- The coronavirus pandemic has put most of the US on lockdown, but millions of “essential” workers — even outside the healthcare system — are still showing up for their jobs.
- Even as many of their colleagues are able to make a living from the relative safety of their homes, these workers are putting themselves at an increased risk of catching COVID-19.
- But many say their employers aren’t doing enough to minimize those risks, from failing to provide protective gear and clean workplaces to refusing to offer them hazard and sick pay.
- Amazon warehouse workers, Tesla employees, Uber drivers, and Instacart shoppers are just some of the people who have spoken out against companies they say aren’t looking out for them at a time when they need it most.
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Around 95% of Americans have been ordered to stay at home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. But those orders don’t apply to “essential” businesses, which has inadvertently created a new category of workers who continue to show up to help the country keep its critical infrastructure functioning — and by doing so, increase their risk of becoming sick.
The definition of an essential business has varied across different locations, and some companies have interpreted states’ orders loosely. But even among businesses widely considered to meet the threshold, like grocery stores and transportation companies, coronavirus lockdowns have revealed a stark divide between workers who are able to work remotely and those who aren’t.
Those who often can work from home are often higher-paid, full-time employees who enjoy more robust paid sick leave and healthcare benefits, and therefore have a significant leg up in avoiding exposure to the virus and receiving care if they get infected.
But many of those whose jobs can’t be done remotely, such as delivery workers, rideshare drivers, retail, and food service employees, are hourly, part-time, or contract workers who lack access to those benefits — or simply can’t afford not to work without pay — leaving them with no choice but to go into work.
Some companies have taken bold and proactive action to help employees weather this crisis. Starbucks, for example, said it would pay all US workers for 30 days even if they chose not to come into work. While others have made some efforts to step up cleaning procedures, provide employees with protective equipment, or enforce social distancing measures, many workers still say the steps their employers have taken aren’t enough.
Here are some of the companies that have faced criticism from workers over their response to the coronavirus pandemic.
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SEE ALSO: Uber says it has paid out $3 million to drivers and delivery workers in the US through its coronavirus sick pay program
Amazon is one of the few companies that have actually seen business boom as a result of the coronavirus. But the surge in online shopping has put additional strain on Amazon’s warehouse workers and delivery drivers, who say the company is failing to provide protective equipment, making social distancing unfeasible at work, and not offering paid sick leave. One worker in Houston told Business Insider: “everybody looks scared, but we can’t afford not to go to work.”
Amazon workers have gone on strike in New York, Chicago, Minnesota, Italy, and online after colleagues tested positive for COVID-19, New York has opened an investigation into Amazon’s firing of an employee who organized a strike to protest the company’s coronavirus response, and Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly demanded information from the company about steps it’s taking to protect workers.
Amazon has defended conditions in its warehouses, telling Business Insider in a statement that it has ramped up cleaning efforts and is enforcing social distancing. It has said workers with a COVID-19 diagnosis will get sick pay (though CNBC reported that some have struggled to receive that pay). While Amazon changed its policy to allow unlimited unpaid sick leave, Bloomberg reported that the company is ending that benefit effective at the end of April.
GameStop, the world’s biggest video game retailer, kept its stores operating far longer than most and even argued its business operations were “essential” because they “enable and enhance our customers’ experience in working from home.”
Employees still working during the pandemic say proper safety measures aren’t being taken to ensure they don’t get sick. According to a memo sent to GameStop managers and reported by the Boston Globe, employees were reportedly told to cover their hands am arms with plastic bags when interacting with customers.
A GameStop spokesperson told Business Insider that the company has closed all stores to customer access, is processing digital and curbside pick-up orders only, and is assuring employees they do not have to work if they’re not comfortable or need to stay home to care for a family member.
While Google has been praised for its preparedness and proactive steps to protect full-time employees, some have raised concerns internally about the company’s treatment of its army of around 119,000 contract workers amid the coronavirus pandemic, demanding better and more clear policies for them.
“We’re working closely with all our vendor partners to increase the ability for their employees to work from home by rolling out remote access as quickly as possible,” a Google spokesperson told Business Insider.
While most businesses have closed, grocery stores remain open and extremely crowded, and more people are turning to online delivery as they seek to minimize contact with others. Instacart shoppers went on strike last week, asking for hazard pay and saying the company wasn’t providing them with protective and cleaning supplies.
“Instacart has turned this pandemic into a PR campaign, portraying itself the hero of families that are sheltered-in-place, isolated, or quarantined,” labor groups Instacart Shoppers and Gig Workers Collective said in a statement.
“Our goal is to offer a safe and flexible earnings opportunity to Shoppers, while also proactively taking the appropriate precautionary measures to operate safely,” Instacart told Business Insider, adding that it respects the rights of shoppers to voice their concerns. The company also announced it would ship distribute health and safety kits to shoppers.
Last week, more than 100 McDonald’s employees in Florida walked out of work in protest of the company’s anti-mask policy (McDonald’s said it’s now working to source masks for certain workers), while some have argued that the company isn’t an essential business and they shouldn’t be required to work during the pandemic in the first place.
“Listening to employees, listening to feedback we’re getting from customers and others is important,” David Tovar, vice president of US communications at McDonald’s, told Business Insider. “We know that over the past few weeks as this situation has continued to evolve, we’ve been willing to listen to make adjustments as we need to.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly downplayed the coronavirus pandemic and made factually inaccurate claims about immunity to COVID-19, and Tesla has been slow to respond even as its business had already been impacted by closures in China.
Business Insider spoke with 10 Tesla employees across the country, all of whom said they feared for their health and livelihood and some felt leadership at Tesla was lacking.
“It’s just insane how they repeatedly keep getting away with disregarding law enforcement orders,” one worker told Business Insider.
It was only after discussions with California authorities in late March that Tesla accepted that it was subject to the region’s shelter-in-place order and temporarily shut down its 10,000 worker factory in Fremont.
Most recently, the company backtracked on plans to bring dozens of furloughed workers back to the Fremont location after Alameda County, where the factory is located, extended public health order limiting the company to “minimum basic operations,” CNBC reported.
Uber drivers have told Business Insider the company’s restrictive and inconsistent coronavirus sick pay program is forcing them to choose between their health and their bank accounts, and even those who qualify for compensation have found it difficult to get paid. Since drivers are independent contractors, not direct employees of the company, they don’t automatically have paid sick leave or healthcare like Uber’s full-time employees.
Drivers who are still on the road say they’re making little money and that they’re not getting much help from the company in terms of staying safe: cleaning supplies the company promised to provide are nowhere to be found, even as the company offers drivers’ services to healthcare workers, potentially increasing their risk of exposure to the virus.
“We remain committed to working with drivers and delivery people around the world to help support them. We will continue to advocate for independent workers,” Uber said in a statement to Business Insider, adding that it has paid US drivers $3 million under its sick pay program.
Workers at Whole Foods staged a “sick-out” to demand paid leave for employees of the Amazon-owned grocery store who stay home during the crisis. The protest came after Whole Foods employees in California, New York City, Chicago, and Louisiana, among other locations, tested positive for COVID-19. The stores remained open, prompting employees to say that the company wasn’t looking out for them despite booming business, according to Vice.
“We have taken extensive measures to keep people safe, and in addition to social distancing, enhanced deep cleaning and crowd control measures, we continue rolling out new safety protocols in our stores to protect our Team Members who are on the front lines serving our customers,” a Whole Foods spokesperson told Vice.