Workers at retail and delivery companies, including Amazon, Target, and Instacart, walked off the job Friday to demand better pay and treatment.
Their work has been deemed "essential," but they say it has gotten too dangerous during the coronavirus pandemic — and they want the companies to do more to protect them.
"This company failed us. It failed the workers. It failed me," said Christian Smalls outside the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island where he used to work and had organized other protests. Amazon says Smalls was fired in March for violating quarantine and safety measures.
While some protesters, like Smalls, demonstrated outside company facilities, others called in sick. Gig workers did not log into apps to accept delivery orders.
Organized under the hashtag #essentialworkersday, the protests were timed for May Day, or International Workers' Day — a date typically marked around the world by labor marches.
The actions brought together employees of retail chains, including Target and Walmart, workers for delivery apps such as Instacart, as well as Amazon.
It is unclear how many people joined in the protests. Organizers said thousands of workers had pledged to participate. But the companies said the protests involved few employees, and they did not represent the views of most workers. Target said it was aware of less than 10 employees who participated. Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods and Shipt said their operations were not affected. (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon and Shipt is owned by Target.)
Some of those workers have held separate protests and walkouts in recent weeks. They said they came together in a general strike to highlight the similarities in their working conditions and demands.
Kerri Blair, a mother of five in Akron, Ohio, usually picks up extra income delivering orders for Shipt. She stayed home on Friday.
"People who work at Whole Foods, at Target, at Walmart ... there's no way to get around not being around people. That is your job," she said. "We're out there in the public ... doing things for other people."
Lockdowns in many cities and states have kept millions of people at home, leading to surging demand for online shopping and delivery. Amazon, Instacart and Shipt are all on hiring sprees to keep up with the pace of new orders.
The companies said they value workers' input and are offering increased pay and aggressive health and safety measures, such as giving out masks and cleaning stores and warehouses.
"In recognition of the significant contributions of our front-line team members amid the coronavirus, we've made an investment of more than $300 million, including $2 an hour higher hourly wages, which we've extended until May 30," Target said in a statement, adding that it had established "dozens of new measures" aimed to keep both workers and shoppers safe during the pandemic.
This week Amazon said it would spend its entire operating profit in the second quarter — an estimated $4 billion — dealing with the coronavirus. That includes providing protective equipment to workers, paying them more, cleaning warehouses, and testing employees for COVID-19.
An Amazon spokesman said: "Health and safety is our top priority and we expect to spend more than $800 million in the first half of the year on COVID-19 safety measures."
Protest organizers acknowledge the changes, but say the companies must do more to protect their health.
"Because of the failings of our employers, many of our fellow employees have contracted this deadly virus and some have died," organizers wrote this week.
Some workers say they have had trouble getting the protective gear they've been promised. They also want the companies to be more transparent about how many employees have fallen ill, or even died, from COVID-19.
Protesters urged shoppers to boycott the companies' stores, websites and apps.
Editor's note: Amazon, Target, Walmart and Whole Foods Market are among NPR's financial supporters.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Workers at some big companies went on strike today, among them Walmart, the delivery app Instacart and Amazon.
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CHRISTIAN SMALLS: This company failed us. It failed the workers. It failed me.
CHANG: That is the voice of Christian Smalls right outside an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. He worked there until recently. Smalls and other protesters say their jobs have gotten dangerous during this pandemic, and they want the companies to do more to protect them. NPR's Shannon Bond has been following these protests and joins us now. Hey, Shannon.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So give us a sense of what these protests looked like. Like, how many people turned out?
BOND: Well, organizers tell me that thousands of workers said they were going to take part in this general strike. And today is a notable day. It's May 1, International Workers Day. Around the world, it's typically a big day for labor activism. And there were these protests outside several Amazon warehouses around the country, but, you know, it's also kind of hard to gather a lot of people together right now.
CHANG: Right. I mean, how do you even stay six feet apart from each other on a picket line?
BOND: That's right. So a lot of these actions today are actually employees calling in sick. They didn't show up to work. And gig workers who deliver groceries for apps like Instacart and Shipt - that's an app owned by Target - they're also at home. They're not accepting orders on those apps. So some of this protest is kind of invisible.
CHANG: Interesting. Well, tell us. What do these workers want specifically from these companies?
BOND: Yeah. Well, they have some immediate demands related to the pandemic. They're asking for more protective gear like gloves and masks, more cleanings of stores and warehouses. They want to be able to take more time off with pay if they get sick or if they're at higher risk of COVID-19. I talked to Kerry Blair (ph) today. She's a mom of five kids in Akron, Ohio, and she delivers for Shipt to make extra money. But she says right now it's just not worth the risk to go out. She says that's the case for lots of workers, and that's why they're all coming together today.
KERRY BLAIR: People who work at Whole Foods, at Target, at Walmart - there's no way to get around not being around people. That is your job. People are in and out of those stores all day every day. And I feel like that's us, too. We're out there in the public, doing things for other people.
BOND: These workers are also asking for more transparency. They want companies like Amazon to disclose how many workers have gotten sick. So we know from employees that that number is likely in the dozens at least, and some workers have even died. But the company hasn't given a full picture. And finally, the protesters are calling on shoppers to boycott these stores and apps.
CHANG: And have these companies done anything to address these concerns?
BOND: Well, across the board, the companies say they value input from their workers. They also say that these protesters are a small group. They don't reflect the majority of workers. And the companies say they've - you know, they've done some things. They are paying workers more than before the outbreak. They're taking more health and safety precautions. They're doing cleanings, handing out masks, disinfectants. Amazon just this week said it would spend about $4 billion, its entire operating profit in the second quarter, dealing with the coronavirus. So that includes protective equipment, higher pay for workers, cleaning those warehouses, testing employees for the virus. And we should note that many of these companies are NPR financial supporters.
CHANG: I mean, is it fair to say that these workers have a point, meaning that these companies are doing pretty well right now in part because these workers are out there on the job while the rest of us are all at home?
BOND: That's right. You know, they really are doing well. Let's take Amazon. It just reported its latest financial results. Unsurprisingly, it made a lot of money in the first three months of the year - $75 billion in sales.
BOND: Amazon's on a big hiring spree to meet all of this demand. We're all ordering a lot of things. It hired almost 200,000 people to work in warehouses in March and April. And that's the thing that troubles many of the workers I'm talking to. These jobs, you know - we don't think about them a lot, but - and they don't feel like the companies value them. Right now the whole world agrees they're doing essential work. So the workers want to make the most out of this moment when they feel like the public is behind them.
CHANG: That is NPR's Shannon Bond. Thank you, Shannon.
BOND: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.