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

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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,” said Anderson. “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 her 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 ways 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.”

Jessica said that even before that, 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.”

On Tuesday, workers at Whole Foods Market (owned by Amazon) will also strike, citing similar concerns about public health and a lack of safety gear. Their concerns are shared by attorneys general from 14 states and the District of Columbia, who wrote a March 25 letter to Jeff Bezos and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey asking to expand sick pay and protections for Whole Foods staff, including protections for Amazon Flex and other delivery workers (who are classified as independent contractors).

At General Electric, some plant workers walked off the job Monday because they want the company to shift factories to produce the much-needed ventilators increasingly sought by desperate hospitals. The picket comes one week after GE announced it plans to fire about 2,600 workers and temporarily lay off another 50% of its workforce for three months. In a letter, GE leadership said the layoffs would save the company $500 million to $1 billion, but later that week Trump signed a stimulus package designed to pour money into defense contractors like GE.

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