Gig Economy Workers Are Finally Being Heard

Coronavirus-inspired protests have raised awareness around the dangers workers for companies like Amazon and Instacart face

TTonya Ramsey’s first year and a half working as ship dock associate at an Amazon warehouse near Detroit was, all things considered, a good experience. Sure, there were minor gripes, but nothing out of the ordinary. “Every workplace is always going to have some kind of complaints from employees,” she said. But at the end of the day, it was a steady paycheck to bring home to her fiancé and 11-year-old child. “I didn’t have any complaints before the pandemic,” she said. But as the novel coronavirus started to spread like wildfire across the U.S., that sense of satisfaction quickly melted away.

There has been a glut of negative reports coming out of the Amazon warehouses, which have remained open throughout the Covid-19 pandemic: Employees say the company failed to alert them to the first coronavirus cases in the facility, or to communicate a plan of action in the event that a person or surface is exposed to coronavirus (which can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on plastic for up to three days). Workers also claim there is a shortage of cleaning supplies and say there’s been no guarantee of paid sick leave. After workers in a warehouse in New York walked out on Monday, Amazon garnered further criticism when it fired one of the action’s organizers, Chris Smalls.

For Ramsey, 29, those grievances added up to a breaking point. “We’re getting more cases of Covid-19 confirmed in our building,” she said, noting that there had so far been three confirmed cases of coronavirus in the warehouse. (Michigan has been among the worst-hit states: It ranks third in the country for coronavirus deaths with over 300.)

“The building should be closed and sanitized properly. And when they’re telling us that we have confirmed Covid-19 cases, that’s all they’re telling us,” she continued.“They’re not telling us the department, the shift, nothing.”

Social distancing is also a near-impossibility in the warehouses, according to Ramsey. “They are trying to keep us six feet apart as best as they can. But if anybody’s ever been in an Amazon warehouse, that’s very hard to maintain while doing your job,” she said. “They do have hand sanitizers in some of the buildings, some of the hand sanitizers are empty. It’s hard to find cleaning wipes, like Lysol or Clorox wipes” — which are currently sold out on Amazon. Ramsey said the warehouse has not supplied them with masks in about four weeks, though it does provide gloves. “They’re trying, but it’s not enough.”

After talking it through with some colleagues on Facebook, Ramsey decided to take action: Together with Mario Crippen, another employee at the Detroit warehouse, she organized a walkout of her own. “We just started telling people on Facebook,” she said. “We printed out flyers, passed them along at work. And, we went on word of mouth.” On Wednesday she was joined by about 40 of her colleagues who walked out in protest. “The work we do is essential,” she told me, “but our lives are just as essential as our products.” In a statement sent to GEN, Amazon spokesperson Owen Torres said the company was “working hard to keep employees safe while serving communities and the most vulnerable” and had 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.”

Ramsey’s actions are part of a larger trend not just at Amazon, which is seeing worker protests across the country, but in the gig economy part of the tech sector at large: Employees who provide essential services and deliveries for companies such as Uber, Instacart, and DoorDash are speaking out against what they say are unjust and unsafe working conditions. “They’re taking on the bodily risk that consumers are avoiding,” said Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. “Given that they have become essential in to our lives, I think the potential here is full for there to be an alliance between consumers and workers.”

The tactics employed by the protestors aren’t new. Organizing has been a major force in the U.S. since the Industrial Revolution, and people have been staging walkouts and strikes for more than a century. But coronavirus brings a new degree of national attention — and sympathy — for the blue-collar employees at the 21st century’s tech behemoths. “The average person who is maybe middle class and doesn’t think about these things on an everyday basis now has to think about these things,” Dubal said. “You are forced to think about the health and safety of the workers because you are so fundamentally reliant on them for your own livelihood and life.”

Dubal, for one, is optimistic the ongoing protests will garner more of the public’s support and could even lead to substantive labor reform. “These direct actions are very powerful. Not just in meeting the demands of the workers, but also in spreading the word about what this work is like.”

Such an outcome would, as labor experts have pointed out, be unusual; organizing normally ramps up when the economy is in good shape and companies are vying for both the market and the workforce, giving employees good leverage. “Usually in recessions, you see demand across most kinds of work collapse,” said Matthew Bidwell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Demand has absolutely cratered in some sectors. We’re unlikely to see many hotel workers and restaurant workers unionizing. But there’s so much demand all of a sudden for deliveries, suddenly the workers do have some serious bargaining power.”

“They are trying to keep us six feet apart as best as they can. But if anybody’s ever been in an Amazon warehouse, that’s very hard to maintain while doing your job.”

At Instacart, workers have seized on that opportunity, declaring earlier this week that they would refuse to accept grocery orders until their demands — namely, access to disinfectant, safety gear, and hazard pay — were met. The Instacart protest was organized by the Gig Workers Collective, a new activist organization started last year by a group of Instacart employees.

“I think Instacart has profited enormously off of this pandemic. In many communities, you can’t even place an order right now because they’re so backlogged,” said Robin Pape, an Instacart shopper who’s also a 41-year-old single mom and disabled veteran, as well as one of the Gig Workers Collective’s founding members. Indeed, Instacart announced last month it would hire 300,000 more shoppers during the pandemic. Those shoppers are classified as independent contractors, meaning they’re afforded very few labor protections. That’s what makes the idea of the 15,000-member Gig Workers Collective so powerful — it provides strength through numbers, and loops in nonemployees to their cause.

“We’ve limited our requests to things that are health and safety-related for us, and for the consumer,” Pape said. “We’ve asked them to provide hand sanitizer, masks, and wipes to drivers so that we can do our best to not be vectors of the virus.” Pape said that while Instacart did promise to provide hand sanitizer to its shoppers, it would not be shipping until mid-April.

Meanwhile, Instacart shoppers must contend with dangerous working conditions, without any health benefits nor the assurance of hazard pay. An internal email sent to shoppers this week showed that there was a confirmed case of coronavirus at a market in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (In a statement emailed to GEN, an Instacart spokesperson said the company “immediately communicated with the Instacart in-store shoppers who worked at the same location as this individual to ensure they had real-time details about the situation unfolding at their store.”)

“We were asking for a $5 hazard pay per order,” Pape said. “They didn’t respond to that.”

Writer and editor. Previously at Medium, Pacific Standard, Wired

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