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Amazon, Target, and Whole Food workers hold a sick-out to protest working conditions

Target strikers put some of the blame on the consumer, saying their demeanor is too casual

Photo (c) krblokhin - Getty Images
Across the U.S. on Friday, throngs of workers at Amazon warehouses, Target and Whole Foods stores, and shoppers for Instacart and Shipt called in sick in an arm-in-arm one-day protest over working conditions and lax safety protections during the COVID-19 outbreak.

In Amazon’s situation, there was a little extra payback. When the clock struck midnight on May 1 -- International Workers Day -- the company’s policy giving unlimited unpaid time off for workers ended.

“The fact they took it away prior to the sick-out lets you know they’re aware of the sick-out and trying to stop people from participating in that,” said Derrick Palmer, a four-year Amazon warehouse employee in Staten Island, New York, told The Guardian. “Now they’re forcing people to go to work because if you run out of unpaid time off, that’s it, you’re fired.”

A legal leg to stand on

The sick-out stagers point to their “right to refuse unsafe work conditions” as defined by the Occupational Safety and Hazards Act (OSHA) and the National Labor Relations Act, which bans employers from threatening, demoting, retaliating with wrongful termination, reducing hours, etc., against any employee who wants to exercise their rights. 

Apparently, they mean business, too. Target’s striking workers say they’ll go as far as filing charges for any “retaliatory action Target and their representatives may engage in towards workers exercising these rights.”

Good is not good enough for Amazon workers

For Amazon and Instacart, the sick-out is a repeat performance from March 31 when workers for both companies first protested what they considered unsafe conditions.

Palmer said that Amazon did step up after the first protest and started making personal protective equipment available to workers. The company also took extra steps towards enforcing social distancing rules and temperature checks. However, Palmer said there’s one thing the company left out of the mix: adequate cleaning procedures. 

Target workers put some of the blame on the consumer

Over at Target, its employees think that the company has failed to follow its promise of “ensuring we are creating a safe environment.”

In the Target Team Member Sick-Out Pledge, workers claim that “foot traffic and guest behavior have been atrocious, putting us at needless risk when greater safety measures are required to ensure social distancing. Workers nor guests have been required to wear masks.”

The Pledge takes a few shots across the bow of consumers, evidently to try to make its point that Target corporate values the almighty dollar more than the care of its workforce.

“Our maximum capacity of guests has been set too high, their demeanor is also casual and reckless,” says the Pledge. “They do not respect our space, they are not coming to our stores exclusively for essential items, but are occupying our stores out of boredom and for fun.”

“The guests' desire for recreation are not more important than team members' needs for safety. Our pay and compensation are not adequate enough to cover the costs of hospitalization or funeral expenses related to COVID19.”

Update: An Amazon spokesperson gave the following statement to ConsumerAffairs regarding the worker protests.

“The fact is that today the overwhelming majority of our more than 840,000 employees around the world are at work as usual continuing to support getting people in their communities the items they need during these challenging times.  While there is tremendous media coverage of today’s protests we see no measurable impact on operations. 

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. Our focus remains on protecting associates in our operations network with extensive measures including distributing face masks, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, implementing temperature checks, operating with strict social distancing protocols, and recognizing their contributions with additional pay and leading benefits.

We encourage anyone interested in the facts to compare our overall pay and benefits, as well as our speed in managing this crisis, to other retailers and major employers across the country.”

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