LOS ANGELES, Calif.—From Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse to McDonald’s restaurants in Los Angeles and San Jose, workers at major low-wage employers walked out Apr. 6 to demand stronger protections against the COVID-19 coronavirus on the job.
In Los Angeles, workers shut down a restaurant on Crenshaw Boulevard, maintaining social distancing by staying in their cars while picketing. They are demanding more personal protective equipment on the job, 14 days off with full pay if they have to self-quarantine, and that the company pay their health-care costs if they or immediate family members get sick with the virulent respiratory virus.
The San Jose workers went on strike at 7 a.m. The L.A. workers began their job action the day before, saying no one had told them a coworker had tested positive for the virus until they showed up for work Apr. 4 and found the store closed for the day, according to the Fight for $15 and a Union campaign.
Both groups filed complaints with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration Apr. 6, accusing management at both stores of “willful violations” of health and safety laws, such as failing to provide gloves and hand-cleaning products and not setting up a social-distancing system for workers.
“Would CEO Chris Kempczinksi work even one shift in our shoes—without clean gloves, a mask, or the ability to properly social distance himself in a store where someone just tested positive for COVID-19?” L.A. cook Bartolome Perez asked in a statement released by Fight for $15 and a Union.
Francisco Zuñiga, a delivery worker at a nearby Domino’s Pizza where a worker tested positive, joined the picket line. “We have no masks and no gloves and will no longer put our lives at risk for pizza,” he said.
At Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse and shipping facility, workers protested Apr. 6, demanding that the company shut it down until it has been deep-cleaned and sanitized. Christian Smalls, who was fired Mar. 30 after leading a walkout earlier in the day—the company claimed that he’d violated social-distancing guidelines by showing up for a rally in the parking lot—told VICE News that at least 30 workers there had tested positive.
Other demands by Amazon workers include more cleaning supplies and safety precautions, paid sick leave for workers who do the 14-day self-quarantine, and that the company cover medical bills for those who get the virus.
In Chicago, workers at Amazon’s facility on the near Southwest Side walked out four times in the past week, with the company robocalling participants to tell them they’d violated social-distancing rules. “When we confront management with questions that contradict their statement about how they are keeping us safe, they keep reiterating the same issue or they come at us with vague threats,” one worker told WBBM news radio during a predawn protest Apr. 4.
“We don’t have sick leave to take care of ourselves and our families if we become ill during this pandemic, and that’s why some warehouse employees across the country are still coming to work sick, contracting COVID-19 and infecting our coworkers,” Amazon worker Monica Moody said in a statement put out by the United for Respect worker center.
“We demand that Amazon, at a minimum, listen to their own employees’ voices and make appropriate policy changes,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU], which has been organizing Amazon workers in the New York area, said in a statement. “If they were willing to do that in Italy, they have no justification for refusing to negotiate with their employees here in New York or at any of their facilities across the U.S.”
In Italy, where more than 500 people have died from the virus every day since Mar. 20, workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Castle San Giovanna, about 40 miles southeast of Milan in the country’s north, went on strike for 11 days after an employee tested positive for it. On Apr. 2, Amazon agreed to detailed daily cleaning and sanitizing practices, longer breaks, and staggered break and shift times to minimize crowding.
As of Apr. 5, workers had tested positive for the virus at more than 50 of the company’s 500-odd U.S. facilities. “Amazon needs to understand this is a matter of life and death for its employees—and not just another public relations problem,” Appelbaum said.
Amazon has begun taking employees’ temperatures when they arrive at work. It is offering two weeks paid sick leave to U.S. workers who test positive for the virus, but workers say that’s not adequate because it’s hard to get tested in the most heavily afflicted areas.
Coronavirus safety is crucial for workers in areas such as fast food and retail, who work directly with the public, and can’t exactly stay home and serve customers on Zoom. The Apr. 6 walkouts were part of a wave of actions around the country. McDonald’s workers have staged similar strikes in St. Louis; Memphis, Tenn.; Miami, Orlando, and Tampa, Fla.; and Raleigh and Durham, N.C. At the Amazon-owned Whole Foods, which cut off health benefits for employees who work less than 30 hours a week in January, the Whole Worker group organized a sickout Mar. 31.
In Philadelphia, about 20 workers at a Mom’s Organic Market in Center City protested Apr. 6, after they were not told for eight days that a coworker had tested positive. They also picketed in cars.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) introduced a bill Apr. 6 that would order the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary standard for limiting infectious-disease exposure immediately.
The COVID-19 Workers First Protection Act, her office said, would require certain employers to implement a comprehensive plan to protect health care workers and other employees with an elevated risk of catching the virus, such as first responders, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians. The bill would also mandate that OSHA develop a permanent and enforceable infectious-disease safety standard within two years.