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Amazon’s Shifting Definition of What Is “Essential”

Currently that appears to include a 10-pack of rubber chickens

Stock up on the “essentials” with Amazon Amazon Products/Sam Morris

On March 17, Amazon informed U.S. sellers that it would no longer accept nonessential products at its warehouses.

To the casual shopper, it might have sounded similar to the pledges Amazon has made in Italy, France, and India to stop taking orders from customers entirely for nonessential goods.

But examining the fine print reveals that it was nothing of the sort. The original pledge—which was announced as policy for March 17 to April 5—allowed Amazon to ship nonessential items that were already stocked in its warehouse, and sellers could also stock nonessential items in their own warehouses and ship directly to customers.

Amazon defined essential loosely, saying that “most of the products” it would accept were in the categories of “Baby Products,” “Health & Household,” “Beauty & Personal Care,” “Grocery,” “Industrial & Scientific,” and “Pet Supplies.” 

Since that mid-March announcement, Amazon has quietly relaxed even further its definition of what is essential, while also extending indefinitely the date by which “operations will be fully restored.” On March 27, archived snapshots of the page indicated that Amazon would broaden the list of new shipments it would accept from sellers, on an unspecified “item-by-item” basis.

Screenshot of 10 rubber chickens for sale on Amazon that's available on Prime despite the Coronavirus
Caption: You can get your 10-pack by Wednesday!
Screenshot taken on Monday, April 6, 2020.

As of April 6, in the United States, you could still order a bowling ball, a 10-pack of rubber chickens, and a prom dress and have them show up at your door within a week. All of the items are described on the website as either “Fulfilled by Amazon” or “Ships from and sold by,” and none of the items are in the categories previously deemed essential.

Amazon spokesperson Andrea Ruge told The Markup that the company is still prioritizing essential items, but “we have begun selectively bringing more products from our selling partners into our fulfillment centers.”

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Surging Sales

Amid state orders to “shelter in place” and in an effort to “flatten the curve,” Americans are staying home and logging on to Amazon to purchase goods. Amazon’s sharp increase in sales has been compared to major shopping events like Black Friday or Prime Day and has caused its stock price to soar since mid-March.

In response to the increase, Amazon has announced it will hire 100,000 additional people for its warehouses and delivery network. “We are seeing a significant increase in demand, which means our labor needs are unprecedented for this time of year,” Dave Clark, a senior vice president of worldwide operations at the company wrote in a blog post on March 16.

But while some consumers are sprucing up their home offices with fresh decor, workers at the company’s warehouses face heightened safety risks. A CNBC investigation described Amazon warehouse workers working “shoulder to shoulder” and short supplies of hand sanitizer and wipes.

Amazon workers who are fighting for more protective equipment and hazard pay say that the work is just too dangerous to justify anything but a strict shipping policy. “It needs to stop shipping nonessential items,” an Amazon worker in New York City told The Markup. “We need to have a say in that.”

Screenshot of a prom dress for sale on Amazon that's available on Prime despite the Coronavirus
Caption: We’re all just dancing on our own (in five days).
Screenshot taken on Monday, April 6, 2020.

On March 24, Amazon announced that it had made changes to prioritize employee health and safety. Those changes include providing up to two weeks of paid time off to employees who have COVID-19 or are in quarantine, increasing how often worksites are cleaned, making scheduling adjustments to promote social distancing, and encouraging handwashing.

The company also stated that it was increasing pay for workers by $2 an hour and that through May 9 it would pay double an employee’s base pay for overtime hours. It also announced last week that it would start implementing temperature checks at certain facilities and other precautionary measures.

CEO Jeff Bezos wrote that the company had placed orders for millions of masks for employees and contractors to use but noted that “very few of those orders have been filled” due to a global shortage. 

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Upset Workforce

Across the United States, Amazon workers have walked off the job in protest over working conditions.

On March 17, Amazonians United New York City, a group of Amazon Logistics workers, sent an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. They demanded an expansion of paid sick leave, to include people who had not received a COVID-19 diagnosis, an end to rate-based write-ups (for failure to meet quotas), child care, hazard pay, and that facilities be shut down and sterilized if an employee tests positive for COVID-19. 

When asked about the open letter, Amazon spokesperson Timothy Carter responded in an email, “We are going to great lengths to keep the buildings extremely clean and help employees practice important precautions such as social distancing and other measures.” He emphasized the desire for direct feedback from workers and added, “Those who don’t want to come to work are welcome to use paid and unpaid time off options and we support them in doing so.”

In New York City, Amazon workers often take public transit to get to work. Despite plummeting ridership, the trains they take remain packed due to reduced services. Many of the workers step onto the Jackson Heights–Roosevelt Avenue subway platform before making the final leg of their commute to the delivery center in Queens. The stop overlooks Elmhurst Hospital Center, which New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has referred to as “the epicenter within the epicenter” of the coronavirus crisis.

Amazon closed the Queens warehouse for a single day to sanitize the facility after a worker there tested positive for COVID-19, but some workers protested the quick turnaround, as the virus has been found to live on surfaces for well over 24 hours. The National Institutes of Health reported, for example, that the virus remains stable on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days.

“It’s not just that Amazon needs to clean the facilities, it needs to be taking the health of every worker coming in there seriously. If workers are getting infected in that warehouse, they’re bringing it to everybody,” said an Amazon Logistics worker based in New York City who declined to be named out of fear of retaliation. 

In Staten Island, workers at an Amazon facility staged a walkout on March 31 after a worker there tested positive for COVID-19. Amazon subsequently fired Christian Smalls, one of the organizers of the walkout. The company said that he was fired after receiving “multiple warnings for violating social distancing warnings” and for appearing at its facility for the walkout when he was supposed to be quarantined.

A VICE News investigation uncovered notes from a meeting that included Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, discussing ways to smear Smalls, calling him “not smart or articulate.” Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky, the author of the notes, said in a statement that his “comments were personal and emotional” and that “I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has ordered the city’s human rights commissioner to investigate the company for the firing.

Screenshot of bowling ball for sale on Amazon that's available on Prime despite the Coronavirus
Caption: Quick delivery so you’re scoring spares and strikes in no time!
Screenshot taken on Monday, April 6, 2020.

On March 27, more than a dozen members of Congress, led by Rep. Ilhan Omar and Sen. Bernie Sanders, sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking for more information about the precautions the company is taking in response to the pandemic. 

They noted that recent statements by Amazon did not provide “specific data” about the changes being made and asked for detailed figures, such as how much hand sanitizer was being distributed per employee, how many times per day the company was cleaning and disinfecting warehouses, and how much additional break time workers were being given for handwashing. 

“You encouraged your employees to take care of themselves, yet you failed to recognize the vital role that Amazon plays in guaranteeing their safety,” they wrote to the multibillionaire. In response to the letter, Brian Huseman, a vice president of public policy at Amazon, reiterated the safety measures Amazon has set in place.

And while consumers can try to make conscious choices when ordering online, they aren’t the ones with the power to make sweeping changes, the New York City Amazon Logistics worker says.

 “We could ask all the hundreds of millions of consumers out there and try to reach them, each individual one, and ask them to stop buying this, that or the other,” he said, “but ultimately the responsibility lies with Amazon.” 

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