As 10 million Americans file for unemployment and the economy crumbles as the coronavirus ravages the country, one aspect of American life has proven unshakeable: the absolutely staggering wealth of Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos.
For the third year in the row, Mr Bezos has earned the top spot in Forbes’ list of billionaires.
Despite his $40 billion divorce – a contributing factor to the $18 billion drop in his net worth last year, bringing him down to a paltry $113 billion – Mr Bezos is still the man on top.
Download the new Independent Premium app
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
Just over half the world’s billionaires have lost money due to the virus, collectively losing $700 billion since 2019. Taking their losses into account, this year the billionaires are worth only $8 trillion.
According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the United States’ median household income was $63,179 in 2018.
While Mr Bezos enjoys the top of the pyramid, the people who actually generate the profit for his company have been protesting what they claim is the company “valuing profit over safety”.
For its part, Amazon has re-prioritised its shipping, making sure “essential” goods are shipped first. The workers that make those shipments possible are – in some instances – are pushing back against the company.
Amazon warehouse workers said the company is tracking them and firing them if they fail to socially distance themselves from their coworkers, even receiving letters stating that they could be fired for a single infraction.
In Staten Island, New York, Amazon warehouse workers staged a walkout on 30 March over complaints that the company was refusing to close the facility despite increasing numbers of coronavirus cases among their coworkers.
Though reports on the numbers differ – the workers say more than 50 walked out, but Amazon says it was no more than 15 – there nonetheless was a walkout and the worker who organised it, Chris Smalls, was fired hours after it happened.
Amazon insisted Mr Smalls was fired for failing to social distance himself, but leaked emails first obtained by Vice News showed Amazon executives’ plans to smear Mr Smalls and use him to dishearten the bubbling labour movement in the company.
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position that simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, said in the notes.
“We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organisers’ conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,” Mr Zapolsky wrote. “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organising movement.”
When confronted with his own words, Mr Zapolsky told The Verge his emotions got the better of him, but doubled down on the argument that Mr Smalls’ firing was done to protect workers.
When it comes to protecting workers during the pandemic, Amazon is ready and willing to fire a solitary organiser for allegedly violating social distancing rules, but less enthusiastic about shutting down facilities unless forced to by the government.
The governor of Kentucky had to force the company to close a returns processing warehouse after three employees there tested positive for the coronavirus, and a sorting centre in Queens, New York, was closed for cleaning only after workers there walked out to protest the handling of virus cases at the facility.
The company also has yet to implement any paid sick leave policies for the warehouse workers. An anonymous employee told the Daily Mail that the company sends them texts every time a new worker tests positive and reminds them they can simply stop working – without pay – if they’re concerned.
“They send us a very standard text every time they learn of a new case, reminding us that our ‘health and safety are most important,’ before reminding us we can take as much time off without pay as we like,” the employee said.
The employee noted that while it’s helpful to have the option to not come into work if they’re scared, for most employees, choosing not to come in means choosing not to eat, or not to pay rent.
“Of course, anyone with bills to pay will have to go back eventually,” the employee said.
Amazon has not responded to a request for comment.