It’s Not a Bonus, and It’s Less Than You Deserve

Photo: Eric Baradat, Getty
Photo: Eric Baradat, Getty

In a blog post today, Amazon announced it would be distributing “a special one-time Thank You bonus” to its workers, the largest sums of which would go to non-hourly managers.

Let’s begin by stating the obvious:

  • Labour has value
  • That value is, for most workers, compensated with money
  • Because of covid-19, the value of essential work has increased
  • Many companies involved in essential work, like retailers and grocery stores, have accordingly given more money to their workers during the pandemic

In mid-March, Amazon, the second-largest employer in the United States, became one such company when it announced a $US2 ($3)/hour pay raise for its warehouse workers, as well as double overtime pay, and unlimited unpaid time off (UPT in Amazon-speak) for those who, rightfully, had health concerns about working in close proximity to others during a pandemic.

Those benefits were initially set to expire at the end of April, but the company begrudgingly extended the raise and attendance amnesty twice, first to May 16, then May 30 — a decision that the company told Bloomberg cost it around $US800 million ($1.2 billion). Remember that number for later. These new bonuses, which do not include any consideration for those still seeking to stay isolated but retain their jobs, are eligible for workers “who were with the company throughout the month of June,” according to the senior vice president of operations, who may not realised the month of June is ongoing.

If you’re a current Amazon worker who incidentally is fired within the next two days and stripped of your Thank You bonus, here’s my email.

In place of an hourly raise and double overtime, part-timers are expected to get $US250 ($365), while full-time workers will get $US500 ($730). Amazon is framing this as a one-off gift, even as cases of covid-19 continue to spike across the U.S.

While according to the blog post this bit of corporate largess will cost “over $US500 ($730) million,” it’s also clear that these bonuses will be significantly higher for “front-line Amazon and Whole Foods Market leaders” ($US1,000 ($1,459)) and “Delivery Service Partner owners” ($US3,000 ($4,378).) Amazon confirmed to Gizmodo that neither leaders nor owners of DSPs had been included in the prior $US2 ($3)/hour raise. It’s unclear how much of that $US500 ($730) million won’t be hitting the bank accounts of the company’s most vulnerable workers, nor did Amazon clarify who would be considered a “front-line” leader.

Does that make the bonuses entirely underhanded? No. And for some, they may even be preferable to the old scheme, which Amazon never explicitly referred to as hazard pay but which functionally performed the same purpose. “We weren’t working our full four-hour shifts. We were doing what the company calls 3 and outs,” one Texas worker, who preferred to remain anonymous, wrote. “So we really weren’t getting overtime or working complete shifts.”

Yes, in the most cynical world, Amazon wouldn’t give its workers any additional compensation. In the second-most cynical one, however, it would only do so as part of a corporate pissing contest with rivals like Walmart and Kroger, who similarly dragged their feet on pay raises, rescinded those raises, and have now provided nearly identical “thank you” bonuses. This is unfortunately the world we happen to live in.

We also live in a world where companies, particularly the size of Amazon and Walmart, only take the seemingly moral route when it’s beneficial to them, either financially or to placate public opinion. Essential workers demand they’ be compensated accordingly. Walkouts happen. Customers get angry. One business caves, and the others waits to one-up the offer. Walmart’s giving out up to $US300 ($438) bonuses? Kroger ups that to $US400 ($584)* (*paid out in two installments). Amazon raises again, knowing it can likely outspend both of them, and that appearing more generous might tip the scales toward a newly out-of-work American taking a job there instead of a competitor, even if the reality may not entirely prove that thesis.

Let’s get back to that $US800 million ($1.2 billion), though. If we make an estimate of how much of this new endowment is going to entry-level workers, let’s generously say the company has paid out an extra $US1.2 ($2) billion in total since mid-March. During that same period of time, Jeff Bezos, much of whose wealth is wrapped up in his own company’s stocks, added $US165 ($241) billion to his net worth. “If he hadn’t gotten divorced he’d be at about $US210 ($306) billion,” Chuck Collins, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Yahoo Finance.

While most of us are terrified — about our health, the security of our jobs, and the future of this country — these are boom times for Amazon, a company that has been looking to fill at least 175,000 jobs in the past few months. Sales jumped by 26% as homebound shoppers sought out essential (and nonessential) supplies, with projections for the second quarter looking nearly as rosy.

That additional $US210 ($306) billion didn’t come from nowhere. It came from the nearly 1 million people who work for Jeff Bezos, many laboring in even more dangerous conditions than before. Many have stepped forward to claim Amazon’s warehouses are taking slow or ineffective steps to prevent the spread of covid-19, and are delaying notifying workers when confirmed cases become known. So far at least eight Amazon associates have died of covid-19, and the company has never released information on the number of exposures that have occurred within its network. Other than a brief photo-op tour through one warehouse facility, Bezos has been at no such similar risk.

It’s no wonder Amazon workers at six facilities in Germany are holding a two-day strike, even though their 195,000 confirmed cases of covid-19 pale in comparison to the U.S.’s nearly 2.6 million. (Yes, Germany is a smaller country; no, expressing the number of infections as a ratio of population doesn’t make us look any better.) What’s more shocking is that while walkouts took place at a few stateside warehouses, they’ve all but died down lately, even as Amazon has rolled back perks meant to address the hardship of working an already brutally hard job during a catastrophic infectious event.

By all means, take your $US250 ($365) or $US500 ($730) bonus. Who in this country couldn’t use some extra money right now? But don’t buy that this in any way represents an acceptable level of gratitude. For these last four harrowing months, when going to work meant risking contracting an incurable disease, the reward you and every other Amazon warehouse worker got was splitting half a per cent of what your boss made.

Demand more.