Growing discontent among some 'essential' workers during COVID-19 crisis

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Romulus — Bright-blue surgical gloves and masks littered the driveway into a full parking lot at's Romulus fulfillment center, where workers planned a walkout Wednesday.

But only a handful of warehouse's 4,000 workers joined the strike outside the facility on Ecorse during the shift change at noon, proclaiming their work through the COVID-19 crisis is "not by choice but by necessity." 

A worker who didn't want to be identified holds a sign after she and other Amazon employees walked out of the company's fulfillment center in Romulus.

They're not the only "essential workers" caught in the dilemma. 

On Friday, the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association sent a request to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to deem all construction projects non-essential under her stay-at-home order. And some workers for grocery-delivery company Instacart staged a walkout Monday.

The protest at Amazon was the third walkout against the online retailer nationally this week. Workers who chose to leave the Metro Detroit facility are angry, saying the company is failing to protect public health and the safety of its workers, customers and communities. They are calling for a shutdown and sanitizing of the facility and a decrease in staff who aren't "essential."

Inside, the employees — who could be seen pressed up against the glass watching the demonstration — are being forced to choose between a paycheck and the safety of their families, protesters said.

Road worker concern

Road workers, who have been worried about the safety, want to stay off job sites and send their protective equipment like masks to hospitals, where it is needed most, said Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association.

"Our goal was to put the health and safety of our employees and families first and secondly, allow as much PPE [personal protective equipment] to go to front lines, and if our industry workers were sitting at home, that would give hospitals time to catch up," Nystrom said. "This is for the long haul we’re truly going to be in."

Every road project has been deemed essential, but "that's not what's intended in a crisis," he said. "Our workforce will face the biggest challenge."

The Michigan Department of Transportation and the state worked with MITA to give more definition of which essential projects had to be completed. With the shortage of workers and protective equipment, and a backlog with suppliers and subcontractors, MDOT will be working with contractors to extend dates and allow more flexibility.

"Where the hotspots are, we’re having more challenges," Nystrom said. "And where there isn’t as much outbreak in other areas of the state, there are people going back to work, but the concerns of the industry are spread across the state. Many are going back to work where they're needed following the CDC's guidelines, but the long-term effects and fear will linger."

One-day strikes

Some workers for grocery-delivery company Instacart workers walked off the job Monday demanding greater safeguards against the coronavirus, even as both companies are speed-hiring hundreds of thousands of new workers to handle a surge in delivery orders.

Instacart workers are demanding $5 in hazard pay per order and a tip default on the ordering app of at least 10%. The company instead announced Sunday that it would change the tip default to the amount last paid by the client, saying workers are seeing a surge in tips amid the pandemic.

The one-day strike had little impact on consumers, but the unrest called attention to mounting discontent among low-wage workers who are on the front lines of the pandemic, serving the needs of those who can keep safe working from home. 

Both Instacart and Amazon say they are working to equip their workers with sanitation gear and have taken steps to increase pay and extend paid sick time. Both have offered workers with the virus two-weeks of paid time off and Amazon's hourly workers are able to take unlimited unpaid time off.

Still, there is growing discontent among some workers that it’s not worth the risk.

Two positive cases of coronavirus were confirmed at the Romulus Amazon facility in recent days, with a third confirmed in a text to workers Wednesday morning, protest organizers said.

"A lot of people are thinking about their bills first," said Jordan Jackson, a sorter at the facility for more than a year. "All of this is fear-based. Everybody's afraid. They don't know what to do and nobody wants to stand alone."

Jackson, from Detroit, said the baby wipes being passed out to employees aren't of any use. He decided to join the protest because he doesn't feel like Amazon is playing an essential role during the pandemic.

"People are ordering the same stuff as usual," said Jackson, 25. "If it was purely medical supplies and if Amazon actually stepped up and did that then I'd be much more willing to put myself which feels like in the front lines because we get stuff from everywhere, but that's not what's going on... It's people ordering the same cat litter, toys, ramen noodles."

Amazon fired a worker who organized a walkout at a New York warehouse to demand greater protection against the coronavirus. Amazon said the worker had received several warnings for violating social-distancing guidelines and refused to stay home.

"We are scared to go to work and disgusted at Amazon's disregard for our safety and our health and the health of our neighbors,” said Tonya Ramsay, a leader of the walkout and a worker at Amazon's Detroit distribution center. “We aren't heroes and we aren't Red Cross workers — we are working people who pack and deliver goods. We're working through a crisis not by choice but by necessity."

Mecca Shabazz, from Detroit, has worked at the Hazel Park Amazon warehouse for two years and said she hopes the protesters don't get in trouble.

“I’m hoping they don’t get repercussions from that,” said Shabazz, 24. “I see their efforts, but I just know they’re not going to shut it down.”

She said workers are complaining because they need the money, but the ones that are truly fearful for their families are staying home.

“They’re hiring more people every day," Shabazz said, "so they're like 'If ya’ll don’t want to do it, another person will.'"

Staff Writer Ariana Taylor and The Associated Press contributed.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_