This Black Friday and Cyber Monday, frontline essential workers will be hustling to help holiday shoppers — while also fighting for dignity, hazard pay, and other protections as COVID-19 infection rates spike again in many regions.
Rina Cummings, who works at the JFK8 Amazon Warehouse on Staten Island, feels like the billionaire owners are sending this essential workforce into the viral line of fire.
When she learned that the personal fortune of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had increased by $70 billion since the start of the pandemic, Cummings had just finished her ten-hour shift and was about to do another hour of MET (Amazon-speak for “Mandatory Extra Time”).
She remembers her response: “Jeez, maybe they could afford to give us face masks that reach our ears and don’t fall apart the moment they come out of the wrapper. What a piece of crap!”
Amazon is one of the “Delinquent Dozen” featured in a new report, Billionaire Wealth vs. Community Health,” by Bargaining for the Common Good, the Institute for Policy Studies, and United for Respect. At these 12 corporations, owners and executives have reaped billions under the pandemic while their workers have struggled. As a whole, U.S. billionaires have enjoyed an increase in their personal fortunes of nearly $1 trillion since COVID-19 struck in March.
Back in 2018, when Cummings heard Amazon was coming to Staten Island, she jumped at the opportunity to work there.
“I totally drank the Kool-Aid,” she said. “I thought it was a great company. I even gave a little speech at work where I said I hoped my son would grow up and be like Jeff Bezos.”
But after six months, she started to see things differently.
“It was like The Matrix — and I took the pill that revealed the whole scary truth of how they squeeze their workers for every nickel,” Cummings said.
She soon connected with organizers at Make the Road NY and New York Communities for Change and began leading organizing efforts at the Amazon JFK8 plant. These groups, part of the larger United for Respect coalition, are pressing for hazard pay, paid family leave, and the creation of workplace health councils. They are also calling on lawmakers and the incoming Biden administration to legislate an Essential Worker Bill of Rights.
Cummings recounts that when the pandemic started, Amazon was slow to respond. “I went to work on March 29 and there were no masks or social distancing happening in the plant. I asked my supervisor for a mask. I mean we were selling them by the pallet. Sorry, no mask. I felt I was in a horror movie with a creepy soundtrack looking around our plant with hundreds of people, no one wearing masks.”
Cummings has children and elders and a medical condition, so she walked out that day. Amazon says she took a voluntary unpaid leave, choosing to quarantine. If she’d waited to get sick, she could have gotten a paid medical leave, but why take the chance? She kept her job.
“A lot of people were afraid to walk out, scared to lose their jobs or face retaliation. My view is standing up and speaking out is your safest bet.”
Cummings went back to work at the plant in July. There were better systems in place: a body scan at the door, masks provided and required for everyone, and monitors to make sure we follow safety rules. Amazon now staggers the beginning and end of shifts and breaks so people are not all bunched up together — but only by 15 minutes — so there’s still a lot of crowding, especially at the end of a shift.
She works on the shipping dock and runs a flat sorter, two big machines with a conveyor belt.
“I have to scan 1,800 packages an hour, that’s 30 scans a minute and 18,000 during a shift,” said Cummings. “The pace has definitely picked up during the pandemic. I have to work alongside another person and it is physically impossible to stay six feet apart.”
One of her co-workers died from COVID-19 in May and many others have gotten sick.
“We get a text whenever someone in the plant tests positive for COVID,” Cummings explained. “I’ve counted over 200 texts since I’ve returned to work. But it’s not very transparent about who the person is and where in the plant they work. Amazon basically says, ‘trust us and we’ll figure out who they had contact with.’ But it’s a big plant and unnerving to get a couple of these texts every week.”
With skyrocketing sales, Amazon can afford to invest more in their workers and worker protection. Cummings’s recommendations?
“What about hazard pay as workers go into this winter of higher risk? What about a dedicated express bus for Amazon workers coming to the plant? What about masks that don’t fall apart after an hour? How about a workplace council of frontline workers to give the company input into safety systems?
The Billionaire Wealth vs. Community Health report also recommends that Amazon and its billionaire owners be required to pay higher taxes to fund public transportation and public health protections for their employees.
Cummings wants to be clear that she doesn’t hate Amazon.
“I like my job and I like the company as a whole. We are getting our customers the things they urgently need during the pandemic. But Amazon could do a lot better by its workers. And I want to make it better.”