Walmart, Amazon Workers Seek Pandemic Hazard Pay

This year’s holiday season brings the usual array of deal events including Black Friday and Cyber Monday — but during an especially unusual time as the COVID-19 pandemic surges around the country. 

On Monday, a group of sales and warehouse workers for retailers including Walmart, Amazon and others outlined some of the workplace safety and pay initiatives that they said are necessary to acknowledge the reality of their working conditions, particularly at a time when their employers have reported soaring sales and profits during the pandemic. 

At a press conference organized by worker advocacy organization United for Respect, retail workers who are members of the group described their fears of encountering customers not wearing masks during Black Friday shopping events, or trying to meet high productivity demands while navigating risks that many of their corporate counterparts are able to avoid by continuing to work from home.  

The workers described what they called the “Five to Survive” pandemic platform, seeking a $5-an-hour increase in hazard pay to compensate them for the risks they face at stores and at warehouses during a persistent and worsening public health crisis in the U.S. 

“Right now, it’s what we call the ‘Turkey apocalypse,’ where we’re forced to push out as much as we possibly can for the holidays,” Courtenay Brown, who works in Newark, N.J., at an Amazon Fresh location, said. “Right now we need five to survive … because we’re putting our lives on the line, and [we need] better safety and better cleaning and … actual contact tracing.” 

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There are now roughly 12.3 million confirmed COVID-19 cases overall in the U.S., including some 142,732 new cases as of Monday alone, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally. More than 257,415 people in the U.S. have died so far from the illness, according to the tally. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the rate of weekly hospitalization rates is also increasing. 

This year Walmart, Amazon, Target and other retailers deemed “essential” have reported increases in revenues and e-commerce sales from increasing consumer demand for groceries and home necessities as nonessential workers stayed at home during lockdowns, and many corporate office workers continue to have the option to work remotely. 

Just this month, Walmart reported that revenues rose 5.2 percent to $134.7 billion in the third quarter of fiscal year 2021, and that it saw a 79 percent increase in e-commerce sales. Target saw revenues leap 21 percent to $22.63 billion with a 155 percent jump in e-commerce sales.

“Our associates continue to provide a vital service in communities across the country,” a representative for Walmart said in a statement Monday. “Walmart offers paid sick leave to all hourly associates in the U.S., including part-time, through protected paid time off (PPTO). That is in addition to standard paid time off (PTO). This spring we also announced the creation of our COVID-19 emergency leave policy for all associates, including part-time.”

Walmart has also handed out special bonuses to associates during the pandemic, totaling some $1.1 billion in bonuses this year on top of a bonus program, according to a statement by the retailer in July. To put that figure in perspective, Walmart’s consolidated net income for the third quarter was $5.14 billion. United for Respect’s members have said that the Walmart bonuses amounted to an average of $19 a week for part-time associates and $37 for full-time workers, and said that Walmart should provide formal hazard pay. 

“Associates like me are scared for my health,” said Melissa Love, a Walmart associate from Long Beach, Calif. “Walmart workers must have a seat at the table.” 

Amazon, meanwhile, had instituted a $2-an-hour pay increase for its workers, but the temporary hazard pay lapsed in June, workers said Monday. 

“The $5-an-hour recognition pay is a very moderate demand, and the least that these chains can afford to recognize and share their record profits with the frontline workers who generate them,” Paul Sonn, state policy program director at the National Employment Law Project, said at the press conference. 

Representatives for Amazon could not immediately be reached for comment Monday. 

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