Read an excerpt from Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability for Those Who Caused the Crisis by John Nichols.
The Aristocracy are not the farmers who work the land . . . but are the mere consumers of the rent. —Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, Part II, 1792
It is no secret that the coronavirus pandemic made the rich richer. From the first days of the crisis, as unemployment rates soared and small businesses locked their doors, there was furtive talk about how the very wealthy didn’t seem to be suffering as much as everyone else. After the Federal Reserve in the United States and central banks around the world raced in to shore up the markets, the headlines told the story: “The super-wealthy won big as Covid-19 spread,” “Super-rich increase fortunes by more than a quarter during market turmoil,” “It’s been a fabulous pandemic for the super-rich.” Nine months into the pandemic, the watchdog groups Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness produced a comprehensive report that showed “the collective wealth of America’s 651 billionaires has jumped by over $1 trillion since roughly the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic to a total of $4 trillion at market close on Monday, December 7, 2020.”
At a point when most Americans were reflecting on the hardest year in their experience—and preparing for what President-elect Joe Biden warned would be “a very dark winter” when “things are going to get much tougher before they get easier”—billionaires were adding up the receipts from the best year of their lives. The total wealth of the privileged 651 had spiked so rapidly, so exponentially, that it now rivaled that of the 165 million women, men and children who form what business commentators dismiss as “the bottom half” of the country’s economic equation.
Based on an analysis of Forbes magazine research on billionaires, the study by the two watchdog groups determined that the total net worth of the nation’s wealthiest few had increased by 36 per- cent since the rough start of pandemic shutdowns. Published at a point when members of Congress were wrangling over whether it was fiscally responsible to allocate another $908 billion in pandemic relief, the study noted that the nation’s billionaires had made more than that much money since big business idled workers, small businesses collapsed and tens of millions of Americans started worrying about how they were going to feed their families and keep their homes. “Their pandemic profits are so immense that America’s billionaires could pay for a major Covid relief bill and still not lose a dime of their pre-virus riches,” said Frank Clemente, the executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness.
Indeed, according to the watchdog groups’ analysis, the $1 trillion wealth gain by those 651 billionaires in the first nine months of the pandemic shutdown was:
* More than it would cost to send a stimulus check of $3,000 to every one of the roughly 330 million people in America. A family of four would receive over $12,000. Republicans have blocked new stimulus checks from being included in the pandemic relief package.
* Double the two-year estimated budget gap of all state and local governments, which is forecast to be at least $500 billion. By June, state and local governments had already laid off 1.5 million workers and public services— especially education—faced steep budget cuts.
* Only slightly less than total federal spending on Medicare ($644 billion in 2019) and Medicaid ($389 billion in FY2019), which together serve 120 million Americans (69 million in Medicaid, 63 million in Medicare, less
12 million enrolled in both).
* Nearly four times the $267 billion total in stimulus payments made to 159 million people earlier this year.
What was it about the elites that made them immune to the economic turbulence of 2020? Bankers suggested that the very rich simply had very good instincts. In an interview with the Guardian for an October assessment of the global bloating of billionaire bank accounts, UBS’s Josef Stadler speculated that “billionaires typically have ‘significant risk appetite’ and were confident to gamble some of their considerable fortunes” on the prospect that stock values would rebound after their collapse in March. It was a portrayal of the super-rich as swashbuckling adventurers who were willing to “ride the storm to the downside” in order to ride it “up on the upside.” In other words, the billionaires had “the stomach” to buy low and sell high.
But perhaps there was more to the calculus of wealth accumulation than intestinal fortitude? Chuck Collins, the co-editor of the inequality.org website, suggested that the redistribution of wealth upward might have something to do with billionaires “extracting wealth at a time when essential workers are pushed into the viral line of fire.”
Meet Jeffrey Preston Bezos, the billionaire who had mastered the art of wealth extraction long before 2020 and then cashed in when the pandemic arrived.
It looked at the start of the year like 2020 might be a rough one for the richest man in the world. Bezos had lived his own “American Dream,” parlaying a $250,000 investment from his parents into an epic fortune and his very own cult of personality in a country that treated billionaires like the royalty it had supposedly tossed aside in 1776. Yet Bezos’s life had grown complicated. Instead of the usual profiles of the alchemist who turned everything he touched into gold, 2019 had produced lurid reports of marital infidelity and “a cache of lewd selfies.” Suddenly, the media were reporting on what the fifty-five-year- old billionaire described as “a long period of loving exploration and trial separation,” and detailing the $38 billion settlement that ended his twenty-five-year marriage with MacKenzie Scott Bezos. That sharing of the Amazon wealth made the former Mrs. Bezos the third-richest woman in the world, a title that became even more secure as her fortune grew to over $57 billion during the course of the pandemic. As for Mr. Bezos, he was feeling restless. Reorganizing the command structure of the online bookselling venture that had over a quarter century grown into the world’s most valuable brand, he launched a series of moves that eventually changed his CEO title to that of executive chairman. So much turbulence. And yet, Jeff Bezos got by.
Bezos, the planet’s first centi-billionaire, saw his personal net worth leap to $191 billion during the worst months of the pandemic. By early 2021, he was up $73 billion—a better than 70 percent improvement in his fortunes from the time the pandemic took hold and Amazon took off as the definitional corporation for a moment when almost everyone was shopping from home. The online retailer, which was just passing the $1 trillion valuation mark in January 2020, pushed past $1.7 trillion just twelve months later. Bezos was surfing a wave, and he wasn’t anywhere near the crest. A “Trillion Dollar Club” report on wealth accumulation during the pandemic conducted by the business platform Comparisun speculated that despite “losing an estimated $38 billion as part of his recent divorce, Jeff Bezos is still by far the world’s richest person and his net worth has grown by 34 percent on average over the last five years, which could potentially see him become the world’s first trillionaire as early as 2026, at which point he’ll be aged sixty-two.”
Bezos was making so much money that he could do pretty much anything—even shoot himself into outer space, as he announced he would do in the summer of 2021.
How could Bezos help but be grateful? And yet he seemed nervous. It was almost as if Bezos, a keenly observant man, knew that his was an ill-gotten gain. In February 2021, as media reports recounted Bezos’s reclaiming of the “wealthiest man in the world” title from fellow swashbuckler Elon Musk, Amazon’s lawyers and PR operatives were maneuvering feverishly to prevent New York attorney general Letitia James from calling out the corporation’s failure to protect workers from a pandemic that was making the company’s very wealthy CEO very much wealthier. Even as Amazon was seeking to present itself as a benevolent behemoth with a new ad campaign and sly strategies for cozying up to the Biden administration, Bezos’s lawyers set out to pre-empt the legal accountability that James was in a position to demand. They filed a lawsuit in Brooklyn federal court on February 12, 2020, claiming that the attorney general would be exceeding her authority if she went after the firm for failing to follow safety protocols and protect workers at its New York City warehouses. The company’s complaint argued that “Amazon has been intensely focused on Covid-19 safety and has taken extraordinary, industry-leading measures grounded in science, above and beyond government guidance and requirements, to protect its associates from Covid-19.”
James, a courageous Democratic prosecutor who had recently taken on the nation’s top Republican, President Donald Trump, as well as New York State’s top Democrat, Governor Andrew Cuomo, did not blink. “Throughout this pandemic, Amazon employees have been forced to work in unsafe conditions, all while the company and its CEO made billions off of their backs,” she declared. “This action by Amazon is nothing more than a sad attempt to distract from the facts and shirk accountability for its failures to protect hard-working employees from a deadly virus. Let me be clear: We will not be intimidated by anyone, especially corporate bullies that put profits over the health and safety of working people. We remain undeterred in our efforts to protect workers from exploitation and will continue to review all of our legal options.”
Then she sued the tech giant, which had been dogged by pro- tests from workers in New York who were disciplined and fired for pointing out that Amazon had neglected employee health and safety from the start of the pandemic. Citing “flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements [that] threatened serious ill- ness and grave harm” to workers at Amazon facilities in the New York City boroughs of Queens and Staten Island, the suit charged: “Amazon has cut corners in complying with the particular requirements that would most jeopardize its sales volume and productivity rates, thereby ensuring outsize profits at an unprecedented rate of growth for the company and its shareholders.”
The lawsuit provided the details of an investigation that the attorney general’s office explained had “uncovered evidence showing that Amazon’s health and safety response violated state law with respect to cleaning and disinfection protocols, contact tracing and generally permitting employees to take necessary precautions to protect themselves from the risk of Covid-19 infection, among other things.” For example, the suit continued, “Amazon was notified of at least 250 employees at the Staten Island facility who had positive Covid-19 tests or diagnoses, with more than ninety of those individuals present in the facility within seven days of notification to Amazon. However, in all but seven of these instances, Amazon failed to close any portion of the facility after learning of the positive cases.” The suit also charged that “Amazon implemented an inadequate Covid-19 tracing program that failed to consistently identify workers who came into close contact with employees who tested positive for Covid-19,” and that on occasions when a worker reported having close contact with a co-worker with a positive Covid-19 test, “Amazon dismissed the worker’s concerns and did not investigate or follow up on the reports.”
These weren’t new complaints. In March 2020, Christian Smalls, a management assistant at the Staten Island warehouse, organized an employee walkout to protest Amazon’s failure to protect workers as the first blast of Covid-19 paralyzed New York City. He highlighted the fact that the virus was spreading at Amazon’s 4,000-worker JFK8 fulfillment center, where the first positive case was reported March 11. In a series of media inter- views, Smalls detailed concerns that the company had not provided masks, disposable gloves and other forms of protective gear. At the same time, he said, workers who feared losing their paychecks at a point when layoffs were occurring throughout the city kept showing up to do their jobs. “I brought to the attention of the company that people were being sick in my department daily,” said Smalls, who told CNBC the company was unresponsive when he and others called for shuttering the warehouse and sanitizing the facility. “I witnessed people who had various symptoms: dizziness, vomiting, people were fatigued.” Smalls explained that every day he was sending someone home. “I felt like the building was getting sick, one by one—it’s like a domino effect,” he said. “The number one objective right now is to save my people. We need to close down,” added Smalls, who with allies from groups such as Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change called for a strike on March 30. “Since the building won’t close by itself, we’re going to have to force [Amazon’s] hand,” Smalls told CNBC. “We will not return until the building gets sanitized.”
On March 30, in one of the first labor actions that put a spotlight on the exploitation of frontline workers, Amazon employees walked off their jobs at JFK8. Smalls showed up with a sign that read, “Our health is just as essential.” The Staten Island protest drew national attention. “We weren’t able to shut down the building per se, but people heard us,” Smalls told Fox Business. In a Guardian opinion piece he wrote: “I am getting calls from Amazon workers across the country and they all want to stage walkouts, too. We are starting a revolution and people around the country support us.”
Faced with a demand to do more to protect workers from a deadly pandemic, Amazon did what any multinational monopoly with a boss on his way to trillionaire status would do. It fired Chris Smalls. The company claimed that the man it had employed for almost five years had violated safety guidelines and a quarantine order. But the truth came out quickly. In a meeting with Bezos, according to a memo obtained by Vice News, Amazon’s top lawyer had laid out a strategy for attacking Smalls as a part of a plan to distract media attention from the debate about the company’s treatment of its workers. “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky claimed in the memo.
But Smalls was smart, and articulate and a natural organizer. He founded the Congress of Essential Workers to advocate for working people, “particularly for those who have been subjected to retaliation by their employer and may have incurred expenses or may require legal guidance for potential civil rights griev- ances.” He made his case in media interviews, on picket lines and in meetings with worker advocates. On April 6, just days after Smalls was fired, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told the union federation’s Pennsylvania convention: “Corona- virus has pulled back the curtain on life-changing and in many cases life-saving power of collective action. We are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Chris Smalls, the worker and organ- izer who planned strikes at Amazon facilities this week. One day later, Amazon fired him. They said it was for employee insubordination, but we knew it was employer retaliation. As is often the case with Jeff Bezos, the rhetoric does not match the reality.”
At the same time, a coalition of major union groups—the AFL-CIO, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers Inter- national Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters—joined more than thirty-five state and local elected officials from New York to call on Amazon to reinstate Smalls. But they did more than that. They amplified the concerns that Smalls and other workers had raised.
“You claim to have adopted a number of practices to sanitize worksites and protect workers,” the unions and their allies wrote. “But a compelling number of workers have come forward— and even run the incredible personal risk of walking off the job—to report that the actual situation in warehouses does not match Amazon’s public relations statements. They report that the circumstances of their work make it impossible to comply with public health protocols—reporting crowded spaces, a required rate of work that does not allow for proper sanitizing of work spaces and empty containers meant to hold sanitizing wipes. Your workers deserve to have full protections and to be confident that they are not carrying Covid-19 home to their families. And the safety of your workers also impacts the safety of everyone who touches or receives packages once they leave your warehouses.”
The nation’s largest unions threw their support behind workers calling for warehouse closures with full pay until Amazon put into place a set of safety protocols. These included independent health and safety inspection and ongoing monitoring to ensure compliance with CDC and other governing health guidelines; 100 percent pay for all employees during sanitation closures; the cancellation of all rate and productivity requirements that limit employee time for proper sanitation; stricter protocols for six-foot distancing measures; a plan to cover childcare expenses for employees during school closures; full pay for all workers unable to return to work because of their own or family member illness or need to self-quarantine; retroactive pay for workers who had to take unpaid time off over the previous month due to Covid- 19; and issuance of a public statement of improved protocols for the safety of workers and the public.
Senator Bernie Sanders, who was then a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, took up the issue. “Amazon’s warehouse workers protested because people are getting sick on the job,” Sanders said. “Their demands were not radical: a safer workplace, protective gear and paid sick leave. Amazon’s response? Retaliate by firing a worker who helped organize the walk-out. That is absolutely immoral.” Later, Sanders posted videos of Smalls telling his story and directed a message to Bezos. “Chris Smalls organized Amazon warehouse workers to demand protective gear, paid sick leave and workplace safety,” Sanders said. “Rather than listen to him and change its policies, Amazon fired him and smeared his character. I say to Jeff Bezos: Enough! We will not tolerate CEO’s who intimidate workers fighting for their human rights.”
In the months that followed, Smalls kept speaking up as part of a chorus of Amazon workers around the world. In Alabama, workers would eventually force a historic unionization vote at a sprawling warehouse in the city of Bessemer. The union they worked with was one of the oldest working-class organizations in the country, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which traced its history back to 1937 and also to the civil rights organizing of the 1960s. RWDSU kept a running tab of the dozens of its members who died from Covid-19 and made health and safety central to its campaign in Alabama. An Associated Press analysis of the organizing drive struck an optimistic note, reporting, “Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, says the union’s success in Bessemer is partly due to the pandemic, with workers feeling betrayed by employers that didn’t do enough to protect them from the virus. And the Black Lives Matter movement, which has inspired people to demand to be treated with respect and dignity. Appelbaum says the union has heard from Amazon warehouse workers all over the country.”
In response, Amazon spent millions on what was described as an “anti-union blitz.” The company was ultimately successful in keeping the RWDSU from representing the workers in the warehouse. That was typical of the aggressive approach the company took to any worker organizing during the pandemic.
It was also typical of how Amazon pushed back against Attorney General James after she declared, “It’s important that Amazon understands that if they are going to do operations in the state of New York, they’ve got to respect the rights of workers but, most importantly, they’ve got to attend to the health and welfare of their employees.” James promised to investigate the company and followed through. When it became clear that the attorney general was going to act, Bezos and his lawyers grew increasingly agitated and litigious. Why? Because, as the head of what was widely seen as the most powerful law enforcement arm of any state government in the nation, James had the authority to crack down on a corporation that had a long history of avoiding accountability. She also had the stature to shine a light on how Amazon had cashed in on Covid-19.
When James and her team filed the state’s lawsuit in February 2021, they charged: “Throughout the historic pandemic, Amazon has repeatedly and persistently failed to comply with its obligation to institute reasonable and adequate measures to protect its work- ers from the spread of the virus in its New York City facilities JFK8, a Staten Island fulfillment center, and DBK1, a Queens distribution center. Amazon’s flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements has threatened serious illness and grave harm to the thousands of workers in these facilities and poses a contin- ued substantial and specific danger to the public health.”
That danger was created, the lawsuit argued, because the company was more concerned about maximizing profits than about preventing the spread of the virus and saving lives. “Amazon has cut corners in complying with the particular requirements that would most jeopardize its sales volume and productivity rates, thereby ensuring outsize profits at an unprec- edented rate of growth for the company and its shareholders,” the attorney general’s filing maintained.
Then it got specific about how and why that profiteering had occurred:
Amazon has touted its efforts to protect employees during the Covid-19 pandemic, even creating a television advertising campaign to make this point. However, Amazon’s many failures to take reasonable and adequate measures to protect its employ- ees from Covid-19 by following regulatory guidance were a deliberate effort to evade the particular measures that would have hindered increased sales volume. Over the course of the pandemic, Amazon earned more than $160 billion in profits from its online sales. This figure represented approximately 44 percent year-to-year growth from pre-pandemic times, and increased growth of approximately 27 percent from its prior growth rate. Thus, Amazon earned approximately $30 billion in additional worldwide online sales that it would not have earned at its pre-pandemic growth rates. On information and belief, this increased sales volume amounts to approximately $28.5 million in additional profits from (New York’s JFK8 and DBK1 warehouses) alone during the pandemic. Amazon’s extreme profits and exponential growth rate came at the expense of the lives, health, and safety of its frontline workers.
James amplified this message in her own statements. “Since the pandemic began, it is clear that Amazon has valued profit over people and has failed to ensure the health and safety of its workers,” she said. “The workers who have powered this country and kept it going during the pandemic are the very workers who continue to be treated the worst.” In addition to asking a judge to require Amazon “to take all affirmative steps” to “adequately protects the lives, health, and safety of its employees”—and to award back pay and damages to Smalls and another former employee, Derrick Palmer—the attorney general’s suit proposed to make Amazon “give up the profits it made as a result of its illegal acts.”
That’s the sort of legal language that scares even the most powerful CEO. Bezos and Amazon pushed back, in the courts and in the court of public opinion. But the company’s attempts to sell itself as a model employer kept falling short. Under pressure from James and other attorneys general, the company reported in October that it had counted 19,816 presumed or confirmed Covid-19 cases among frontline employees at its Amazon and Whole Foods Market facilities across the United States. Making comparisons with the overall infection rate in the general population, the company’s PR team declared the figure to be “lower than the expected number.” It also suggested that the wide availability of data would “allow us to benchmark our progress and share best practices across businesses and industries.” But Amazon did not update the case numbers as the pandemic surged in the fall of 2020 or in the winter of 2020 –1.
Amazon was even less forthcoming when it came to discussing the death toll at its facilities. There was no question that Amazon workers had died. In May 2020, USA Today noted the deaths of at least eight Amazon warehouse workers from Covid-19. That story concluded with a cheery note: “Amazon has seen a spike in overall demand for its services as people stay at home due to coronavirus and have more necessities delivered. A recent projection shows Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos could reach trillionaire status by 2026.”
As media outlets continued to speculate about Bezos’s burgeon- ing wealth—and that of other coronavirus “winners”—Letitia James raised the essential question for essential workers: At what cost? But hers was not merely a rhetorical objection. It was a cry for justice from an official who was in a position to get justice. That’s what scared Bezos and Amazon.
It is one thing to talk about the moral duty of companies to treat employees with dignity. It is something else to back that talk up with a knowing demand that the company pay the price for its illegal acts—even if doing so might prevent its biggest stockholder from becoming the world’s first trillionaire.