Retail

Worker Illness Could Sideline Amazon's Success

Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) has been identified as one of the largest successes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rumors have spread that CEO Jeff Bezos has returned to his office to navigate the way forward, which may make Amazon the largest retailer in America. However, Amazon’s management faces what could be an insurmountable enemy, which is illnesses among its own workers and their desire to be protected from illness.

The most recent sign of friction between Amazon and its employees is management’s plan to ask workers who do not return to their jobs by May 1 to take a leave of absence. Those who opt for that leave eventually may lose some of their pay and benefits. Amazon’s plans for these decisions have not been entirely clarified.

What is very clear is that some warehouse workers and people who run Amazon’s distribution hubs insist that the company has not done enough to protect them from COVID-19 infection. Some of these workers have turned to the courts to force Amazon’s hand. The most recent of these is a decision by a French court to stop shipping nonessential items from Amazon’s warehouses, thereby cutting the number of employees at those locations and they peak hours they may work.

Amazon’s advantage as it faces more worker dissent is the lack of a union among its employees. The leverage that unions like the UAW had against America’s largest car companies does not exist. This, in turn, dilutes any plan by Amazon workers to shut down large parts of the company. It would take a grassroots approach or a major court victory to hobble Amazon’s ability to work full tilt in the United States.

Between the option of a labor organization by a union or a court order, circumstances certainly favor one or more court orders. The legal case that workers would need to win is that Amazon endangers their health because it lacks sufficient plans to protect them. What worked in a court in France may work in the United States.

Amazon could end up as the owner of a huge percentage of the retail industry by the end of the year, as its revenue grows and brick-and-mortar businesses fail. That is, unless it is undone by its own employees.