In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon has rolled out a new policy that extends paid time off to thousands of part-time operations employees.
The change follows a months-long campaign by workers in Amazon’s last-mile delivery stations to demand PTO, touted in the company’s public communications as an “essential” benefit offered to all its workers. After being told that a special classification made them ineligible, workers at Sacramento’s DSM1 delivery station launched a petition demanding the same benefits as other part-time employees and staged a walkout in December. Workers at delivery stations in Chicago and Queens took up the call earlier this year, and more than 4,300 Amazon employees nationwide signed on.
On March 20, delivery workers celebrated after receiving a “manager’s update” that reads, “We are excited to announce that Amazon will offer paid-time off benefits to all our regular part-time and seasonal employees in the United States working in the [Operations] network.
But some employees are holding their applause.
It’s still unclear how the policy will apply in localities that already require paid sick leave. Chicago-area Amazon workers who say they previously caught the company breaking local sick-leave law suspect the company is now trying to pull a bait-and-switch.
Workers at Chicago’s DCH1 delivery station say they currently accrue 15 minutes of paid sick time per 8 hours worked, a rate slightly above what’s required by local law. Over the weekend, members of the group DCH1 Amazonians United asked an area manager to confirm whether they would receive PTO on top of existing sick leave. They say they were told that they would accrue both, separately, until June 1. At that point, sick time would “disappear,” and they would continue racking up PTO: at the same rate they do now.
“What we heard from management is that from now, up until May 31, what we’re going to get is our existing sick time, and additionally PTO at the same rate,” said Ted Miin, a Chicago Amazon employee and member of DCH1 Amazonians United. “Come June 1, sick time will disappear and we’ll be back to 15 minutes accruing every 8 hours.”
An internal announcement at the facility, provided to In These Times, appears to confirm this. “PTO and sick time will continue to accrue,” it reads. “In June it will combine and sick time bucket on HUB will disappear.” (HUB refers to the online system where employees can track their available paid and unpaid time off.)
This wouldn’t be the first time that Chicago workers were burned. In 2018, the fine print of Amazon’s $15 minimum wage announcement contained a trade-off for warehouse workers: They lost monthly bonuses and stock awards.
As a result, the Amazon’s latest announcement was met with caution. “A lot of our co-workers were skeptical from the start,” said Miin. “They thought, ‘OK, what are we giving up. We need the details.’”
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment about the new PTO policy.
According to Miin, “Amazon is making a few concessions to motivate workers who are desperate and poor to keep coming into the warehouse and putting themselves at risk. But once we get this, we’re not going to let them take it away.”
To meet soaring demand from home-bound consumers, Amazon last week announced plans to hire 100,000 additional warehouse employees. The online-retail giant is also raising workers’ pay by $2 an hour through April, creating a $25 million hardship fund and granting two weeks of paid sick leave to anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.
Those changes fall short of demands outlined in a petition for coronavirus protections from Amazon, including time-and-a-half pay, childcare pay and subsidies for workers impacted by school and daycare closures, paid sick leave without a requirement for positive diagnosis, and complete facility shutdowns in order to sanitize warehouses where workers test positive for COVID-19.
Last week, a Queens delivery hub reopened the day after an employee tested positive, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at a U.S. Amazon facility.
Workers say that the standard precautions — stand at least six-feet apart, wash your hands frequently, avoid touching surfaces that might be contaminated — are almost impossible to follow inside crowded facilities. The volume of packages they’re handling has peaked, and the goods they’re moving are heavier.
“At the same time that they’ve been telling us to work more safely and sanitize our stations, they’ve raised productivity quotas,” said a worker at the Queens facility station who asked to remain anonymous. “Some people still have trouble hitting them even if they’re not washing their hands, and they’re not giving us extra time to wash our hands.”
Chicago Amazon employees have set up a mutual aid fund to support workers who they say are struggling to make ends meet during the crisis.
“While Amazon has publicly announced a policy to give workers sick/quarantine pay, several of our coworkers under CDC-advised self-quarantine due to medical status or recent travel are still getting the run-around by Amazon and have thus far not been able to get that pay,” they write on the page. “We will fight until we get it, but in the meantime funds are running low for medicine, food, baby supplies, and rent.”
Last week, Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos, urging him to grant workers sick leave and hazard pay. The letter also poses questions about precautions Amazon is taking, with a March 26 deadline to respond.
“Any failure of Amazon to keep its workers safe does not just put their employees at risk, it puts the entire country at risk,” the senators wrote in the letter. “Americans who are taking every precaution … might risk getting infected with COVID-19 because of Amazon’s decision to prioritize efficiency and profits over the safety and well-being of its workforce.”
Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.