It’s been clear for weeks that Amazon faces an unprecedented challenge in coping with the fallout from COVID-19. With tens of millions of Americans now dependent on online delivery for their food, medicine, and other essential items, the nation’s No. 1 e-commerce company is buckling under increased demand. And as fulfillment center employees are diagnosed with the virus across the country, Amazon’s already-restive workforce has escalated its efforts to win better pay and safer working conditions. Among other things, employees at affected locations have simply walked off the job.
You’ve likely felt the affects of the crisis on Amazon if you attempted to order anything from the company in March. Once lightning-fast delivery times stretched into days and weeks. In the case of grocery deliveries in San Francisco, Amazon had no available slots for Tuesday or Wednesday.
Still, we really don’t know how badly Amazon is stretched. The company continues to communicate via carefully worded statements to a handful of reporters, and CEO Jeff Bezos has been absent from public life aside from one leaked memo and a pair of lengthily captioned Instagram photos.
Fortunately, the Wall Street Journal is here to shed some light. Reporter Dana Mattioli and Sebastian Herrera lay out the company’s struggles today in a must-read piece that brings new data to the conversation. They write:
Amazon has been processing from 10% to 40% more packages than normal for this time of year, according to an employee tally at one delivery center. The company’s website had 639,330,722 visits for the week of March 9, according to data from Comscore, up 32% from the year earlier.
From Feb. 20 to March 23, Amazon’s sales of toilet paper increased 186% from the year-earlier period, according to analytics firm CommerceIQ, which said that before the coronavirus hit it had forecast a 7% increase for the period. CommerceIQ said sales of cough and cold medicine grew by 862%, compared with a forecast growth rate of 110%, and children’s vitamins by 287%, compared with a forecast rate of 49%.
Even after 25 years, Amazon still tends to white-knuckle it through every holiday season, barely keeping up with demand despite months of preparation. The Journal story illustrates how every day of March was essentially Black Friday for the company. According to the analytics firm CommerceIQ, sales of home and kitchen items on Amazon are up 1,181 percent year over year. Even if a business sees a surge in sales coming early — and Amazon did begin ramping up supplies of face masks and health care supplies in January after spotting the initial spike in demand — I’m not sure there’s a company on earth that could have handled the deluge in orders.
But the story of Amazon’s struggle against the coronavirus is not simply one of demand. It’s also a story about the company’s increasingly fractious relationship with its own workforce. For years now, a growing body of journalism has documented how Amazon’s relentless drive for efficiency in its fulfillment centers has led to injury and even death. And now these employees are working shoulder to shoulder with colleagues who may be infected with a deadly virus and spreading it before they even show symptoms.
It’s an incredibly fraught moment for these workers — but it’s also a moment when they have more leverage with their employer than perhaps they’ve ever had before. The Journal story notes that Amazon caved on several longstanding worker demands — including raises and paid time off — after the majority of workers at some sites did not show up for their shifts.
On Monday and Tuesday, these workers — as well as workers at Amazon-owned Whole Foods and the independent grocery delivery service Instacart — pressed their advantage. Across the country, workers staged walkouts, strikes, and sickouts to demand hazard pay and better health protections. Nitasha Tiku and Jay Greene captured the moment in the Washington Post:
Amazon’s warehouse workers have asked the company to offer paid time off for those who feel sick or need to self-quarantine, as well as to temporarily close warehouses for cleaning where workers test positive. One sign at Monday’s protest read, “Alexa, please shut down & sanitize the building,” referring to the company’s digital assistant.
About 50 workers walked out Monday, according to Chris Smalls, a worker at the warehouse who helped organize the action. Amazon, which is trying to hire 100,000 workers to address the crush of coronavirus-related orders, disputed that figure, as well as the complaints that it’s not doing enough to protect workers. Only 15 employees participated in the demonstration out of 5,000 who work at the warehouse, Amazon spokeswoman Lisa Levandowski said in an emailed statement.
Here’s Amazon’s choice in a nutshell. It could grant workers paid time off if they feel sick but haven’t tested positive for the coronavirus, further reducing its shipping capacity in the short term. Or it could deny their requests for as long as possible, buying the company time as it rolls out a plan to bring on 100,000 new workers. The former choice strikes me as the moral one. The latter is the one that will be justified as “customer obsession.”
But the previous few weeks have made me wonder where Amazon would be today if it were as “obsessed” with the well being of its workers as it was with the people buying all those household products. My colleague Josh Dzieza wrote earlier this year about how the company has increasingly come to treat its warehouse workers as robots, automating every possible aspect of their jobs in the name of efficiency. This passage about eliminating “micro rests” has stayed with me:
Every Amazon worker I’ve spoken to said it’s the automatically enforced pace of work, rather than the physical difficulty of the work itself, that makes the job so grueling. Any slack is perpetually being optimized out of the system, and with it any opportunity to rest or recover. A worker on the West Coast told me about a new device that shines a spotlight on the item he’s supposed to pick, allowing Amazon to further accelerate the rate and get rid of what the worker described as “micro rests” stolen in the moment it took to look for the next item on the shelf.
People can’t sustain this level of intense work without breaking down. Last year, ProPublica, BuzzFeed, and others published investigations about Amazon delivery drivers careening into vehicles and pedestrians as they attempted to complete their demanding routes, which are algorithmically generated and monitored via an app on drivers’ phones. In November, Reveal analyzed documents from 23 Amazon warehouses and found that almost 10 percent of full-time workers sustained serious injuries in 2018, more than twice the national average for similar work. Multiple Amazon workers have told me that repetitive stress injuries are epidemic but rarely reported. (An Amazon spokesperson said the company takes worker safety seriously, has medical staff on-site, and encourages workers to report all injuries.) Backaches, knee pain, and other symptoms of constant strain are common enough for Amazon to install painkiller vending machines in its warehouses.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the limits of a workplace that continuously pushes workers to the point of harm in the name of efficiency. When 60 percent of those workers stop coming into the office for fear of death, as happened recently at a fulfillment center in Southern California, the “efficiency” of the system is revealed as a lie. It’s true that few businesses could have capably prepared for the havoc that will be wreaked by a global pandemic. But it’s also true that Amazon’s delivery delays are a long time in the making — and it’s the company itself, just as much as the coronavirus, that deserves the blame.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⬇️Trending down: Zoom is leaking users’ email addresses and photos, and giving strangers the ability to call them on the video platform. The issue lies in Zoom’s “Company Directory” setting, which automatically adds other people to a user’s lists of contacts if they signed up with an email address that shares the same domain. Zoom has made ... a lot of weird design choices. Speaking of which ...
⬇️Trending down: Zoom isn’t actually end-to-end encrypted, despite misleading marketing claims. The company uses its own definition of the term, one that lets it access unencrypted video and audio from meetings. Nice try Zoom!
⭐ Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have removed misleading posts from Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. A highly unusual (and laudable) move from the tech giants. Kurt Wagner reports:
Facebook said it took down a video on Monday that had been shared to both Facebook and Instagram, in which Bolsonaro said the anti-malaria prescription drug hydroxychloroquine was an effective treatment for Covid-19. Twitter earlier had removed two tweets that also showed video of Bolsonaro praising hydroxychloroquine and encouraging the end of social distancing. On Tuesday morning, YouTube also said it had pulled two videos from Bolsonaro’s official account for violating its policies. [...]
“Since early February, we have manually reviewed and removed thousands of videos related to dangerous or misleading coronavirus information,” Farshad Shadloo, a YouTube spokesman, said in an email. He declined to identify the two videos removed.
Privacy advocates are weighing the tradeoffs between expanding government power and surveillance to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, and infringing on peoples’ civil liberties. A nice reported look at an issue we discussed here last week. (Rosie Gray and Caroline Haskins / BuzzFeed)
Online benefits systems, including unemployment, are buckling under the crush of new applicants. (Colin Lecher / The Markup)
Tristan Harris offers a list of concrete things tech companies could do to help with the coronavirus pandemic. He suggests some specific product ideas. (Tristan Harris / Medium)
China and Russia have seized on the novel coronavirus to wage disinformation campaigns with the goal of instilling doubt about the United States’ response to the crisis. Both governments also want to deflect attention from their own struggles with the pandemic. (Julian E. Barnes, Matthew Rosenberg and Edward Wong / The New York Times)
The coronavirus is spreading at a slower rate in California and Washington than New York. The news could be a sign that social distancing is beginning to work. (Rong-Gong Lin II, Soumya Karlamangla, Sean Greene and James Rainey / Los Angeles Times)
Fact-checking organizations are fighting a surge in fake coronavirus news on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. People feel embarrassed when they’ve shared something that turns out to be false, making the fact-checking process even harder. (Jeff Horwitz / The Wall Street Journal)
The Internet Archive launched a “National Emergency Library” offering access to 1.4 million free books during the coronavirus pandemic. Some authors are calling the initiative piracy, and say it’s essentially illegally scanning books. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
Comcast said voice and video calls have skyrocketed 212 percent during widespread self-isolation. (Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge)
Social-isolation in the US is pushing more people online and straining digital networks. No one knows if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can step in to help if federal action is needed. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
Two viral videos of the same hospital show how information about the novel coronavirus is being portrayed in different corners of the internet. Some bad actors are falsely suggesting that the crisis has been overstated by mainstream media reports. (Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins / NBC)
Social distancing is becoming a partisan issue. The consequences could be disastrous. (McKay Coppins / The Atlantic)
Remember when we used to worry about screen time? Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and we all stopped caring. (Nellie Bowles / The New York Times)
Homemade coronavirus masks are trying to fill the N95 shortage. They’re not a replacement for medical grade masks, but they’re better than nothing. (Rebecca Jennings / Vox)
Total cases in the US: 183,532
Total deaths in the US: Over 3,600
Reported cases in California: 7,566
Reported cases in New York: 75,813
Reported cases in Washington: 5,185
⭐Zoom is under scrutiny by the office of New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, for its data privacy and security practices. James said the company had been slow to address security flaws “that could enable malicious third parties to, among other things, gain surreptitious access to consumer webcams.” Here’s Danny Hakim and Natasha Singer at The New York Times:
The New York attorney general’s office is “concerned that Zoom’s existing security practices might not be sufficient to adapt to the recent and sudden surge in both the volume and sensitivity of data being passed through its network,” the letter said. “While Zoom has remediated specific reported security vulnerabilities, we would like to understand whether Zoom has undertaken a broader review of its security practices.”
With millions of Americans required to shelter at home because of the coronavirus, Zoom video meetings have quickly become a mainstay of communication for companies, public schools and families. Zoom’s cloud-meetings app is currently the most popular free app for iPhones in the United States, according to Sensor Tower, a mobile app market research firm.
A federal court in Washington, DC, has ruled that violating a website’s terms of service isn’t a crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), America’s primary anti-hacking law. The lawsuit was brought by a group of researchers who wanted to know whether creating a fake account on a job board (for research purposes) violated the CFAA. This is great news. (Timothy B. Lee / Ars Technica)
Here’s how Russia’s troll farm is changing its tactics ahead of the November election. Their messages now contain fewer spelling errors, and hashtags. (Davey Alba / The New York Times)
In the era of big data, memes and disinformation, the Democrats are trying to regain their digital edge, but Trump has a large head start. (Jim Rutenberg and Matthew Rosenberg / The New York Times)
Saudi Arabia appears to be exploiting weaknesses in the global mobile telecoms network to track its citizens as they travel around the US. That’s according to a whistleblower with millions of alleged secret tracking requests. (Stephanie Kirchgaessner / The Guardian)
⭐Houseparty is offering $1 million reward to anyone who can unmask the entity behind what the company described as “a paid commercial smear campaign.” The news comes after British tabloids reported that many Houseparty users had their social media accounts hacked after installing the app. The company denied the reports. Catalin Cimpanu at ZDNet has the story:
Houseparty denied any hacking rumors right from the get-go via a firm statement posted on its Twitter account, claiming that the app “doesn’t collect passwords for other sites,” and, hence, wouldn’t be able to allow anyone to extract this data and pivot to other online services.
However, despite the explanation, the app is now at the center of a public relations disaster. Many of its users appear to believe the reports and are encouraging others to uninstall and delete the app from their devices.
Facebook has been investing in local news organizations to help with the coronavirus pandemic. But to really help the media industry, the company should make the News tab easier to find, this piece argues. (Steven Levy / Wired)
Twitch had an outage. More users than ever have been tuning in since the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone indoors, but it’s hard to say whether that’s the reason. Lots of Amazon services going down lately! (Bijan Stephen / The Verge)
Snap launched Snapchat App Stories to let users share stories to other apps. The first partners will let people post Stories to their dating profiles in Hily, or watch them while screensharing in Squad. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
Snap CEO Evan Spiegel told employees that the company is well-positioned to weather the impact on its business from the coronavirus pandemic. At a virtual all-hands meeting, the CEO said Snap had a more diverse advertiser base than its rival Twitter. (Alex Heath / The Information)
A group students in New York re-created their high school in Minecraft. (Brian Feldman / Vulture)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.