family find an apartment in Corona, a city in California’s Inland Empire — a 27,000-square-mile stretch of deserts, mountains, farmland and sprawling housing communities east of Los Angeles. The group collected furniture donations, bringing over sofas, tables and a bulky, outdated television. They also connected him to a hiring company, which landed him a job as a “picker” in an Amazon warehouse, a 12-mile drive from Corona in a town named Eastvale. He started at Amazon earning $12.25 an hour, while his wife stayed home to take care of the kids.
In Afghanistan, Tokhi worked in construction and shipping, which sometimes involved transporting money to the bank for a contractor. “They paid cash, so it was very dangerous,” he said. “You could get robbed.” He felt safe at Amazon, and benefits were good. After a year, Tokhi got a raise to $15 an hour, along with the rest of the company’s starting-wage employees around the country. He also enrolled in computer-science classes at a local community college. By 2019, he was still pulling items off shelves and preparing them for shipment. Being a picker required a strong back and the ability to lift up to 50 pounds. His rent was $1,480 a month, and after that was paid, there was barely enough for gas, food and cellphone bills. “The work is hard,” he said at the time. “But I don’t care. I have a job. A good salary.” Tokhi made his first American friends in the warehouse lunchrooms.
Nowhere in the nation is the astonishing rise of Amazon more evident than in the Inland Empire, whose two counties, San Bernardino and Riverside, are now home to 4.6 million people. The first Amazon warehouse, known as ONT2, landed there like a spaceship in 2012, with fewer than 3,000 employees. Since then, Amazon has become the largest private employer in the region, with 14 facilities and two logistics air hubs. The company’s swishy logo flashes past on vans and trucks and passes overhead on planes. In the Inland Empire, more than 40,000 people now work for Amazon warehouses as pickers, packers, sorters, unloaders and managers, as well as independent drivers, contract truckers, pilots and aircraft technicians. The company is so enmeshed in the community that it can simultaneously be a TV channel, grocery store, home security system, boss, personal data collector, high school career track, internet cloud provider and personal assistant.
By late March 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California had issued a statewide stay-at-home order. Unemployment rates across the Inland Empire climbed as businesses shut down. A few miles from the Eastvale facility, retail stores once bustling with customers, including T.J. Maxx, Kohl’s and HomeGoods, began furloughing employees. Restaurants, hotel rooms and theaters across the region sat empty. But Amazon announced national plans to hire 100,000 workers to meet customer demand, as toilet paper and bleach flew off shelves. It temporarily raised starting-wage pay by $2 an hour, offered sign-on bonuses and beefed up grocery delivery services. The company added 22,000 new employees in California, with more than 8,000 of them working in the Inland Empire.
Unemployed retail workers in the region became increasingly reliant on Amazon for steady income, which meant adjusting to a warehouse culture hyperoptimized for efficient logistics. In his Eastvale warehouse, LGB3, Tokhi noticed a surge of new employees. The faces he was used to seeing on each shift were gone. Were people staying home out of fear of contracting the virus, he wondered? Were they sick themselves? Many of his colleagues shared his uncertainty and turned to Facebook for answers. Tokhi, like other Amazon workers, changed his profile picture to include an orange circle that read: “I CAN’T STAY HOME. . . I WORK AT AMAZON.”
On Saturday, March 28, on a private Facebook group for Amazon warehouse workers, a member asked if anyone had heard about an employee from LGB3 who had tested positive for the coronavirus: “I mean a solid confirmation,” the member wrote, “like a news article or anything from a reliable source.”
“I’ve only heard the person is being tested, nothing confirmed yet,” another member replied. “If anyone knows different, let me know cause I didn’t go in on Wednesday after I’d been told.”
On a Facebook group for the Inland Empire called IE Amazonians Unite, a petition posted specifically for the employees of the Eastvale warehouse demanded that “the facility must be shut down for a minimum of two weeks.” The petition also pushed for paid leave while the facility was sterilized, free worker testing for the virus, hazard pay, child-care pay and subsidies.
As the number of coronavirus cases in warehouses across the region climbed, concerns about job safety and quality took on a new urgency. One woman wrote: “I work at LGB3 and already signed. I have a 9-month-old and rent from my parents. My father is a Stage 4 cancer patient survivor. His immune system is very weak. He almost died of pneumonia last year.” She continued: “I’m really concerned with how Amazon seems to be doing the bare minimum with protecting us from Covid-19. All these new hires coming into the building are having to huddle together next to their trainers to hear them over the machinery.”
Amazon offered unpaid time off for those concerned about coming to work. Another commenter wrote: “This is bs we should be paid for two weeks. They should have it sanitized. Our lives matter too.”
The pandemic has upended entire segments of the economy, furloughing hotel and convention-center workers, docking cruise ships, gutting mom-and-pop restaurants, devastating the airline industry and crushing local businesses like salons, gyms and child recreation centers. Some of those industries may take years to return to a prepandemic normal. Others will take longer to recover, if they ever do. As millions of people filed for unemployment, Amazon’s profits skyrocketed, leading to a hiring spree of warehouse workers, engineers and couriers.
Between January and October of last year, Amazon added 427,300 employees globally. It reportedly planned to put 1,000 new small facilities in suburbs across the United States to meet same-day shipping demands, and to hire thousands more grocery workers for Amazon Fresh. No other company in history — including Walmart, the largest private employer — has ever added so many workers in a single year. As of December, Amazon employed 1.3 million people worldwide. In the fourth quarter of 2020, it generated $125.6 billion in net sales, its largest quarterly revenue of all time.
In places like the Inland Empire, openings for warehouse pickers and sorters became seemingly infinite. For many workers who were juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet before Covid, Amazon suddenly became their sole source of income. Many of the jobs were physically demanding, with quotas dictating output. Some workers skip bathroom breaks or suffer injuries in order to scan upwards of 300 items per hour. The positions come with health benefits and a 401(k), but employee turnover is so high that many people don’t make it long enough to collect.
As the pandemic set in, local online job boards filled up with Amazon-related posts: “Warehouse Team Member — Earn up to $600 a Week.” “Delivery Driver — Immediate Hire.” “Area Manager, Amazon (Military Veterans Encouraged to Apply).” “It really does feel like you’re going to end up at Amazon and you don’t have much of a choice,” said Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, which is based in the Inland Empire. If not Amazon, you may “end up at another warehouse that is cuing its standards off of Amazon.”
New hires took to the Facebook message boards, seeking advice. Some, who before the pandemic worked in the food and retail industries, needed help managing the physical toll that came with repetitive bending, squatting, lifting and trekking miles of warehouse floors. “They are reaching down for boxes all day. Bending in ways they are not used to, and all of the sudden, bam,” said Brian Freeman, a workers’ compensation lawyer in the Inland Empire who has represented 78 Amazon employees. “They break. Their neck, their back, their arms, something goes out.” Veteran workers offered suggestions based on their own routines, including buying shoes with memory foam, wearing compression socks (two pairs for more cushion) and taking ibuprofen (before shifts, again on breaks and after work). They recommended turmeric for inflammation, warm baths of Epsom salt, at-home foot-relief remedies and essential-oil rollers for sore muscles. They shared links for orthopedic shoes and heated massagers.
As warehouse workers started getting sick, conversations online turned fearful, echoing sentiments on the ground. “They didn’t inform us about our second case until over two weeks after they reported,” one member wrote in the Amazon Facebook worker group. “We now have a third case and it’s getting closer to two weeks and we still haven’t been informed. If it wasn’t for us sharing info in our own Facebook group, we wouldn’t even have known.”
But something unexpected happened, too: Those who might not have complained about working conditions or considered themselves activists started speaking up. Amazon had long fended off workplace organizing, holding anti-union meetings that employees were required to attend. And while Amazon has often acknowledged that workers have the right to unionize, the company has tried to persuade them that doing so would introduce an unnecessary middleman. But Covid-19 proved to be a breaking point. Some workers were no longer willing to make concessions to a company that they felt was jeopardizing their safety and potentially their lives.
“The way they treat us is unethical and unfair,” an Amazon employee posted in April, urging workers concerned about their safety to file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Yea they gave us extra pay unlimited UPT,” or unpaid time off, another wrote, “but be honest to yourself. Is it worth dying for?”
One user in Texas added: “We need to unionize nationwide to have a voice for health and better working conditions.”
Concerned about their own health, some employees at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse walked off the job in March, and the following day, workers at Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, participated in a national sickout, demanding more frequent cleanings and paid leave for those under quarantine. One Staten Island employee was fired by Amazon for what he believes was his involvement in helping organize the rally. Amazon claims the worker had broken his paid quarantine leave and says the company has zero tolerance for retaliation against employees.
“Sadly, the question of whether or not I’m risking my life to fulfill an order of a dildo is an actual question people are asking themselves,” said Mario Vasquez, a community organizer for Teamsters Local 1932, which primarily represents public-sector workers in the Inland Empire. “As crude as that is, it’s a reality. People are becoming aware of this shocking contradiction and asking themselves if it’s worth it.”
One member of the Amazon Warehouse Associates Facebook group posted an article about workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Italy who successfully negotiated for new safety measures and an additional daily break. “Too bad they didn’t ask for more money, but at least they stood up for themselves,” he wrote. Another person posted: “Too many scared folk are more than happy to accept garbage because the powers that be have convinced them that they have no power.” The member continued: “There are hundreds of thousands of us … and only a handful of executives … just sayin’.”
Last spring, workers walked out at Amazon facilities in New York, Detroit and Illinois. Beginning April 21, Amazon warehouse workers nationwide started a “mass call out,” in which more than 300 people across at least 50 facilities called in sick. And on April 24, in protest of the company’s treatment of warehouse employees and the firing of certain workers, Amazon tech employees hosted a sickout.
In the coming weeks, roughly 6,000 Amazon workers in Alabama will begin tallying the votes on whether to form the first U.S. union of its kind in the company’s 25-year history. Even if they do, though, the question remains: Will the unprecedented unrest caused by Covid-19 turn into a durable movement inside the company? “We have seen a surge in organizing,” said Ellen Reese, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside, who is studying Amazon warehouse employees in the Inland Empire. But it’s uncertain whether that will lead to a surge of unionization, she added, because even the company’s longtime employees are often one wrong move away from losing their jobs. “Workers get fired very easily over small things, or not making rates, or too much time off task,” she said.
This precariousness is clear in the Inland Empire, where Amazon has hired an additional 7,500 seasonal employees since October. “We’ve got this kind of permanent underclass of working people that are always on the bubble, whether they’re temps at the warehouses or Amazon workers,” Kaoosji said. “There’s always this pool of people who are one step behind you. So, if you speak up or if you organize, there’s a hundred temp workers right outside the door who would be able to take your job.”
In 2016 — the same year that Amazon announced plans to open its first distribution center in Eastvale — the city had nearly 64,000 residents and was growing fast. Money magazine reported at the time that Eastvale felt like a “shiny new toy.” The out-of-reach home prices of Los Angeles and Orange County are what took me and my own growing family there in 2018. At that point Eastvale was less than a decade old, having been founded and incorporated in 2010 on former agricultural land. It had become a community with good, diverse schools, its neighborhoods filled with big beige houses, solar panels and nearly identical cul-de-sacs. “I live over there,” my daughter would say, pointing down one street. “No, wait, I live over there,” and she would point to an entirely different block. An overwhelming majority of residents are not employed by Amazon. But people from elsewhere in the Inland Empire commute to Eastvale to work there.
The Eastvale facilities have more than 6,000 employees (and nearly 1,000 robots) and are among the largest Amazon centers in the world. Long before Covid, safety issues proliferated. A public-records request of 911 calls showed that in April 2017, an employee received what appeared to be a concussion after she “had a large box fall on her head.” The following year, a 20-year-old employee hit her head while fainting and fell unconscious. Two weeks later, a man in his mid-30s was trapped between two machines on the production floor. “Subject has broken leg,” the 911 records stated. He was stuck in the “pit machine.”
AmCare, the in-house Amazon first-aid facility, is often filled with employees laid out on their backs, soothing their muscles with menthol pain spray or heating pads, popping ibuprofen or doing stretches, according to Allatha Faruq, who worked at the Eastvale warehouse in 2018. Faruq found herself in so much back pain that she became a regular at AmCare. In the clinic, she looked around at her co-workers and realized, “This is a theme.” Each time she went to AmCare, she saw different employees with different ailments, most of whom she’d never met before. “You start realizing just how many people get hurt.”
Freeman, the workers’ comp attorney, took on his first Amazon case in the Inland Empire in 2014. As warehouses continued to open, he noticed a steady uptick in calls from injured Amazon employees. When his clients got hurt, Freeman said, they were instructed to “go in-house first,” where its emergency medical technicians assessed and documented the severity of their injuries and then recommended whether an outside doctor was necessary.
There have been 301 federal investigations initiated against Amazon since 2012, resulting in 59 workplace violations. Cal/OSHA investigated 37 Amazon cases in California and found 12 violations, but the state agency is facing criticism for not doing enough to count and investigate coronavirus cases in California workplaces. A report last year from Reveal, citing company data obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, looked at more than 150 Amazon facilities nationwide and found that injury rates in 2018 and 2019 at the Eastvale facility where Tokhi worked were more than four times the national average.
By late March, Amazon confirmed that an Eastvale warehouse worker had tested positive for the coronavirus. That evening, the company notified its workers of a second case. New rules were enforced: Stay six feet apart, stagger lunches and breaks, use Clorox wipes for stations. Soon the company would begin taking temperatures.
By the time Tokhi heard about the second case, he felt scared and unprotected. He even worried that he might be getting sick. Tokhi went to AmCare and was greeted by two medical staff members in masks. “Can you please give me a mask?” he asked.
‘We’ve got this kind of permanent underclass of working people that are always on the bubble, whether they’re temps at the warehouses or Amazon workers.’
Tokhi said he was informed that they did not have masks for all staff members — only for the medical personnel. “We are not human?” Tokhi wanted to ask. But he kept his thoughts to himself. “Just you are human? You use the mask, and for us, no?”
He did not trust that there were only two confirmed Covid cases in the Eastvale distribution hub. “Somebody told me seven people,” he said. “We don’t know. Someone told me it’s five people.” Workers continued to speculate.
The company said that it informs employees when a worker tests positive and regularly conducts deep cleanings, but Tokhi was skeptical at the time. Did it matter how much they cleaned if the virus was in the air? He wiped down his workstation, careful not to miss any areas he might touch, and scrubbed all buttons and screens. “About one meter around,” he said, “I clean myself.”
Eastvale residents spent a year fighting the development of the Amazon warehouses. They pointed to the community surrounding the San Bernardino airport, which has long suffered dangerous levels of air quality — much of the pollution now emanating from trucks and trains packed with Amazon-related cargo. Last February, the state attorney general filed a lawsuit over the expansion of the San Bernardino airport to accommodate a 660,000-square-foot logistics hub, arguing that the project would bring more pollution. The suit is pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Despite those efforts, the first Amazon warehouse appeared practically overnight. Neighbors watched giant bulldozers and cranes hoist walls into place. The entire tilt-up operation happened over a single noisy weekend, the panels lining up like colossal dominoes. Soon after, a twin warehouse was built next door. Visible from Interstate 15, which cuts through the Inland Empire, the conjoined Eastvale fulfillment centers gleam — two million square feet encased in gray and lime green slabs. “Most of my friends, before I ran for office, did not even know where Eastvale is,” said the city’s mayor, Jocelyn Yow. She learned to describe Eastvale using Amazon as a landmark.
Over the years, Eastvale’s grazing cows were replaced with neat rows of homes, many with Amazon-owned Ring doorbells and Alexa devices. In 2017, Lennar, one of the nation’s largest home builders, teamed up with Amazon and is currently selling smart homes in 51 communities in the Inland Empire. Living in Eastvale meant living with Amazon.
“Amazon, originally, was going to be a boon for Eastvale,” Ike Bootsma, a former mayor of the town, told me when explaining why city officials first welcomed the warehouses. That, in part, was because of a California law passed in 2011 requiring internet retailers like Amazon to collect state sales tax on items bought by California residents, an initiative the tech giant pushed back against. Recently, the state has been requiring third-party sellers to pay sales taxes too. Those taxes are a multimillion-dollar windfall.
But Eastvale officials told me they hardly see that cash flow. Amazon sales taxes go to the state and are then redistributed back to the counties where the orders were processed. Each county divvies up the money based on a formula. The county of Riverside, home to Eastvale, will allocate funds based on which city brings in the most revenue. Cities with more retail outlets, restaurants, fuel stations and industrial centers tend to generate more taxable sales and receive the largest share of Amazon tax revenue. Since Eastvale is younger, with fewer restaurants and stores, it can’t compete. Only a small amount of Amazon’s tax revenue trickles down. For the third quarter of 2020, Eastvale received 2.9 percent of those funds, according to Amanda Wells, finance director and treasurer for the city. Sales taxes have become especially critical under Proposition 13, which since 1978 has shielded homeowners — but also commercial properties — from property-tax increases.
“Honestly it’s only fair for us to get the taxes,” said Todd Rigby, another former Eastvale mayor and a current City Council member. “It’s not like Target or Costco,” whose sales taxes go to the city. Bryan Jones, Eastvale’s city manager, said Amazon has hired local law enforcement on overtime to help alleviate traffic congestion during its peak shipping season. But Rigby and other officials said the city needs money to repair heavily trafficked roads. Amazon, Rigby said, is “utilizing our services but not necessarily paying its fair share.”
Eastvale and its neighboring cities do benefit from the infusion of jobs and tax money, Rigby said. “We have a saying in Eastvale: Their success is our success.” But he is also concerned about what the future will look like across the region as Amazon continues to automate its warehouses. “We approved those projects based on an appreciation that there was going to be employment,” Rigby said. “The more they automate, the less jobs.”
The Industrial Technical Learning Center (InTech) opened in the Inland Empire the same year that Eastvale got its first Amazon facility. Just as the region has become home to Amazon’s warehouses and transportation hubs, it has also become host to a number of schools and programs designed to prepare people for the day when Amazon’s automized factories replace traditional jobs. In one InTech session I visited, students learned how to repair mechanical arms and program machine systems.
“Even though the very entry-level unskilled-labor jobs are going away because of robots, those are the sorts of jobs most people don’t want to stay in for their entire lives,” said Jon Fox, who coordinates work-force training through InTech. The school’s goal is to provide skills to the next generation and teach them about opportunities in manufacturing and logistics as “good potential long-term careers,” Fox said, “where they can make a good livable wage.” The programming and repair jobs might not replace every job lost to automation, he added, “but there are other jobs around that are being created.”
Amazon officials told me the company encourages these kinds of training programs, as well as initiatives that will help its employees gain the skills to move into other industries, even if that means losing those workers when they land better jobs. In 2019, Amazon announced plans to spend $700 million to retrain about 100,000 of its 300,000 employees in the United States by 2025. The company has said it hopes to put them on the path to becoming I.T. technicians or coders. But several workers I spoke with who had been employed by Eastvale’s Amazon facilities told me the idea of going back to school to learn new skills, while they are struggling to raise kids and pay bills, was not feasible. These opportunities, they believed, were better for younger, more adaptable employees.
In San Bernardino, roughly 20 miles from the InTech campus, a group of students from Cajon High School recently took classes in the Amazon Logistics and Business Management Pathway, one of eight career tracks offered at the public high school, alongside medicine, human services and building trades. The school’s teenagers are mostly from low- and middle-income families. Many can name friends, family members or neighbors who are or have been employed by Amazon.
Before Covid shut down in-person learning, I visited the campus as a dozen students sat clustered at work tables inside an air-conditioned classroom, which was designed to emulate the inside of an Amazon facility. On one wall, Amazon’s giant logo grinned across a yellow and green banner. The words “CUSTOMER OBSESSION” and “DELIVER RESULTS” were painted against a corporate-style yellow backdrop. On a whiteboard, a teacher had written the words “Logistics Final Project,” and the lesson of the day was on Amazon’s “14 Leadership Principles.” Each teenager wore a company golf shirt emblazoned with the Amazon logo.
Students and staff members expressed pride in being associated with the company. Amazon partnered with the school as part of its five-year anniversary in the Inland Empire, donating $50,000 to start the pilot program, the giant sweepstakes-style Amazon check displayed prominently at the classroom entrance. The students had already taken field trips to tour the nearby Amazon warehouse.
The plan, an Amazon spokeswoman told me, is to offer robotics-training mentorships, job-training externships, teacher-training programs and transferable college credits. Some might take the logistics high school experience and end up majoring in business or management in college, which could also help Amazon recruit more homegrown managers. San Bernardino is one of “our most saturated areas for Amazon in the network,” she said. “The students, instead of being educated here and trying to find a job in the L.A. market or somewhere else, they can be educated here and remain here.”
Amazon’s presence in the Inland Empire is reminiscent of the company towns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, places dominated by industries like coal, steel, lumber or textiles, in which a corporation could own and oversee an entire community, from its housing to education, health care, stores, parks and churches. In the early 1900s, in Austin, Minn., a town that grew up around its meatpacking industry, Hormel exerted “authority over everything from workers’ family problems to their choices in the voting booth,” writes Hardy Green, in his book “The Company Town.” Hershey, Pa., built by the chocolate mogul Milton S. Hershey in the early 1900s, offered appealing homes, a golf course, a zoo, banks, public schools and a junior college with free tuition for residents.
In company towns of the past, Green writes, a “business exerts a Big Brother-like grip over the population — controlling or even taking the place of government, collecting rents on company-owned housing, dictating buying habits (possibly at the company store), even administering where people worship and how they may spend their leisure time.” One of Hershey’s most celebrated sites was the Hershey Industrial School for orphan boys, supported by a trust that held all of his company stock; after graduation, each student received $100 and help with finding a job or a college scholarship. Although the school’s financing “was certainly charitable,” Green writes, the trust was “unlikely to disagree with Milton Hershey about the direction of his company.”
Throughout history, and especially during the Great Depression, company towns also became central hubs for labor movements. In 1936, General Motors, with its main plants in Flint, Mich., was the biggest automaker and the most profitable company in America. It had 262,000 employees at 57 plants across North America. In his book, “There Is Power in a Union,” Philip Dray writes that Flint “had long been a company town — its workers, elected officials and even its daily press loyal to the town’s majority employer.” The General Motors president at the time “may not have fully grasped the extent to which the individuals who manned the assembly lines in the big auto plants had grown frustrated by the increasing levels of automation and the speedups that disregarded their needs as human beings.”
On Dec. 30, 1936, workers at two G.M. Fisher Body plants in Flint “simply stopped working” during a peak busy season, according to Dray. This strike “would be the first large-scale use of the sit-down, a tactic to which automobile assembly lines were especially vulnerable because manufacturing in the auto industry was based on the continuous flow of production.”
Like the Depression-era strikes in those G.M. plants, today’s labor movement has been fueled by a national crisis. Reese, of U.C. Riverside, led a team of students in interviewing 47 former and current Amazon employees throughout the Inland Empire about living and working conditions. When the pandemic began, Reese noticed labor activity spike in ways that mirrored historical patterns. Even when unemployment was at a high during the Great Depression, people were still organizing, “despite the risks of getting fired and replaced.”
The first-ever unionization vote at an Amazon warehouse in the United States involved a small group of employees in Delaware in 2014 — they overwhelmingly voted against it. Amazon said employees preferred to have a direct connection to the company. Labor representatives said it was a result of union suppression efforts and management pressure.
In previous years, the Inland Empire Teamsters Local 1932 received calls from Amazon employees seeking to unionize, but efforts fizzled before they could get off the ground. As discussions of organizing have popped up on the Amazon-worker Facebook groups, users heatedly debate one another. Some urge their peers to stick up for themselves, while others snap back that a union won’t improve their lives.
The company’s own anti-union efforts have become more serious in recent months. Last year, Amazon posted job listings for intelligence analysts who would keep track of “labor organizing threats.” The company swiftly expunged the listings, stating it advertised incorrectly. In April, a report surfaced about Whole Foods using heat-map technology to track labor activities among its employees. On the Amazon warehouse-worker Facebook chats, one employee recently shared a screenshot of a text message, which she believed came from Amazon, though when I called the phone number it was disconnected: “You have the right to refuse to sign anything you are not comfortable signing. When you sign a union card or complete an online authorization form, you are committing to having the union act as your sole representative. We want to caution you, you will be giving up your right to speak for yourself.”
Yet nationwide, many workers were shrugging off anti-union sentiments to express their dissatisfaction with the company. Kaoosji, of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, said labor organizations were increasingly fielding inquiries from Amazon workers concerned about their health and safety: “We don’t know what’s going on with giving us gloves or masks. We want to know what our rights are. How do we protect ourselves?” Kaoosji said employees were not getting answers or support, which compelled them to take more aggressive action. His group helped file a complaint on their behalf with Cal/OSHA to investigate safety and Covid protocols at the Eastvale warehouse. Workers in an Amazon warehouse in Hawthorne, Calif., followed suit.
The Eastvale warehouse complaint took the company to task for not doing enough to enforce social-distancing measures or protect employees from the virus, noting that many workers were allowed only one antimicrobial cleaning wipe per shift and had to “sanitize equipment themselves that was touched by other workers on previous shifts, including scanners, touch screens, keyboards, carts and other warehouse equipment.” The complaint pointed out that employees in Eastvale were not provided with disposable gloves and that until the week of April 6, warehouse workers did not receive face masks unless they had reported being sick.
More than 400 workers at the Eastvale warehouse signed the petition by Amazonians United demanding better conditions. They listed their first names only: Akemi, Alberto, Andrea, Brandon, Bryan, Carissa, Christian, Derek, Destiny, Esmerelda, Essence, Faith, Faye, Freddy, Guadalupe, Gwendolyn, Hector, Hollie, Iesha, Iris. …
As lawsuits were filed and petitions were signed, workers began walking out of warehouses across the country. In October, nearly three dozen Amazon employees in Minnesota walked off their jobs to protest the firing of a colleague who had been vocal about wanting improved warehouse conditions. The Minnesota warehouse was the first known group in the United States to get Amazon management to negotiate and has since become the site of protests.
In November, the “Make Amazon Pay” coalition, a group made up of workers, activists and politicians, unveiled a list of demands on its website: better safety and pay for workers, a stop to surveillance, a commitment to zero emissions by 2030, the abolishment of Amazon Web Service contracts with fossil-fuel companies and an end to ties with police departments and immigration authorities. It also demanded that Amazon employees be allowed to organize and that the company pay its full share of taxes. The following week, it posted an open letter to Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, signed by 401 politicians from 34 countries.
It was around this time that the union efforts in Alabama were gaining traction. Last summer, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union began hearing from Amazon employees at a new facility in Bessemer, a working-class suburb of Birmingham. Stuart Appelbaum, president of the union, said Amazon workers expressed concern over the brutal pace of work, the risk of injuries, Covid-19 health and safety concerns and the combined stress and strain of the job. The summer’s Black Lives Matter protests were a factor, too: Many employees of the Bessemer facility are Black, as are most of the union drive’s local leaders. “They were fed up with how they were being treated, their basic humanity,” Appelbaum said. By mid-January, the workers and volunteers had gathered 3,000 cards with signatures in support of unionizing.
In recent weeks, Appelbaum has seen images of anti-union propaganda posted inside bathrooms and said the company is distributing “Vote No” buttons to employees. Amazon set up an anti-union site, DoItWithoutDues.com, and unsuccessfully pushed for in-person voting. But despite these tactics and a scarcity of other jobs, Alabama workers continued to move toward unionizing. “Imagine how bad it must be for people to want to come over and support this organizing effort, given everything,” Appelbaum said.
If the surge of political consciousness has been remarkable to watch nationwide, it has been even more remarkable to see up close, in individual workers. I had been talking to Tokhi since March 2019, but by 2020, several weeks into the pandemic, his tone had completely changed. “Amazon doesn’t care about rights,” he told me. “If you don’t want to work, go out. They have a lot of people coming to work. They don’t care if somebody is working there five years, 10 years or one month.”
At various points, Tokhi’s wife begged him not to go back to work. “She knows I can’t stay home,” he said. “If I stay home, how should I pay my rent, my car insurance, my car payments. I have lots of payments.” His rent continued to climb, and he paid another $100 a month for water and utilities. He had recently bought a car to drive to and from work. It costs $400 a month, plus insurance — $336 for three months. “Sometimes I can’t manage,” he said. “I can’t pay all of it. I take some money from my friends.”
Amazon pledged to increase cleaning and social-distancing rules at its warehouses. In Eastvale, it began distributing masks. As the weeks passed, Tokhi provided updates. “They give a mask now for everybody,” he said. “Some have their own, it’s OK. I have one a day. Just for one use for one day and throw it away.”
An Amazon spokeswoman recently told me the company has made ongoing changes to their safety policies. It is now conducting on-site Covid testing for employees nationwide (weekly for California employees), as well as providing masks and placing markings on the floor to encourage social distancing. The company added even more employee-tracking measures, creating a “distance assistance” technology, which flags people on a screen with red halos if they get closer than six feet from someone else. Amazon has also stationed “social distance ambassadors” throughout the warehouses to monitor workers, and it has plexiglass mobile carts for training employees, as well as tons of hand sanitizer and mobile pop-up sinks.
But in June, Amazon ended its $2-an-hour additional pay for all employees, with many workers going back to the baseline $15 an hour. By October, Amazon announced that nearly 20,000 of its workers in U.S. facilities and Whole Foods stores had tested positive or been presumed positive for Covid. That same month, Cal/OSHA handed down a fine — a meager $935 — to the Eastvale Amazon warehouse for coronavirus safety violations, after an investigation in response to the worker-led complaint. Amazon has appealed the decision, arguing that the company has been following C.D.C. guidelines and has invested in training employees on health and safety. California is conducting an ongoing investigation of Amazon’s Covid-19 protocols in the state, and in December 2020, the California attorney general asked a court to order Amazon to comply with outstanding investigative subpoenas.
As the holidays approached, some exhausted workers in Facebook groups complained about working Christmas and Thanksgiving. One user wrote: “I’m debating on whether I think we should unionize. Because they seem to be going out of their way to walk all over us and ignore our employee rights.” The user posted another comment: “Personally I’m not sure if a union is a good idea, but as it is I don’t think it could hurt.”
More recently, users have been posting about the upcoming vote to unionize Amazon workers in Alabama. “And that’s how they all got fired and replaced in the same day,” one user joked.
After three years at Amazon, Tokhi, whose wife gave birth to their third child in December, is now earning $16.75 an hour. He has since transferred out of the Eastvale warehouse to a different Amazon facility, also in the Inland Empire, because he wanted to switch from picking to sorting, which he feels is less demanding. “Picking, you have to pick very fast. If you are not picking fast, your rate goes down. At end of the week you will take a warning or write-up.”
He said he feels safer from Covid now and is satisfied with all the extra sanitizers, gloves, cleanings, social-distancing measures and weekly on-site testing. Still, Tokhi said, it has been impossible to save money on his Amazon salary alone. He stopped taking his classes at the community college, at least for now, and picked up a second job on his days off from the warehouse, delivering food for DoorDash. He doesn’t plan on leaving Amazon anytime soon. “I have no choice,” he told me. “I have to do this.”
Erika Hayasaki is a freelance writer based in Southern California who teaches in the Literary Journalism Program at the University of California, Irvine.