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COMMENTARY: Dying to Work — Amazon, Other Frontline Workers Bear Brunt Of COVID-19

NNPA NEWSWIRE — Nationally, workers have voiced… complaints about a lack of protective equipment such as masks, inefficient sanitizing of workspaces, and failure by some employers to honor the social distancing as recommended by the CDC to protect themselves from contracting the coronavirus.

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Many have expressed anxiety about facing a kind of “Sophie’s Choice,” that is, forced to choose between going to work and possibly risk being exposed to the coronavirus or staying at home and not being able to put food on the table or pay bills. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

Many Forced to Choose Between Safety and Paying the Bills

By Mel Reeves, Community Editor, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

“The organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal,” is how an Amazon official sought to frame the efforts of one of its workers who was fired by the company. The worker, Christian Smalls, had tried to bring attention to unsafe working conditions at an Amazon warehouse in New York City.

Smalls had complained about the lack of gloves and masks and that the company had not been forthcoming in sharing with workers that others in the warehouse had contracted the virus, putting everyone at risk.

The official Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky also wrote in notes during a company meeting that included Amazon head Jeff Bezos, that Smalls who is Black, was not “smart or articulate.” Ironically, Smalls has told his story to several national news outlets, including a major news network.

Nationally, workers have voiced similar complaints about a lack of protective equipment such as masks, inefficient sanitizing of workspaces, and failure by some employers to honor the social distancing as recommended by the CDC to protect themselves from contracting the coronavirus.

Many have expressed anxiety about facing a kind of “Sophie’s Choice,” that is, forced to choose between going to work and possibly risk being exposed to the coronavirus or staying at home and not being able to put food on the table or pay bills.

The MSR last weekend asked a few employees at one of the local Minneapolis Cub stores why they were not wearing masks. Two of them said management had told them they didn’t want them to wear masks. They said management cited the CDC as declaring people do not need to wear masks to be safe from contracting COVID-19.

Asked if management had been informed that the CDC has since changed its guidelines, they said they were not sure. “I hope it changes,” said one employee who wished to remain anonymous.” I definitely want to protect myself.”

Amazon fired Smalls last week after he led a walkout by a number of employees at a Staten Island distribution warehouse. Amazon says he was fired for violating a company-imposed 14-day quarantine after he came into contact with an employee who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Smalls disputes this, saying the employee who tested positive came into contact with many other workers for longer periods of time before their test came back. He said he was singled out because he wanted the company to sanitize the work area and be forthright about the numbers of fellow workers who had contracted the virus.

Amazon workers have been particularly vocal across the country as social media has shared protests by workers holding signs denouncing their working conditions. “This disease is killing people on a daily basis,” one worker who wished to remain anonymous told Business Insider. “As people are testing positive for it where I work, they still expect for us to come there.”

The U.S. Postal Service has confirmed that 259 employees have tested positive for the virus in its workforce of 630,000. To date, two letter carriers in New York City, one in Montgomery, Alabama and one in Detroit have died after contracting the virus.

The Postal Service has sought to make gloves and masks available in all of its work stations, but employees still say basic items are not available. More than 85,000 workers have signed a petition asking for better protections.

The Washington Post recently reported that four grocery store workers have died after contracting the novel coronavirus. Two were Walmart workers who worked at the Evergreen Park Walmart in Chicago, one was a worker at Trader Joes in Scarsdale, New York, and another was a grocery greeter at a Giant store in Largo, Maryland.

A Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove, whose Facebook rant warned people to be careful and be responsible died from the virus only weeks after posting the video. A bus driver in King County, Washington also succumbed to the disease last week; he too had been vocal about having his transit company provide better protection for him and his fellow drivers.

According to the Daily Mail, 22 New York City transit workers have died after contracting COVID-19.

Four workers at New York’s Shop Rite stores have come down with the disease. Frontline healthcare workers have also been contracting the virus in increasing numbers. A number of them have died.

Workers for American Airlines have reported that a few of their co-workers have come down with confirmed cases of COVID-19. A worker for an American Airlines regional carrier in Boston said, “Since my co-workers have come down with it, you would expect that they would at least investigate who the worker has been in contact with and have them quarantined.

“They are basically saying they don’t care if it spreads to our families or the general public. No serious measures have been taken to do anything about exposures.”

Eddie Ortiz, an assistant manager at the New York store Gristedes, described his staff as tireless frontline warriors. “They didn’t hesitate for one minute to stay and meet the needs of the public,” he said.

Several of the country’s most prominent union leaders and a number of New York political leaders have demanded that Amazon rescind Smalls’ dismissal. New York State Attorney General Letitia James and Mayor Bill de Blasio called for an investigation into Smalls’ firing. James called Smalls’ firing “immoral.”

“At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from COVID-19,” James said in a statement. “In New York, the right to organize is codified into law, and any retaliatory action by management related thereto is strictly prohibited. At a time when so many New Yorkers are struggling and are deeply concerned about their safety, this action was also immoral and inhumane.”

According to Amazon their workers are heroes: “The truth is the vast majority of employees continue to show up and do the heroic work of delivering for customers every day,” said a company spokesperson.

“Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe,” said Smalls. “…We won’t stop until Amazon provides real protections for our health and safety and clarity for everybody about what it is doing to keep people safe in the middle of the worst pandemic of our lifetimes.”

Smalls told the MSR that it was important for him to express solidarity with fellow Amazon workers in Minnesota and the rest of the country and urged them to, “take the power back. We are the power. If they are not caring about your well-being, then walk out! Without us they are nothing.”

Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to mreeves@spokesman-recorder.com.

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

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Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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