Barring unforeseen circumstances (if such things exist anymore), come late 2021, Amazon will open a massive "fulfillment" center on Albuquerque's west side and employ 1,000 people. According to the Albuquerque Journal, which reported the opening last week, Amazon says those employees will be paid $15 an hour and the center will use robots to help fill orders.
From a certain perspective, this might constitute good news: 1,000 new jobs announced in the midst of massive pandemic-inspired unemployment and robots to help bear the brunt of backbreaking work.
That perspective, though, requires ignoring Amazon's shoddy reputation when it comes to warehouse employees, whose lots have only worsened since the pandemic, and the company's use of technology to pressure and spy on its workers.
Last November, I interviewed Beth Gutelius, a Santa Fe resident and associate director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, after she co-authored an extensive academic report on the future of warehouse work, which disclosed, among other findings, Amazon's propensity for using technology to surveil and isolate employees.
"We think of robots and technology as being able to make workers' jobs easier," Gutelius said to me in an interview last week. "Instead we found that it was having the opposite effect." Many of these technologies, she notes, "do have the potential to make workers' jobs better" by eliminating repetitive motions, for instance. But warehouse employers are instead deploying them to speed up workers' tasks through surveillance, tracking, "nudging" and sometimes "disciplining" them, all via automation. "This is happening across the warehousing sector," she says, and "Amazon is the front edge of that spear; it's doing the most experimentation, it's pushing most at the limits of the human body."
A February 2018 Atlantic magazine article about Amazon's expansion into San Bernardino, California quoted one Amazon employee, in describing the pressurized environment: "They make it like the Hunger Games…That's what we actually call it."
Those conditions have led to notable worker safety issues. A 2019 Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting investigation found the rates of injuries at Amazon warehouses were more than double the national average for the general warehousing industry.
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the stakes, with employees holding walkouts over unsafe conditions, and everyone from activist groups to US senators criticizing the company for its treatment of employees and whistleblowers. The pandemic also brought, Gutelius, says, an often-invisible workforce "out of the shadows." So-called essential workers became designated as such "because we're now relying on them and they're being asked to sacrifice or risk their own health and that of their families and communities so the rest of us can stay home."
Back to the new Amazon warehouse slated for Albuquerque.
Advocacy group OLÉ member Jeanne Van Amburg says "the main concern is that Amazon is going to come in and not provide [employees] sick pay, hazard pay and protective equipment, proper protection for all of its employees that they are going to be hiring." Concern in general about essential employees when the pandemic hit prompted Van Amburg, a health care worker herself, to become involved with OLÉ in the first place. "We want people to stay in to prevent the spread of this, but not everyone is lucky enough to have sick pay and hazard pay or even something so simple as a mask."
Both Gutelius and Van Amburg discussed the need for employees to not fear retaliation when they speak out against unsafe working conditions, as has been documented at Amazon. "That is a common fear for people everywhere," Van Amburg says, "this retaliation, this fear of not being able to provide for themselves or their family."
I asked Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham any concerns she might have, during last week's COVID-19 press conference, related to Amazon employee safety. "No employer, new or old, can be in a position to not adequately protect the public or workers," Lujan Grisham said, pointing toward the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as a resource for workers.
"I have to respectfully disagree with the governor," Gutelius says. "OSHA is a massively underfunded institution…they don't have enough inspectors and the penalties that OSHA is able to levy on bad actors are most of the time so inconsequential to those businesses that they don't actually deter bad behavior."
Ideally, Van Amburg and Gutelius say, local government would mandate protections for Amazon's New Mexico workers before the company arrives.
But workers' fates don't lie solely in the hands of government. The "state of suspension" COVID-19 has created does provide consumers, at least, some options going forward. "I think we have to be very discriminate about what lands again," Gutelius says. "And one of the things we should question is, 'Who are we here for?' Are we showing up for [Amazon owner and New Mexico native] Jeff Bezos, or are we showing up for nurses and warehouse workers and grocery store workers? We can't change everything…but we can make some decisions about how we spend our money and what we're supporting."