Why Workers Are Going on Strike at Whole Foods, Amazon, GE and Instacart

COVID-19 fallout ignites long-simmering tensions

a striking worker stands outside Whole Foods with a green sign
Workers at Whole Foods and General Electric are among thousands walking off the job this week.
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Jordan Anderson, an Instacart full-service shopper in Portland, Oregon, started her job in April 2019. At first, she was making enough to sign a lease on an apartment. By December, however, she was borrowing money for rent.

But it’s not because Anderson couldn’t get enough work.

“I’m grossing around $2,000 a month and netting about $1,200,” Anderson said. “That’s about a 50-hour week, to pull in $500 to $600 a week.”

Anderson’s profits are low, she said, because even though she works long hours for Instacart, the company has her classified as an independent contractor. That means she receives no benefits and has to pay all of her own taxes, along with car payments, fuel, tolls and any driving equipment needed for the job. She even has to purchase her own insulated bags for transporting food. She stays afloat by qualifying for food stamps and Medicaid.

Now the global outbreak of COVID-19 has compounded her stress both in small ways—such as the costs and logistics of finding hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes—and in intense ones like her fear of exposure to the highly infectious disease.

“There’s nothing worse than money anxiety to me,” she said. “The only thing that’s become a bigger source of anxiety to me lately is the idea that I might kill someone’s grandma by not protecting my customers enough. Most of us are terrified of the idea that we might literally bring this virus directly to someone’s door.”

Anderson’s experience highlights why she and thousands of workers—many independent, though some full-time—are going on strike this week. The coronavirus outbreak has essentially been like a lit match being thrown onto labor situations that were already highly volatile.

The scope of the strikes and protests

On Monday, Instacart shoppers and Amazon warehouse workers (many of whom are also contractors) went on strike, though it’s unclear exactly how many workers participated in the protest. The two delivery companies are essential services, as millions of Americans have been ordered to shelter in place to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, but some workers say the companies are doing little to protect them from spreading it.

Jessica, who asked not to be identified by her real name for fear of being fired, has worked for three years at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Seattle suburb Kent, Wash. This past weekend, many workers discovered via social media that one of their colleagues had tested positive for COVID-19.

“I’m not participating in the strike intentionally,” she told Adweek. “I just haven’t gone back since I found out through a coworker that we had a confirmed case. The fact they didn’t inform us or close the building for cleaning upset me.”

Even before that, Jessica said some departments in the warehouse were not observing the CDC guidelines for social distancing, with people working in close contact. After the exposure, she had to make a choice between her health and her income: “We were told we could use unlimited unpaid time off for the month of March.”

In New York, Amazon responded to a walkout by firing a particularly vocal worker, Chris Smalls, who had helped organize the strike. After Smalls was fired Monday, New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a statement threatening legal action against the company, and calling on the National Labor Relations Board to investigate.

“It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues,” James said. “At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from COVID-19.”

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