Coronavirus News: Amazon workers in NYC walk out, Instacart employees consider strike

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- Workers at some Amazon facilities in New York City held a walk out Monday over the company's safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic, while employees at the grocery delivery service Instacart were considering a strike.

"All employers need to prioritize the health and safety of their workforce at this time," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. "Unfortunately, Amazon appears to be prioritizing maximizing its enormous profits even over its employees' safety, and that is unacceptable."

Fear of the rapidly spreading virus also prompted a planned "sickout" by workers at Whole Foods, a subsidiary of Amazon, on Tuesday.

"People are afraid to work," said Chris Smalls, a management assistant at the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island borough who organized the walkout. "People are there working and they're putting their lives at risk because there are a number of cases that they are not aware of."

Smalls said the company is not being honest with employees about the number of colleagues who have tested positive for the virus in recent days and that management has only confirmed that one worker at the warehouse has come down with the virus.

"That's a bold face lie because I sent home the third case directly," Smalls said, adding that he knows of a total of seven cases at the facility that employs more than 4,000 people.

Smalls said the company placed him on quarantine on Saturday because he came in close contact with a worker who tested positive. He said he sent the infected worker home on Tuesday when she was showing symptoms of illness and that the worker was tested on Wednesday but was allowed to return to work until her test results came back positive on Thursday.

"She already had time to spread it. Her friend caught it. Her friend was the third case," Smalls said. "She tested positive and she's a supervisor in the pack department and the pack department is right before the items go out door to the customers. It's dangerous."

In a statement to ABC News, Amazon said it has been working to keep employees safe at the Staten Island fulfillment center, adding that claims made by Smalls that the company is putting workers in jeopardy are "simply unfounded."

"Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis," Amazon's statement reads. "Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable. We have taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, and changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances. The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day."

Smalls issued the following statement after being informed of his dismissal from his position late Monday afternoon:

"Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe. I am outraged and disappointed, but I'm not shocked. As usual, Amazon would rather sweep a problem under the rug than act to keep workers and working communities safe.

Today, I stood with my co-workers because conditions at JFK8 are legitimately dangerous for workers and the public. Amazon thinks this might shut me up, but I'm going to keep speaking up. My colleagues in New York and all around the country are going to keep speaking up. We won't stop until Amazon provides real protections for our health and safety and clarity for everybody about what it is doing to keep people safe in the middle of the worst pandemic of our lifetimes."

Amazon said Smalls received multiple warnings for violating social distancing guidelines. Despite instruction to remain home with pay for 14 days, Amazon said he came onsite and put the teams at risk, resulting in the termination of his employment.

Meanwhile, Instacart's gig workers, called "shoppers," say delivery service puts them at risk to coronavirus exposure and that the company should offer more protections, including hazard pay.

"Basically, I'm playing Russian roulette every time I go out there, every time I shop, every time I come into a grocery store," employee Mia Kelly said.

The in-store shoppers are demanding the company provide hand sanitizers and disinfectants, hazard pay of $5 per order, and an expansion to the current sick-pay policy.

Right now, Instacart says anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into mandatory isolation or quarantine will get up to 14 days of pay. The company says it is also offering access to cash bonuses amid the app's busiest month in its history.

"As the crisis unfolds, our teams are committed to continuing to deliver for all the communities we serve and ensuring our customers and shoppers can safely and reliably use Instacart," the company said in a written statement. "We're proud to be able to serve as an essential service for you and your loved ones during this critical time."

But shoppers like Vanessa Bain feel that with limited access to testing, the company's policy doesn't go far enough.

"They designed it that way to disqualify us," she said. "If shoppers aren't healthy, if shoppers don't have meaningful access to sick pay, if shoppers aren't provided with necessary equipment to shop safely, customers are absolutely at risk."

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The company told ABC News "the health and safety of our entire community -- shoppers, customers, and employees -- is our first priority."

Some customers, like Wendy DuCasse, are showing their appreciation for the workers.

She tweeted a picture of a gift left for her Instacart shopper: gloves, hand sanitizer, an extra tip and a handwritten note reading, "Thank you for your delivery service. We hope these are useful as you are working today! Much appreciated. Be safe!"

"I just felt like I needed to do something that let whoever was delivering my groceries know that I see them, I hear them and I support them," she said.

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Instacart announced this week that it is looking to add 300,000 gig workers to its platform over the next three months, more than doubling the number of people it has picking and delivering groceries for customers.

Online retailers have seen demand for orders surge as more people are stuck at home and shopping online. Instacart said it will focus on bringing on more personal shoppers in 10 states where demand is the highest: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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