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The Obscenity of Amazon Prime Day in a Pandemic

For warehouse workers, Amazon’s brutal workload has always been dangerous. Covid makes it that much worse.

A protester holds an Amazon box while demonstrating against Jeff Bezos.
Kevin Hagen/Getty Images

This year, in the lead-up to Amazon Prime Day, Forbes reported that Jeff Bezos and his ex-wife, Mackenzie Scott, had respectively gotten $8.8 billion and $3 billion richer over the course of a week, thanks to a rebound in Amazon share prices. Because Bezos’s fortune has grown so astronomically throughout the pandemic—that is, during the same cataclysmic event that destroyed the economy and put as many as 40 million people out of work—updates on his snowballing wealth are at this point hardly shocking (if no less nauseating). But this year, the same annual shopping event that lines his already overstuffed pockets could potentially be a matter of life and death for those lower down on the company ladder.

According to at least one estimate, Amazon is expected to rake in close to $10 billion in sales from this year’s Prime Day, which usually takes place in July but was rescheduled this summer because of the pandemic. (How thoughtful!) Its workers, of course, won’t be sharing in that bounty unless you count some mandatory overtime. This year, Prime Day also comes right on the heels of a new disclosure by the company—following pressure from workers and labor unions—that nearly 20,000 of its employees have tested positive for Covid-19 to date. As CNN reported, Amazon workers scheduled for Prime Day shifts said they were worried about crowded warehouses and the strain of extra work; one union in the U.K. warned that the increased staffing required by the event could lead to further Covid-19 outbreaks. (Amazon, for its part, dismissed this rather feasible scenario as “scaremongering.”)

Despite the company’s professed observance of safety guidelines, Amazon’s warehouse conditions, particularly during the pandemic, have been questionable enough to have generated multiple worker protests and work stoppages over the past several months. In September, an investigation in Reveal by journalist Will Evans further found that injuries in Amazon warehouses have been on the rise since 2016, partly as a result of the use of new warehouse robots (which were, ironically, supposed to reduce instances of human injury) and, as it happens, the advent of Prime Day. Though Amazon has claimed in the past that injuries at its facilities don’t increase during busy periods, documents obtained by Evans indicate otherwise. “For years, the internal data show, injury rates have spiked during the weeks of Prime Day and Cyber Monday, contrary to Amazon’s public claims,” Evans wrote. “Those two weeks had the highest rate of serious injuries for all of 2019.”

And there aren’t many promising signs that things have improved much for Prime Day this year. Just last week, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Oklahoma told Vice that the company was denying or ignoring pregnant employees’ requests for lighter work or other accommodations, even when those requests were accompanied by doctors’ notes. The stress of physical labor and the possibility of miscarrying eventually forced some of those women to quit, which in turn left them in dire financial straits. “They treat us like nothing,” one worker told Vice. “Me and other pregnant women want to start a petition because I feel like they count us like bodies instead of people.”

At the same time, the ongoing hardship wrought by the pandemic—and employers’ indifference to it—has also prompted a surge of worker militancy, not least of all at places like Amazon, and Prime Day is an occasion for that, too. Amazon warehouse workers in Germany went on strike on Tuesday, and a few days ago, a group of protesters—including former Amazon employee Chris Smalls, who was fired from a New York warehouse for organizing a walkout in March—gathered in front of Jeff Bezos’s Los Angeles mansion to call for higher pay for workers and steeper taxes on the company and its founder. “The richest man in the world made $88 billion in the course of the pandemic. It’s time to fight back,” Smalls told CBS News. One billion dollars—let alone 88—is already an incomprehensible sum; for context, consider that one million seconds constitutes a little over 11 days, whereas one billion seconds amounts to more than 31 years. There’s an argument to be made, in other words, that it simply shouldn’t exist.