Thursday, April 23, 2020

Coronavirus update 4-23-2020: Your employees walk out in protest over coronavirus-related working conditions. Now what?

This week, Amazon workers are protesting what they view as unsafe working conditions. 300 workers from 50 facilities will skip their scheduled shift to protest Amazon’s treatment of warehouse workers.

According to United for Respect, the worker rights group organizing the protest, says that the Amazon employees are hoping to accomplish the following.

  • When an employee tests positive, the immediate notification of all employees at the facility, and the closure of the facility for two weeks with full pay.
  • Regular and deep cleaning of all facilities, including after a positive test.
  • The provision of proper safety equipment to all employees, with training on effective use.
  • 14 days of paid sick leave for anyone with symptoms and 12 weeks of emergency paid family leave for employees to care for loved ones who get sick.
  • Healthcare for all Amazon employees.
  • Hazard pay, including time-and-a-half during the crisis and childcare pay and subsidies.

Amazon employees are not unionized, and this isn’t a strike. It’s a short-term walkout of non-unionized employees. Just because these employees aren’t unionized, however, doesn’t mean that their walkout isn’t protected. In fact, it’s very protected. The National Labor Relations Act covers employees who engage in protected concerted activity—meaning that employees have the right to talk between and among themselves about terms and conditions of employment, including walking off the job in protest.

An employer’s first instinct might be to fire the instigators (as Amazon is accused of doing). That would be a big mistake. The NLRA protects employees from retaliation after engaging in protected concerted activity. It’s also just a really bad look, especially now. 

Instead, I’d view these protests as a wake-up call. 

For starters, we know that one or more labor unions are in employees’ ears helping them organize their walk-outs. A mass walk-out could easily lead to a mass walk-in to the nearest NLRB field office to file an election petition. Don’t offer the union more ammo by firing the organizers.

Secondly, this type of protest offers employers an amazing opportunity to heal some wounds. Amazon likely won’t offer these employees each item on their laundry list of demands, but it should consider all of them and offer those that can be accommodated.

These employees just want to feel safe and know that their employer takes their concerns seriously. At the end of the day this is not that big of an ask, and treating it as such only makes the situation worse.

* Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash