Labor Day is a U.S. national holiday held the first Monday every September. Unlike most U.S. holidays, it is a strange celebration without rituals, except for shopping and barbecuing. For most people it simply marks the last weekend of summer and the start of the school year.
The holiday’s founders in the late 1800s envisioned something very different from what the day has become. The founders were looking for two things: a means of unifying union workers and a reduction in work time.
History of Labor Day
The first Labor Day occurred in 1882 in New York City under the direction of that city’s Central Labor Union.
In the 1800s, unions covered only a small fraction of workers and were balkanized and relatively weak. The goal of organizations like the Central Labor Union and more modern-day counterparts like the AFL-CIO was to bring many small unions together to achieve a critical mass and power. The organizers of the first Labor Day were interested in creating an event that brought different types of workers together to meet each other and recognize their common interests.
However, the organizers had a large problem: No government or company recognized the first Monday in September as a day off work. The issue was solved temporarily by declaring a one-day strike in the city. All striking workers were expected to march in a parade and then eat and drink at a giant picnic afterwards.
The New York Tribune’s reporter covering the event felt the entire day was like one long political barbecue, with “rather dull speeches.”
Why was Labor Day invented?
Labor Day came about because workers felt they were spending too many hours and days on the job.
In the 1830s, manufacturing workers were putting in 70-hour weeks on average. Sixty years later, in 1890, hours of work had dropped, although the average manufacturing worker still toiled in a factory 60 hours a week.
These long working hours caused many union organizers to focus on winning a shorter eight-hour work day. They also focused on getting workers more days off, such as the Labor Day holiday, and reducing the workweek to just six days.
These early organizers clearly won since the most recent data show that the average person working in manufacturing is employed for a bit over 40 hours a week and most people work only five days a week.
Surprisingly, many politicians and business owners were actually in favor of giving workers more time off. That’s because workers who had no free time were not able to spend their wages on traveling, entertainment or dining out.
As the U.S. economy expanded beyond farming and basic manufacturing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became important for businesses to find consumers interested in buying the products and services being produced in ever greater amounts. Shortening the work week was one way of turning the working class into the consuming class.
The common misconception is that since Labor Day is a national holiday, everyone gets the day off. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While the first Labor Day was created by striking, the idea of a special holiday for workers was easy for politicians to support. It was easy because proclaiming a holiday, like Mother’s Day, costs legislators nothing and benefits them by currying favor with voters. In 1887, Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey all declared a special legal holiday in September to celebrate workers.
Within 12 years, half the states in the country recognized Labor Day as a holiday. It became a national holiday in June 1894 when President Grover Cleveland signed the Labor Day bill into law. While most people interpreted this as recognizing the day as a national vacation, Congress’ proclamation covers only federal employees. It is up to each state to declare its own legal holidays.
Moreover, proclaiming any day an official holiday means little, as an official holiday does not require private employers and even some government agencies to give their workers the day off. Many stores are open on Labor Day. Essential government services in protection and transportation continue to function, and even less essential programs like national parks are open. Because not everyone is given time off on Labor Day, union workers as recently as the 1930s were being urged to stage one-day strikes if their employer refused to give them the day off.
In the president’s annual Labor Day declaration last year, Obama encouraged Americans “to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities that honor the contributions and resilience of working Americans.”
The proclamation, however, does not officially declare that anyone gets time off.
Controversy: Militants and founders
Today most people in the U.S. think of Labor Day as a noncontroversial holiday.
The first controversy that people fought over was how militant workers should act on a day designed to honor workers. Communist, Marxist and socialist members of the trade union movement supported May 1 as an international day of demonstrations, street protests and even violence, which continues even today.
More moderate trade union members, however, advocated for a September Labor Day of parades and picnics. In the U.S., picnics, instead of street protests, won the day.
There is also dispute over who suggested the idea. The earliest history from the mid-1930s credits Peter J. McGuire, who founded the New York City Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, in 1881 with suggesting a date that would fall “nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving” that “would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”
Later scholarship from the early 1970s makes an excellent case that Matthew Maguire, a representative from the Machinists Union, actually was the founder of Labor Day. However, because Matthew Maguire was seen as too radical, the more moderate Peter McGuire was given the credit.
Who actually came up with the idea will likely never be known, but you can vote online here to express your view.
Have we lost the spirit of Labor Day?
Today Labor Day is no longer about trade unionists marching down the street with banners and their tools of trade. Instead, it is a confused holiday with no associated rituals.
The original holiday was meant to handle a problem of long working hours and no time off. Although the battle over these issues would seem to have been won long ago, this issue is starting to come back with a vengeance, not for manufacturing workers but for highly skilled white-collar workers, many of whom are constantly connected to work.
If you work all the time and never really take a vacation, start a new ritual that honors the original spirit of Labor Day. Give yourself the day off. Don’t go in to work. Shut off your phone, computer and other electronic devices connecting you to your daily grind. Then go to a barbecue, like the original participants did over a century ago, and celebrate having at least one day off from work during the year!
Labor Day 2020 will occur on Monday, September 7. Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers and is traditionally observed on the first Monday in September. It was created by the labor movement in the late 19th century and became a federal holiday in 1894. Labor Day weekend also symbolizes the end of summer for many Americans, and is celebrated with parties, street parades and athletic events.
Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day?
Labor Day, an annual celebration of workers and their achievements, originated during one of American labor history’s most dismal chapters.
In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.
People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.
As manufacturing increasingly supplanted agriculture as the wellspring of American employment, labor unions, which had first appeared in the late 18th century, grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay.
Many of these events turned violent during this period, including the infamous Haymarket Riot of 1886, in which several Chicago policemen and workers were killed. Others gave rise to longstanding traditions: On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.
The idea of a “workingmen’s holiday,” celebrated on the first Monday in September, caught on in other industrial centers across the country, and many states passed legislation recognizing it. Congress would not legalize the holiday until 12 years later, when a watershed moment in American labor history brought workers’ rights squarely into the public’s view. On May 11, 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives.
On June 26, the American Railroad Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. To break the Pullman strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago, unleashing a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen workers.
Who Created Labor Day?
In the wake of this massive unrest and in an attempt to repair ties with American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed it into law. More than a century later, the true founder of Labor Day has yet to be identified.
Many credit Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, while others have suggested that Matthew Maguire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union, first proposed the holiday.
Labor Day Celebrations
Labor Day is still celebrated in cities and towns across the United States with parades, picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays and other public gatherings. For many Americans, particularly children and young adults, it represents the end of the summer and the start of the back-to-school season.
Amazon is looking to hire two people who can focus on keeping tabs on labor activists within the company.
Amazon is looking to hire two intelligence analysts to track “labor organizing threats” within the company.
The company recently posted two job listings for analysts that can keep an eye on sensitive and confidential topics “including labor organizing threats against the company.” Amazon is looking to hire an “Intelligence Analyst” and a “Sr Intelligence Analyst” for its Global Security Operations’ (GSO) Global Intelligence Program (GIP), the team that’s responsible for physical and corporate security operations such as insider threats and industrial espionage.
The job ads list several kinds of threats, such as “protests, geopolitical crises, conflicts impacting operations,” but focuses on “organized labor” in particular, mentioning it three times in one of the listings.
Amazon has historically been hostile to workers attempting to form a union or organize any kind of collective action. Last year, an Amazon spokesperson accused unions of exploiting Prime Day “to raise awareness to their cause” and increase membership dues. Earlier this year, the company fired Christian Smalls, a Black employee who led a protest at a fulfillment center in New York over Amazon’s inadequate safety measures in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. During a meeting with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, company executives discussed plans to smear Smalls calling him “not smart, or articulate.”
These job listings show Amazon sees labor organizing as one of the biggest threats to its existence.
Do you work at Amazon, did you used to, or do you know anything else about the company? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, on Wickr at lorenzofb, OTR chat at email@example.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
After this story was published, Amazon deleted the job listings and company spokesperson Maria Boschetti said in an email that “the job post was not an accurate description of the role— it was made in error and has since been corrected.” The spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions about the alleged mistake. The job listing, according to Amazon’s own job portal, had been up since January 6, 2020.
Dania Rajendra, the Director of the Athena Coalition, an alliance of dozens of grassroots labor groups that organize amazon workers, criticized the listing.
“Workers, especially Black workers, have been telling us all for months that Amazon is targeting them for speaking out. This job description is proof that Amazon intends to continue on this course,” Rajendra told Motherboard in a statement. “The public deserves to know whether Amazon will continue to fill these positions, even if they’re no longer publicly posted.”
On Monday, the Open Markets Institute, a nonprofit that studies monopolies, published a report on Amazon’s employee surveillance efforts, claiming that these practices “create a harsh and dehumanizing working environment that produces a constant state of fear, as well as physical and mental anguish.”
After a week of the jobs being posted online, 71 people have applied to the Intelligence Analyst position, and 24 people to the Sr Intelligence Analyst job, according to Linkedin. The first job was posted in the Amazon Jobs portal in January, the second job on July 21, according to the company’s site.
UPDATE Sept. 1, 12:04 p.m. ET: Shortly after this story was published, Amazon removed the listings from its job portal.
Essential workers have borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic for months, but the U.S. is still doing relatively little to protect them.
Why it matters: With no end to the pandemic in sight, America’s frontline workers still must choose between risking their health and losing their source of income.
Driving the news: The Trump administration said this week that health insurers aren’t required to cover coronavirus diagnostic tests performed as part of workplace safety or public health surveillance efforts.
- It didn’t say who is supposed to pay for these tests. If employers are stuck footing the bill, that makes the testing less likely to happen.
The big picture: There’s been no national effort or initiative to protect essential workers, and America is still failing to implement basic public health measures as new cases skyrocket.
- Masks have become a political flashpoint and aren’t required in many of the states that are emerging coronavirus hotspots.
- That means essential workers go to work each day without any guarantee that the people they’re interacting with will take one of the most basic and effective steps to prevent transmission of the virus.
- No one is even talking about mass distribution of personal protective equipment beyond health care workers. And even some health care workers — particularly those who work in nursing homes — don’t have the protective gear that they need.
More broadly, the financial incentives for frontline workers, particularly those who are low-income, to keep working make it nearly impossible for them to avoid health risks.
- At least 69 million American workers are potentially ineligible for the emergency paid sick leave benefits that Congress passed earlier this year, per the Kaiser Family Foundation.
- An estimated 25-30 million people — particularly lower-wage workers in service industries — are unable to work from home but also face a high risk of severe infection, KFF’s Drew Altman wrote earlier this week.
What we’re watching: The line between essential workers and those who are required to return to the office by their employer has become blurry, and millions more Americans are facing dilemmas similar to those faced by grocers and bus drivers.
- The sickest — and thus most vulnerable — Americans may feel the most pressure to return to work, as that’s often where they get their health insurance, the NYT points out.
- Nearly a quarter of adult workers are vulnerable to severe coronavirus infections, per KFF.
The bottom line: Essential workers and their families will continue to feel the impact of America’s coronavirus failures most acutely.
Go deeper: “Disposable workers” doing essential jobs
With states reopening for business and millions of people heading back to work, the nation’s largest labor organization is demanding the federal government do more to protect workers from contracting the coronavirus on the job.
What’s happening: The AFL-CIO, a collection of 55 unions representing 12.5 million workers, says it is suing the federal agency in charge of workplace safety to compel them to create a set of emergency temporary standards for infectious diseases.
Driving the news: The lawsuit against the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is expected to be filed on Monday in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
- Citing an urgent threat to “essential” workers and those being called back to work as government-imposed lockdowns are lifted, the AFL-CIO is asking the court to force OSHA to act within 30 days.
- It wants a rule that would require each employer to evaluate its workplace for the risk of airborne disease transmission and to develop a comprehensive infection control plan that could include social distancing measures, masks and other personal protective equipment and employee training.
The agency has issued guidance, in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to protect workers in multiple industries — including dentist offices, nursing homes, manufacturing, meat processing, airlines and retail.
- But the unions complain these are only recommendations, not requirements, and that mandatory rules should be imposed.
- OSHA has been considering an infectious disease standard for more than a decade, they note, and has drafted a proposed standard.
U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, in a letter to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, said employers are already taking steps to protect workers, and that OSHA’s industry-tailored guidelines provide more flexibility than a formal rule for all employers.
- Scalia said his department can enforce worker safety under a provision in the 1970 statute that created OSHA called the “general duty clause,” which requires businesses to maintain “a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards.”
Yes, but: OSHA has received more than 3,800 safety complaints related to COVID-19 as of May 4, but it had already close to about 2,200 of them without issuing a single citation, according to the AFL-CIO.
What they’re saying: “It’s truly a sad day in America when working people must sue the organization tasked with protecting our health and safety,” Trumka said.
- “But we’ve been left no choice. Millions are infected and nearly 90,000 have died, so it’s beyond urgent that action is taken to protect workers who risk our lives daily to respond to this public health emergency.
- “If the Trump administration refuses to act, we must compel them to.”
- OSHA could not immediately be reached for comment on the lawsuit.
From nurses to retail salespeople, workers are walking off the job and facing retribution for speaking out.
She could not, however, wear her mask in the hallways, or the cafeteria or any of the hospital’s common areas, because her supervisors told her it would scare patients. “I was told if I wanted to wear a mask, I would not be working there,” she said. “So I said I’m not willing to put my life at risk, and my contract was terminated.”
Since the viral pandemic started ravaging the country in recent weeks, workers, unions and attorneys are seeing a dramatic rise in cases they say illustrate a wave of bad employer behavior, forcing workers into conditions they fear are unsafe, withholding protective equipment, and retaliating against those who speak up or walk out.
Moreno’s case was one of many that her attorney, Rachel Bussett, and her colleagues at the National Employment Lawyers Association have been inundated with as workers grow increasingly fearful of retribution from, as Bussett said, “employers who value the economy over people.”
A handful of workers at a McDonald’s outside San Francisco walked off the job to protest the lack of safety measures. So did about 50 workers at a Perdue chicken plant in Georgia, as well as workers at Instacart and Amazon, while the companies said they were taking steps to ensure their employees’ safety and well-being. (Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
Meanwhile, employees at several major retailers have circulated petitions urging the companies to close their stores and protect workers. And some workers have said they were fired outright for speaking their minds and pushing companies to look after them.
The complaints come as the virus’s toll mounts and health officials warned that extreme measures, such as lockdowns, would continue. On Sunday, health officials said social distancing guidelines would remain in place through April, and President Trump said the nation “will be well on its way to recovery” by June 1, not Easter, as he had said previously.
“This is a situation we’ve never had to deal with before,” said Heidi Burakiewicz, a D.C. attorney and a member of the employment lawyers association. “We’re doing everything we can to help these employees — not just about protecting jobs. But people’s lives are at stake, and people should never have to be faced with questions about whether they need to risk exposing themselves and their families or losing their jobs.”
The designations for “essential” businesses can vary by state but generally include supermarkets, pharmacies, hardware stores, auto repair shops and the defense industry.
Workers at a number of large retailers — such as craft stores, video-gaming shops and office supply chains — have questioned their employers’ decision to stay open despite stay-at-home orders across the country.
“It is unnecessary and unsafe to be open during a PANDEMIC,” Staples employees wrote in a petition. “We are not an essential store and corporate is fighting and begging to stay open, claiming Staples is essential and putting employees and their families at risk. Staples should temporarily close stores and pay their employees for the time being.”
Staples spokeswoman Meghan McCarrick said the company is “an essential provider of business and educational materials and products, household goods and cleaning supplies.” She said that an intensive care unit at a Baltimore hospital recently purchased ink and toner for a printer at Staples, while a hospital in Virginia bought webcams to set up remote telemedicine offices.
Last week, the Federal Bureau of Prisons turned away employees who said they had taken pain medications such as Advil, Tylenol or Motrin within four hours of reporting for work. That meant guards with balky hips or bad backs were forced to take sick leave, even if they had no fever or other symptoms of the virus, union officials said.
“You have unqualified people asking questions that are medically related,” said Sandy Parr, a union official. “They’re sending people home just because they took Motrin, which is decreasing the staff available to work — and that increases the danger.”
After guard workers complained and The Post inquired about the measure, the Bureau of Prisons said last week that it was discontinuing the practice.
Across the country, some health-care facilities are hoarding masks, goggles and gloves — forcing some workers to bring in their own, use the same equipment again and again, or go without.
“It’s in cabinets locked away, collecting dust while people need it now,” said Rebecca Reindel, the safety and health director of the AFL-CIO, who said the union has raised the issue “in every avenue we can.”
Moreno’s concern wasn’t the availability of the equipment — only her ability to use it. A contract nurse at Select Specialty Hospital, she felt she needed to wear a mask at all times, especially given that the patients she was treating were particularly susceptible to the worst effects of the virus. The hospital’s website says it provides “specialized care for patients with acute or chronic respiratory disorders. Our primary focus is to wean medically complex patients from mechanical ventilation and restore independent breathing.”
The state is under a “safer at home” order, which directs people over 65 and those with underlying medical conditions to stay home and limits gatherings to no more than 10 people, among other restrictions.
On Wednesday, however, Moreno was told her contract was being terminated because the hospital did not want her wearing a mask in common areas of the hospital, she said. But by the next afternoon, after The Post had contacted the hospital, she said hospital officials “had completely changed their tune” and decided to allow nurses to wear masks throughout the hospital and not just in patient rooms.
On Friday, she went back to work. In an email, a hospital spokeswoman said, “The nurse is still engaged with us and her upcoming scheduled shifts have been confirmed.”
The policy change “feels wonderful,” Moreno said, “because I know I will be protected and my friends and co-workers will be protected.”
Kevin Readel, another nurse in Oklahoma City, said he was fired for a similar reason — but in his case it was for insisting on wearing a mask while with patients.
He said he was told “point blank that I can’t wear a mask” because it “could cause fear and anxiety amongst the other nurses and the patients.”
He filed a suit against the Oklahoma Heart Hospital South for wrongful termination, claiming that “the hospital was more concerned about the perception of due diligence than actually performing due diligence.”
A spokesman for the hospital said he could not comment on pending litigation but said the hospital’s “entire focus is on making sure we protect the safety of our patients and health care professionals in preparation for an expected surge in COVID-19 patients. As part of our preparation, we are strictly complying with the guidelines on the personal protective equipment set forth by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control.”
Lauri Mazurkiewicz, a nurse who lives outside Chicago, grew nervous when she was repeatedly exposed to patients diagnosed with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. “This is so contagious. It’s spreading so fast. I need an N95 mask,” she said, referring to a specialty mask worn by many health-care workers.
She happened to have an N95 and began wearing it during her rounds at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, she said, but was told the hospital was prohibiting the use of N95 masks and using regular surgical masks instead.
She sent an email warning her colleagues that those masks were less effective. She was fired shortly afterward — the result, she alleged in a lawsuit against the hospital, of her attempts to “disclose public corruption and/or wrongdoing.”
A spokesman for the hospital declined to comment on the specifics of her complaint in the lawsuit, but said it is “committed to the safety of our employees who are on the frontlines of this global health care crisis.” He added that it follows “CDC guidance regarding the use of personal protective equipment for our health care providers.”
In a statement Monday, the American College of Emergency Physicians said it was “shocked and outraged by the growing reports of employers retaliating against frontline health workers who are trying to ensure they and their colleagues are protected while caring for patients in this pandemic. … Not only does this type of retribution remove healthy physicians from the frontlines, it encourages others to work in unsafe conditions, increasing their likelihood of getting sick.”
In the retail sector, employees at Michaels crafts stores said they were told the company’s shops would remain open because they serve “people who are bored at home” and double as UPS drop-off sites, according to an employee at a Phoenix store who is awaiting results for a coronavirus test.
The worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has been home with a low-grade fever, cough and chest pain but says store managers have not been supportive.
“Every time I call in sick, there’s just an incredibly disappointed sound on the other end,” she said. “This is not an essential business — nobody in the history of mankind has ever dropped dead from boredom. They need to close their doors.”
Anjanette Coplin, a spokeswoman for Michaels, said its stores provide necessary products and services for parents and small-business owners. “We want to support and remain a lifeline for the teachers, parents and small businesses who rely on Michaels and our products to enable creative learning,” she said. Michaels is offering curbside pickup and has temporarily closed locations in certain states, including California, New York and Pennsylvania.
JoAnn craft stores, GameStop, Office Depot and Guitar Center have also come under fire for keeping stores open. A spokesman for Office Depot said the company is not requiring retail employees to come to work if they are not comfortable. Guitar Center, which furloughed 9,000 workers on Monday, said it is following state and local rules regarding store closures. JoAnn and GameStop did not respond to requests for comment.
In Plain City, Ohio, workers at a TenPoint Complete call center who administer automotive surveys by phone have been instructed to report to work even after the state issued a stay-at-home order, according to one employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared reprisal.
Her work, she said, consists of calling customers to ask about their experience at the body shop.
“This is not an essential job,” she said.
TenPoint Complete did not respond to a request for comment.
Even as other department stores, such as Nordstrom and Kohl’s, have temporarily shut their doors and kept paying their workers, Dillard’s has kept locations operating where government authorities allow it, making it one of the few remaining mall-based stores to remain open despite the pandemic, employees say.
That has sparked concern from employees, social media outrage by community members and a petition drive urging it to close that alleges, “Unlike other retailers who care about the safety and well-being of their employees and the guests they serve everyday, Dillard’s is choosing to run a blind eye in order to keep money funneling into their greedy pockets.”
Some employees who work for the company expressed fear about the stores remaining open, saying that they have been offered no assurances of pay if their stores close and that they had to pay more for their health insurance as their hours were cut.
One full-time Dillard’s employee based in Colorado, who requested anonymity to preserve her job, said that before her store closed in the middle of last week, she tried to use the vacation time she has accumulated to take off two weeks, but was told she couldn’t because the store was short-staffed. Her store has since closed because of local restrictions for nonessential businesses, and she said they were not being paid during the closure, other than for earned vacation leave. They have received little clear information about whether they would get their jobs back when the stores reopened, she said.
An employee in her 60s based in southwest Florida said she has not yet accumulated any paid time off, so if she were to get sick, she would have no paid leave. “They say you’re more than welcome to stay home, but that’s, of course, without pay,” at least for her.
She said the company has done little to directly encourage social distancing from customers making purchases. “They’re just telling us to relay to customers — politely — to stand back,” she said, but not putting up signage or tape to mark where customers should stand. “They are providing us at each register with a little small bottle of hand sanitizer. Mine has about a quarter of it left.”
In an email, Julie Johnson Guymon, a company spokeswoman, said “direct communication” with associates began Monday. In an earlier statement, she said Dillard’s is “fully cooperating with any government directives in our markets and promptly closing under those guidelines. Importantly, we are strictly following CDC guidelines for the safety of our associates and the customers who choose to visit us where open. No associate who is uncomfortable working is required to do so. We believe continuing to operate using current safety standards is the best thing we can do long term for our associates and for the economy.”
Amazon fired an employee who helped organize a walkout at one of its fulfillment centers over the company’s response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on Monday.
Chris Smalls, the employee who helped organize the demonstration, said he felt Amazon had failed to enact adequate measures to protect workers at the facility as many Americans turn to online shopping as stay-at-home mandates expand around the country. Smalls was one of a small group who walked out at a fulfillment center on Staten Island, demanding the company close the site and sanitize it before reopening. He said Amazon had notified employees at the warehouse of one confirmed case of the virus but claimed there were several others that hadn’t yet been reported.
Shortly after the strike, Smalls was terminated after working at Amazon for five years.
“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,” Smalls said in a statement obtained by HuffPost. “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.”
Amazon disputed Smalls’ account in a statement on Monday, saying he had been warned several times for “violating social distancing guidelines” and had been fired after failing to stay home. The company said Smalls’ claims were “simply unfounded.”
“He was also found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14 days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world,” a company spokesperson told HuffPost. “Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite today, March 30, further putting the teams at risk. This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues.”
The company also said just 15 employees out of 5,000 at its Staten Island location had participated in the demonstration.
“Our employees are heroes fighting for their communities and helping people get critical items they need in this crisis,” the spokesperson said. “Like all businesses grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we are working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable.”
The Washington Post notes workers in at least 21 Amazon warehouses and shipping facilities in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus.
Employees at several other major companies staged walkouts on Monday. Workers at Instacart, the grocery delivery company, went on strike nationwide to demand better protections, including hazard pay and expanded paid sick leave. And employees at Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, said they planned to hold a nationwide “sick out” on Tuesday.
Workers at the Staten Island warehouse were first told last week that an employee had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, but they told HuffPost’s Emily Peck that business was “normal” and “running just as it had been” after the declaration. Others said they were afraid of getting sick at work, saying there wasn’t enough protection equipment on site, such as hand sanitizer or masks.
Amazon said it has extended a range of benefits to help protect workers during the pandemic, including extended paid leave options for some employees and increased health and safety measures. Employees diagnosed with COVID-19 are entitled to up to two weeks of paid leave, and Amazon says it notifies workers at sites with infected individuals.
The ongoing efforts by warehouse workers throughout the coronavirus pandemic have garnered support from several lawmakers. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote Monday that the employees were simply “demanding dignity.”
“When people work an hourly job, it’s suggested in many ways that you‘re unimportant or expendable,” she wrote on Twitter. “Except you aren’t. Everyone deserves safe work, paid leave, & a living wage.”