Frontline and essential workers’ concerns over safety and working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic have been steadily boiling over into organized protests across the country. These protests have targeted multiple industries, including several in Minnesota.
At Amazon’s Fulfillment Center in Shakopee—referred to by the company as MSP1—workers staged a walkout on April 26 following the firing of Faiza Osman, the third employee termination in as many weeks. According to the Awood Center, a Minneapolis-based organization committed to empowering Minnesota’s East African communities, around 50 workers walked off the job.
“We have been asking for weeks for meaningful paid leave and a clear plan for how Amazon would keep us safe if a positive case was found in our facility,” said Hafsa Hassan, a worker at MSP1 and one of the leaders of the walkout. “Instead of listening to us, it appears that Amazon has chosen not to reveal the true extent of the spread of the virus and fire the workers who have bravely spoken up.
“Now they’re even taking away our unlimited unpaid leave,” Hassan, “forcing us to make an impossible choice between keeping our families safe or losing our jobs. Amazon has utterly failed to protect workers like me, potentially putting not just us but our families, neighbors and customers at risk. This is the last straw.”
Amazon has denied any wrongdoing at its warehouses, and CEO Jeff Bezos has reported that the company is planning on spending billions to improve conditions. However, the company has fired several workers who have protested conditions at its fulfillment centers around the country.
“These individuals were not terminated for talking publicly about working conditions or safety, but rather for violating—often repeatedly—policies such as intimidation, physical distancing and more,” reported a company spokeswoman.
Amazon has come under fire from a group of nine U.S. senators led by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who signed on to a letter questioning whether the firing of workers was retaliation for whistleblowing, which is against the law. One of those workers was Bashir Mohammed, who was recently fired from the Shakopee warehouse after protesting working conditions there.
Caribou Coffee workers protest
On the heels of the Shakopee Amazon protest, Caribou Coffee workers staged a Monday morning rally on April 27 of around 50 people in their cars at a Roseville Caribou Coffee, effectively blocking the drive-through and shutting down business for about an hour.
Eli Edleson-Stein is the lead organizer for the Restaurant Opportunities Center Minnesota, known as ROC, which helped facilitate the protest. He explained that several members of ROC who also work for Caribou Coffee had been reaching out to management about their plans to protect workers from the virus, but they received little response.
Worker demands included paid sick leave, appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), and hazard pay.
“Some workers have reported that sales have only dipped eight or nine percent throughout this whole crisis, and yet wages hadn’t increased at all,” said Edleson-Stein. He added that after the Monday protest was announced the Friday beforehand, Caribou Coffee responded by announcing a 10% increase in hazard pay and had committed to providing masks.
“I think that shows that when workers organize they can win changes, but frankly those were half measures and workers had demanded all of those things nearly a month beforehand,” said Edleson-Stein.
While worker demands are slowly starting to be met, he noted that the 10% hazard pay increase for Minnesota minimum wage workers is still only about a dollar.
“While it sounds like a good increase it’s actually pretty measly, especially when their main competitor, StarBucks, has been offering $3 an hour [extra hazard pay] for the past month.”
Pilgrim’s Pride workers walkout
Later that evening about 85 miles northwest of the Roseville protest, workers at Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing facility in Cold Spring, located just miles outside of St. Cloud, staged a walkout. Workers there have tested positive for COVID-19 and have continued to demand safer working conditions.
These demands include mass testing for all employees and paid time off for infected workers. They demand that the plant be shut down for at least two weeks for deep cleaning as stated in the COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines for Meatpacking Industry and CDC guidelines.
Mohamed Goni, staff organizer for Greater Minnesota Worker Center, was present at the walkout. “Most of the workers [who walked out] were unhappy and felt that [it was based on] discrimination,” said Goni. “They decided to walk out and never come back.”
He explained that while Pilgrim’s Pride was checking employee temperatures at the plant, workers conveyed to him that management continued to let people return to work who had high temperatures and COVID-19 symptoms, and even threatening penalties if they did not return.
Mohammed Burale, who is Somali, began working at the plant in October 2017. He has since contracted COVID-19 and has not returned to work. Burale shared his story with the MSR through a translator.
“There was no protection at all. Unless there’s mass testing, a big cleaning, and two weeks closure, I cannot go back to that workplace. I am not safe in that workplace,” said Burale.
Goni said workers have stayed home because they lack child care as a result of schools being closed, while others simply will not work because they fear for their lives. As a result, the remaining employees at the plant are too few, overworked and feel under-protected.
Supporters and workers followed up the walkout with a protest on Monday May 11. It was reported on Monday by the state Health Department that there were 194 COVID-19 cases among workers at the processing plant.
The number stood at 83 less than a week before.
In a statement to the press Pilgrim’s Pride wrote, “We know some people are scared and anxious, and we are doing everything we can to keep this virus out of our facility.”
Nekessa Opoti, co-founder of Black Immigrant Collective, explained that for many immigrants working in these factories, underlying workplace discriminations were already present.
“Everyone has been saying that COVID-19 is showing us where the biggest cracks in America’s racial inequities exist. It’s one thing to use that as a quote, but to really see that play out is devastating,” said Opoti.
“It is specifically impacting Black immigrants because many of those folks are essential workers, which includes healthcare workers, factory workers, anything that has been deemed essential. Those…low-wage jobs often have a lot of Black people in them, which includes Black immigrants.”
Analise Pruni is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder. She welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.