On a recent Monday, a 31-year-old father of three children named Christian Smalls helped organize a walk-out of fellow employees at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York. Inside the warehouse, thousands of items, many of them now deemed "essential" in this pandemic, are packaged for shipment each day. Outside, Smalls, his nose and mouth covered by a bandana, held up a sign: “OUR HEALTH IS JUST AS ESSENTIAL!”
He had recently taken several days off, without pay, over concerns that he might contract Covid-19, telling the New York Times that he had noticed several of his colleagues showing symptoms of the coronavirus. Then, one co-worker tested positive for the sickness.
Dissatisfied with Amazon’s response to the outbreak within the fulfillment center–which employees said included inadequate cleaning measures, a lack of transparency about the number of coronavirus cases among workers, and other concerns–Smalls took action. But after the protest, he was quickly dismissed by Amazon, who said the termination was prompted by Smalls’ refusal to adhere to social-distancing restrictions, put in place after it became known he had previously been in contact with his infected co-worker. Smalls contends his firing was punitive.
Smalls was one of the most visible of millions of workers now raising a clamor about the need for protective gear and procedures in the face of the coronavirus. They’re the ones who can’t work from home, who have to report to the front lines of necessary industries, out of both a sense of duty and the need for a paycheck.
The shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health-care workers has been the most dire situation, given their dangerous exposure to the sickest Americans, but a much larger universe of workers is at risk as well because they interact constantly with customers or labor in close proximity to one another every day. At Office Depot and Walgreens, employees have complained that they were discouraged from wearing masks in the stores. Other retailers, including Target, have started allowing the masks, but employees have to find their own supplies. Meat-packing workers have been told to come to work even when they’re sick, with fatal results.
With the U.S. virtually on lockdown, companies that provide access to essential goods represent a cog in the country’s economy–and general sustainability–that is perhaps more vital than ever. But as millions register for their services, company leaders walk a tightrope, searching for the appropriate balance between bottom-line survival and compassion for employees, who are also more empowered with greater leverage.
The conflict has become a moral dilemma for many high-profile U.S. corporations–and their decisions may be long remembered. “It’s not enough to just get up and tell your employees, ‘Thank you, let’s dig in deeper,’ or ‘Here’s more money,’” Susan Stehlik, director of the Management Communication Program at the NYU Stern School of Business, told From Day One. “What I see leaders doing in a lot of different [cases right now] is they’re just pretending life is normal, life will go on, the business will go on. And that’s not going to work when you have people that are facing life and death situations.”
On the same day that Smalls dissented at Amazon, workers for Instacart, the popular grocery-delivery service, refused to fulfill orders, demanding the company distribute protective supplies to them, including hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, as well as extra “hazard pay,” for working in conditions that inherently threaten their health. Then came a “sick out” the next day at Whole Foods, with workers for that company, which is owned by Amazon, also asking for hazard pay in the form of doubled wages. Later in the week, Trader Joe’s employees, disturbed by the company’s alleged haphazard response to the coronavirus outbreak, circulated a petition for hazard pay as well, amounting to a time-and-a-half hourly rate.
So far, the loudest voices in the media belong to people like Smalls, who told the New York Daily News, “[I]f I’m the sacrificial lamb and I get people out of that building, so be it … I don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t care about people.”
Corporations must look to change that narrative through their actions and communications, say management experts. The more courageously empathetic their leaders can be, the better the tone they’ll set for recovery, both internally and across the global economy.
“We’re not in a hole, we’re in a tunnel, and there is light at the end of the tunnel,” says Niamh O’Keeffe, founder of The Prosper Leadership Academy, a global leadership education and advisory organization, and author of Future Shaper: How Leaders Can Take Charge in an Uncertain World. O’Keeffe observes that, at least for the time being, all signs indicate the pandemic-spurred social distancing and quarantines wreaking havoc on commerce will last for a period of months, not years.
“If a business feels like they can survive three to four months, then … keeping their skilled workforce will be important in the fifth month,” she says. And the key to retention in this time of the Coronavirus is to ensure workers are safe and feel valued within the context of the crisis.
“First responders used to be thought of as fire fighters and healthcare professionals and police, and now it’s the people who are stocking the shelves and replenishing the groceries,” says business strategist Edward Segal, author of the forthcoming book Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disaster, Scandals, and Other Emergencies. “It’s important for anyone who employs these new first responders to treat them well, treat them right, and do what it takes to protect their health and wellbeing.”
Segal believes company administrators should “go all out” to ensure employee safety during this difficult stretch, and not just “do what they can do, but what they should do.” This means sparing no cost, especially when giants like Amazon and are known to have very deep pockets.
“This is no time to go cheap, or to save a few pennies, or to say, ‘No, this is a matter of union negotiation,’” Segal continues. “Safety is non-negotiable.”
Indeed, front-line workers are being recognized as heroes, and the public is hearing their stores. One Instacart worker in Brooklyn Center, Minn., who asked to be referred to only as “Jessica,” told From Day One on April 1 that she’d been fulfilling orders from her phone-app dashboard for nearly two weeks, without wearing gloves or a mask, and encountering scores of people ignoring social distancing guidelines while on grocery-shopping excursions.
“Now I have to buy, from [out of] my own pocket, a face mask to support myself and protect myself,” Jessica said. “I believe [Instacart] should do a better job of prioritizing their employees’ health.”
Walking off the job was not an option for her. Though Jessica says she grosses about $11.50 an hour, in a state with a minimum wage of $9.86 per hour, and has to cover the cost of gas for her car, she still needs the money for medical bills and other everyday expenses.
In an email to employees, prior to the work stoppage, Instacart initially offered to provide hand sanitizer to workers, whom they refer to as “shoppers.” But Jessica said the company limited the sanitizer supply to one bottle at a time, which she felt was insufficient. Instacart also said it would eliminate a $0 tip option on its app, and add bonus programs for shoppers who operate longer and where there’s greater regional demand. Employees intending to take part in the work stoppage said the measures were “ridiculous,” and would “provide no meaningful benefit to shoppers.”
Though it’s unclear how many Instacart shoppers went on strike March 30, their efforts paid off. Instacart announced three days later that it will begin providing shoppers with health and safety kits that include a reusable cloth face mask, hand sanitizer, and a thermometer.
Such a quick shift in policy is not necessarily a show of defeat or weakness on the part of corporate leadership, but, arguably, an indicator of strength and resilience. O’Keeffe says company managers tend to want to feel as though they’re in constant control of any given situation. In a pandemic, that might be a mistake.
“There’s a new sort of leadership skill that’s emerged here, which is to recognize there isn’t a rulebook for this,” she says. “It’s almost a relief to understand that that’s what you have to do now, rather than feel like you have to be in control of it.”
Those executives who are not afraid to ask for help and can “monitor a rapidly evolving situation and have a creative response” as the crisis continues are to be embraced, not shunned. In a fast-unfolding situation like a pandemic, O’Keeffe offers, “what might be working this week is not appropriate the next week.”
Amazon appears to be adapting policy as well, prompted by employee dissent. Two days after the company’s troubles in Staten Island, around 20 workers in a Detroit-area fulfillment center walked off the job. Three facility employees there had already tested positive for Covid-19, and protest organizers said they were “scared” to go to work.
“We’re working through a crisis not by choice, but by necessity,” a walkout organizer said in a statement. “We aren’t heroes and we aren’t the Red Cross. We are working people who pack and deliver goods.”
By April 2, Amazon announced it would soon give out face masks to workers and administer temperature checks at all its U.S. and European warehouses the following week. On April 4, Reuters reported the company had contacted coronavirus test makers with an eye toward testing employees.
In light of all that, one fulfillment-center worker, who identified himself as “Joe” and said his warehouse is in the Midwest, told From Day One in an email that he believed Amazon was doing plenty to keep staff safe at his location.
“It is actually becoming frustrating how many safety precautions we must follow, but at the same time, I completely support them,” Joe said. He added he was content with the $2 hourly bonus Amazon began distributing to warehouse and delivery workers beginning March 16, as well the double-overtime pay they’re receiving, when under normal circumstances they’d get time and a half.
As satisfactory as more cash might be to workers, however, what may be even more important is the notion that they’re valued as human beings. In communicating with workers, heads of companies should “lead with the empathy, in order to keep employees feeling connected and engaged and motivated,” O’Keeffe says. They should begin emails with statements about how their thoughts are with them and their families. “It’s an opportunity for the business to really live out their actual purpose and values that they said mattered to them.”
An employee at a WinCo Foods grocery store outside Salt Lake City, who asked to remain anonymous, told From Day One that he applauds the Whole Foods workers who protested, but generally reported a satisfactory response to the crisis from his superiors. He appreciated WinCo’s efforts to limit the number of people inside the store and its enforcement of social-distancing regulations by taking steps to lay down colorful tape on the floors as lines of demarcation, now an eerily ubiquitous image at retailers.
WinCo, a majority employee-owned chain based in Boise, was also telling employees who felt sick to stay home, according to the worker, and asked managers to create a protective shield between the cashiers and customers by installing a plastic panel. Employees were also given gloves to wear while working, but not masks because, at the time, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was recommending healthy people eschew the masks so more protective gear would be available for medical personnel. (The CDC has since updated its stance, recommending people at least cover their faces with a piece of cloth.)
Still, the WinCo worker thinks more needs to be done at the store where he works. There’s a break-room paper-towel dispenser that needs to be hand cranked, and he’d like to see it replaced altogether with a touchless version. Though the store manager has provided sanitizing wipes to address the issue, some fellow employees aren’t using them, and do not seem to be taking protective measures seriously in the first place. As the worker wrote in a Reddit chat message: “I had the realization the other day that there’s a very good chance that a few of my coworkers could die and that sucks.”
However, the worker did say that many customers have recognized the employees’ resolve in showing up to work, risking their health, during the pandemic. He has “been hearing stuff all the time like ‘Thanks for being here’ and people saying we’re heroes but I don’t actually believe that. … I’m not going to work out of some sense of purpose to help fight [Covid-19]. I’m going to make ends meet and because I have to.”
Another company that employs essential workers, UPS, came under fire the week of March 20 when a number of workers complained to the media that they were not sufficiently protected. They said no masks or gloves were being provided, and the company had yet to institute contact-free delivery procedures. Some claimed they had continued showing up to work, even while experiencing coronavirus symptoms, out of fear of losing their jobs.
A UPS spokesman, Steve Gaut, told theNew York Times, “While it is possible to find an exception, our work force has been provided information and supplies to manage health risks,” including masks and hand sanitizer. He added UPS had begun disinfecting vehicles and other equipment daily, and had “substantially increased cleaning and disinfecting surfaces throughout our facilities.”
Behind the scenes, UPS was also negotiating a new Covid-19-focused agreement with the Teamsters Union, which represents UPS delivery personnel, finalized on March 19. The company agreed to provide paid leave for any worker diagnosed with the virus, required to be quarantined, or quarantined due to a family member’s illness. “UPS has also altered delivery requirements to minimize direct contact with customers by not requiring signatures from the customer,” the Teamsters said in statement.
The Teamsters’ press secretary, Kara Deniz, indicated both parties are open to further negotiations as the crisis ebbs and flows. “The Teamsters Package Division and local unions are working every day to protect the members, including daily communication with UPS in order to resolve any concerns workers face during this pandemic,” Deniz wrote this week in an email to From Day One.
At least one UPS worker may have already died from the sickness. Though it is unclear how the unnamed male, employed in a management role at a Louisville shipping hub, contracted Covid-19, several anonymous employees told Reuters he had succumbed to the virus. They also said UPS is not being transparent enough in disclosing the number of workers who’ve become ill.
The state of affairs at UPS, and so many other companies right now, indicates how fluid the developments are. Segal emphasizes that, in such conditions, it’s important for management to listen to their employees’ concerns. “They’re talking to the press now, they’re giving interviews, they’re marching, they’re picketing,” Segal says. “Sit down with them and ask them directly, ‘What is it that we’re not doing right?’ ‘What is it we should be doing?’ Or ‘What should we be doing more of?’”
Should company leaders continue with a business-as-usual approach during this crisis, NYU’s Stehlik says, a reckoning will certainly be in their future.
“I think they need to have what I call a ‘come-to-Jesus moment,’” she says. “Leaders need to be told this: ‘You will pay the price for your actions and your decisions, and so will your company.’”
Stehlik would rather see corporations view their employees as members of an extended family, which was the more prevalent sentiment across the business landscape back in the 1950s and ’60s. That has all but disappeared today, she says. If they did, leaders would likely feel more inclined to take action to protect their employees without bottom-line concerns, falling directly in line with worker expectations.
“People are seeing the hurtfulness of what’s going on,” Stehlik says. “I hate to be dramatic, but revolutions come from things like this.”
O’Keeffe suggests C-suiters even consider talking to the competition so they can collectively come to grips with the best ways to proceed forward.
“You have this whole ecosystem now that people talk about in business where it’s moving away from the traditional ‘I win, you lose’ type of mentality,” O’Keeffe says. Instead, she adds, company heads might rather ask, “How can we make the pie bigger for all of us?”
Michael Stahl is a New York City-based freelance journalist, writer and editor. You can read more of his work at MichaelStahlWrites.com, follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl, and order his first book, the autobiography of Major League Baseball pitcher Bartolo Colón, at Abrams Books.