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US workers face 'turkey apocalypse' as demand surges amid pandemic

Michael Sainato
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Lisa Baertlein/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Lisa Baertlein/Reuters

US retailers have rolled out their traditional Black Friday and Christmas sales and shoppers look eager to make big savings, but this year’s spending bonanza means potentially worsening labor and health safety conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers in the warehouses that supply all the consumer goods.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, essential workers in grocery, retail and warehouses that handle online orders have struggled with coronavirus outbreaks in the workplace, increased workloads, and revoked hazard pay for months.

Workers expect the holiday shopping season to exacerbate these conditions as coronavirus cases in the US near 200,000 per day and daily death rates are reaching numbers unseen since economic shutdowns earlier this year.

Despite the pandemic and restrictions on in-person shopping, consumer spending in the US is projected to increase this holiday shopping season from last year by 1% to 1.5% between November and January 2021, according to Deloitte’s annual holiday retail forecast. Online shopping is expected to dramatically increase, with projections of between $182bn to $196bn in e-commerce holiday sales revenue.

That’s likely to be good news for the retail industry, but not for its workers.

Courtenay Brown, who works at an Amazon Fresh fulfillment center in Newark, New Jersey, explained demand and workloads, already high due to the coronavirus pandemic, have worsened with Thanksgiving and holiday shopping, while workers continue getting sick from coronavirus and are faced with mandatory overtime shifts.

“Right now we’re going through the turkey apocalypse,” said Brown. “It’s chaos. Everyday we’re being pushed to do even more and more. The amount of stress everyone is under is ridiculous.”

Brown, who is also organizing with United for Respect in a call for large retailers to enact a $5 hazard pay for essential workers, criticized the decision of the Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, to rescind a $2-an-hour hazard pay from Amazon workers in June 2020 despite ongoing risks for coronavirus exposure and Amazon’s immense profits through the pandemic, with a significant jump in sales projected for Amazon through the holiday shopping season.

“The pandemic is making literally one of the world’s most selfish, disgusting human beings in the world even richer. Even if they didn’t want to give us hazard pay, there are so many things he could have done for the country with the money he’s made,” she added.

Several large US retailers have profited immensely during the pandemic, but have shared little of those profits with workers in the form of additional compensation.

In a report conducted by the Brookings Institution, Amazon and Walmart were found to be among the least generous to workers of large US retailers analyzed in the report. Despite a combined extra $10.9bn in profits compared to 2019, Amazon paid workers an average $0.95 an hour in coronavirus compensation and Walmart $0.63 an hour.

The owners of Walmart, Rob, Jim and Alice Walton, have seen their net worth climb by $48bn during the pandemic. Amazon’s Bezos increased his wealth by 62% since the pandemic began, to $188.3bn as of 17 November.

A Walmart cashier in California, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, complained that workers have to use their own paid time off days if they want to be compensated for Thanksgiving day, for which Walmart closed its stores after previous years where they remained open and provided no holiday pay to employees.

“While this is the first Thanksgiving we’ve had off in years, Walmart will automatically pull from our paid time off to cover the day, or they’ll pull from sick days or the day is unpaid if we don’t have enough,” they said.

“We lost a lot of people so the workloads on us have tripled,” said a Walmart associate in North Carolina. “We can’t keep up so we have to do all we can as fast as we can with impossible expectations from managers and customers.”

Workers at Amazon-owned Whole Foods claim working conditions have worsened during the pandemic, and risks posed by coronavirus are even greater since a $2-an-hour hazard pay was revoked in June 2020. With the holidays coming up, stores have gotten even busier in dealing with holiday orders while coronavirus cases among staff continue to occur.

“The conditions are even more hazardous with all the customers who refuse to wear masks and lockdown restrictions having been lifted. The store is more crowded with customers and Amazon Prime shoppers,” said a Whole Foods associate in Birmingham, Michigan, who requested to remain anonymous.

A Whole Foods associate in New Orleans noted morale had been low throughout the pandemic, even more so since hazard pay was cancelled, and departments are widely understaffed, but are still expected to complete extra work through the holidays.

“Upper management is pushing departments to do more than they are capable of for the holidays for platters, meals and special orders, but everyone has made it known what kind of a strain this is on them,” they said.

At Target, an associate in Oklahoma explained team members are not permitted to work over 40 hours in a week, but the holiday season is the best scheduling hours they receive throughout the year due to the increased demand. With several coronavirus cases at her store and an influx of seasonal employees, they are nervous about working.

“It’s been very busy. They sometimes will schedule people for six, seven or eight days in a row as long as they don’t hit 40 hours,” they said. “The new seasonal team members receive very little training and are sent out without really knowing how to do their assigned jobs, which is frustrating, and they won’t even tell us which department the coronavirus case is in when it’s reported so we can know if we should get tested or not.”