What It’s Like to Be Boxed In By Amazon Warehouses
As COVID-19 creates a boom in internet retail, companies like Amazon are going into overdrive. Now, with more urgency than ever, labor organizers and environmental health activists are confronting the wizard behind the curtain of online shopping: the logistics operations that are as problematic as they are profitable.
In this time of crisis, these companies and their logistics centers have been crucial in making sure people receive food, water, and sanitation needs. But they also have a long history of meeting online shopping demand by skirting environmental laws and exploiting workers.
J.J., whose name has been changed for identity protection, is just one of many Amazon workers who knows what it’s like to feel boxed in by a warehouse world many never see. The industry thrives while its employees and the surrounding communities struggle to survive amid poor working conditions and polluted environments.
In the Inland Empire, a giant logistics hub located an hour east of L.A. where J.J. lives and works, nearby residents regularly choke on the thick, black smoke of diesel emissions wafting from the industry’s army of idling trucks. They’re kept awake at night from the constant low rumble of giant semis barreling along the interstate, and the high-pitched whir of cargo planes flying overhead. Inside the warehouses, the morale stinks as bad as the air pollution. J.J., who uses they/them pronouns, has been reprimanded for helping other workers while they take a bathroom break. And many of the people J.J. started with a few months back are gone — having already quit or been fired.
“I worry about my job security,” says J.J., “But I feel more comfortable than average because I try to work as much as two or three people... though I barely get paid as one.”
Now, some Amazon workers are risking their lives as COVID-19 spreads through the company’s warehouses.
As the COVID-19 crisis lays bare the injustices of a system that puts profit over people, workers across the country are planning strikes to demand safer working conditions, paid sick leave, and increased hazard pay. In the Inland Empire, where lawmakers prepare to roll out the red carpet for yet another massive logistics center — rumored to be occupied by Amazon — union members, faith leaders, area residents, and environmental justice advocates are fighting back.
They want an upgrade. And they want it now.
The Inland Empire wasn’t always the epicenter of the miles-long warehouses, big-rig semis, and heavy-duty machinery that supply our online shopping demands. “America’s Shopping Cart” was once a major hub for the citrus industry.
But in the 1970s, the valley of oranges transformed into a valley of warehouses after cheap land combined with easy access to numerous freeways, railyards, and shipping ports lured in the booming logistics industry. In the past decade, nearly 150 million square feet of warehouse space has been built in the Inland Empire, the equivalent of about four Central Parks. It’s no wonder then that toxic diesel fumes from the area’s countless semi trucks and trains now hang over the valley, trapped by the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains and joined by more pollution from nearby L.A.
The end result smells like a lit cigarette dropped into a bottle of orange Fanta.
“I feel drained, my chest feels tight, I have difficulty breathing, and everything takes more energy,” says Angelica Balderas, a 39-year-old Inland Empire resident who went to the hospital at least five times in 2019 seeking medical attention for respiratory issues.
Balderas is hardly alone. The Inland Empire has some of the worst ozone and soot pollution in the country. San Bernardino and Riverside counties, which encompass the region, have asthma rates twice as high as the national average.
Anthony Victoria-Midence, communications director at the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, says that building more warehouses in the Inland Empire will sicken even more people in an area that’s already overburdened by pollution. And though more warehouses will inevitably mean more jobs, the question is at what cost. News reports have described the warehouse environment as “soul crushing,” where employees are treated like “robots” and injuries are common. Fewer than half the jobs in the Inland Empire pay a living wage.
“It’s like this slow violence that the e-commerce chain inflicts,” says Victoria-Midence, “It’s a cycle of madness.”
Inland Empire residents were livid when they first learned of a proposal to build a massive new warehouse in their neighborhood. The 700,000-square-foot facility is expected to emit a literal ton of air pollution each day into the community. The project will also bring with it round-the-clock flights (about 26 per day) and 500 daily truck trips to the suburban area.
Last December, late in the evening of the online shopping bonanza known as Cyber Monday, about 100 people gathered in front of one of Amazon’s many warehouses in the Inland Empire. They were armed with a list of demands for Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and one of the world’s richest people. (Bezos makes about $2,489 per second, more than twice what the median U.S. worker makes in a week.)
Area residents and union members are asking Amazon to provide the community with basic quality-of-life benefits like guaranteed living-wage jobs and strong pollution reduction plans at the proposed facility. Specifically, they’re pushing Amazon to purchase zero-emissions electric trucks, which will keep the air free of harmful diesel pollution, as well as free air filters for nearby homes and businesses.
“That means none of this ‘near’ zero emissions crap,” says J.J. “That’s pretty much jargon to pass off something like natural gas, which is definitely still a source of pollution.”
J.J. came to the environmental justice movement a few years back, after coming across a YouTube video explaining that the world only has about a decade to address the climate crisis — or risk global catastrophe. J.J. decided to get involved with groups like the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led environmental organization that’s calling for expansive, visionary policies like a Green New Deal to protect communities and the environment.
While at work, J.J. is careful to keep quiet about their extracurricular activities. During the Cyber Monday protest, J.J. covered their face and took off their glasses to mask their identity. At work, J.J. says, people have sometimes worn literal masks, designed specifically to filter out air pollution. (This was before the pandemic.)
Pastor Kelvin Ward, a former Amazon employee who grew up in Riverside, can also attest to the warehouses’ hazardous working conditions. During his almost three years working there, Ward saw employees so strapped for time that they would choose not to walk to the bathroom. Maintenance workers often claimed they would find human waste in the trash receptacles.
“What I saw when I was there, it was inhumane,” says Ward. “We were treated like slaves.”
During the Cyber Monday action, protestors blocked one of Amazon’s driveways so that the company couldn’t fulfil its orders on the busiest shopping day of the year. Ward, who spoke at the protest and marched along with the other protestors holding signs, took satisfaction in pushing back against a company that doesn’t invest in the wellbeing of the surrounding community.
Says Ward, “We did our part.”
In addition to the Cyber Monday protest, the coalition of groups against the new warehouse has organized several local actions to say “enough” to the endless tide of warehouse expansions in the Inland Empire. Outside the region, they are supported by groups like Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, a collection of activist workers that organized a walkout last fall to protest the company’s lack of climate action.
Now that Amazon workers in at least 10 warehouses across the country have tested postive for COVID-19, coalition members are calling to shut down the impacted facilities, to provide workers with paid leave at normal pay rates, and to give workers a chance to be tested while facilities are thoroughly disinfected. These demands echo those posted by Amazon employees earlier this month.
While local and national pressure mounts against e-commerce companies, Earthjustice is applying pressure from the legal side in the Inland Empire. On behalf of coalition members like the Sierra Club and the Teamsters Local 1392, Earthjustice has sued the Federal Aviation Administration for its failure to adequately assess the proposed warehouse’s environmental impact to residents of San Bernardino. More recently, Earthjustice, on behalf of the coalition, filed an injunction to halt construction of the new warehouse facility.
“The federal government’s insistence that this project will have no significant impact is wild. It means a lot of additional air pollution in one of the most polluted counties in the country,” says Earthjustice attorney Adrian Martinez. “So if this project doesn’t have an impact on our air pollution, then nothing will.”
Martinez adds that the cursory review by the federal government, working with the San Bernardino International Airport Authority, is “just a slap in the face to everyone who lives here and who cares about these important issues.”
The warehouse lawsuit is part of a broader fight to clean up Southern California’s notoriously dirty air. An effort known as the Right to Zero campaign aims to electrify everything — from California’s power grid to its numerous shipping ports — to save lives, protect the climate, and strengthen the economy. The logistics industry, until recently, has largely flown under the radar despite the industry’s significant climate impact from its diesel-powered ships, trains, trucks, and construction equipment.
J.J. says that if companies like Amazon are as passionate about climate change and community welfare as they claim, they should agree to the demands that local residents and workers are saying will benefit the community.
“If you really want to be a leader for change, this is how you do it,” says J.J. “Listen to the community, and deliver the solutions they’re asking for.”