Grounding Innovations
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Driving to Nowhere: Homeless During a Pandemic – Part 5

BITTER SWEET – Part 1: Amazon

Amidst all this, I was dealing with enduring health issues that put me “high risk” for COVID complications. As I transitioned from place to place, I focused on self-care, mediation, and ensured I ate healthy. However, this didn’t prevent me from having my bouts with hospital visits and health scares. In early April I had signs of a blood disorder which was likely from excessive exposure to insecticides in Los Angeles. Later, I began having seizures, which are likely the result of insecticide and stress. Later that year, I was in the hospital for what I thought was a heart attack, only to find that I was over medicated—a prescription regimen to treat vascular angina was an underlying cause for heart failure.

If I thought things couldn’t get any worse than barely human—it does. In mid-November 2020, I landed my first job since the pandemic started—Amazon. They will hire anyone and everyone. The only three things that matter are passing a background check, passing a drug test, and can you perform the job? It is the only job where interviews are a questionnaire and the only contact you have with hiring staff occurs when you take a drug test and sign the consent form for a background check. Likewise, it is the only job where HR comprises a phone app, algorithms, and AI technology. It is a job where people get hired and fired electronically through voicemails, emails, and texts.

Amazon is literally a sweatshop. When I started, the first thing the supervisor said was, “Amazon doesn’t expect you to last long. There are only a handful of people in this warehouse who’ve been here longer than six months. Most people don’t last three months.” She continued, “Also, this is a laborious job. You will be sore for a few months, but your body will adapt. And if you have a gym membership, cancel it now. You won’t need it. Trust me.”

Because Amazon promises 2-day shipping for Prime customers, even amidst a pandemic and holiday shopping, we processed 50,000 to 90,000 packages through our small facility each night with only 8 hours to receive and sort for delivery. Because of stringent deadlines, we have to ensure every package is out for delivery by the end of our 10-hour shift. The minute we are on the floor, we are doing heavy lifting, squats, bending, kneeling, pulling, pushing, and speed-walking (like jogging) consistently for ten hours.

I worked as hard, if not harder, than I did in basic training in the Army. The work was so grueling and physically demanding that I forgot I was human and Amazon forgot too. Yes, Amazon will distribute water, tell everyone to stretch and stay hydrated, and occasionally provide a free meal or a t-shirt to show employee support—but we were far from human. We who had to risk catching a virus or going without basic human needs—food, shelter or providing for our families while working a physically demanding job with little benefits.

We were essential workers, and the demand for contactless delivery increased package processing at amazon facilities like the one I worked in. We all expect to contract COVID. And despite all the company’s efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus, there was no way to prevent it in a warehouse where social distancing depends on the time of day and wearing masks reduces air intake. Even with the recommended N-94 masks, during the extremely laborious work demands, the masks would get sucked into our mouths and noses. Most, if not all, employees working the warehouse dropped their masks below their nose in order to breathe. Only the managers and office staff who are not performing significantly laborious work could wear their masks properly. Although my doctor said the N-95 masks did little to impair a person’s breathing, my doctor never worked in an Amazon warehouse where duties include heavy lifting (up to 60 lbs) sometimes over your head, speed-walking 25 miles a night, squatting, pushing, pulling 11 hours straight. Leadership expected employees to handle no less than 250 packages per hour, no matter the weight or the size of those packages. On average, a person will burn between 3,500 to 4,200 calories a night. By the end of the day, we are all sore and too exhausted to be hungry. The physical exertion is extremely high and the body’s demand for air is significantly higher than normal.

The thing is, amazon didn’t become successful because of COVID-19, but the virus ensured it will continue to operate under guise of fast service, home delivery and contactless shopping while exploiting its laborers. The company will continue to grow as more shutdowns and social distancing rules continue to apply. It will continue to overwork its employees while doing the minimum to care about the health and safety of its employees. It will hire anyone because it expects a huge turnover and doesn’t expect employees to last longer than 3 months. The company is not interested in employee retention and does little to provide avenues for employees to want to stay.

Although Amazon attempted to enforce CDC guidelines to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus, social distancing and wearing masks only applied when it was convenient. Yeah, they said to wear a mask, wash your hands, and shout, “six feet!” when people got too close. But all the rules went out the window when we hit crunch time. Social distancing, masks and not going to work sick, no longer applied when we prepared the routes and when delivery drivers came to pick up their loads. We received text messages almost daily with new reports of a coworker testing positive for the virus. I was working at Amazon a little over a month before contracting COVID-19.

Although I didn’t go to the hospital, my symptoms were out of this world and my pain was off the charts. For ten days, I was so weak I could barely get out of bed. Everyday tasks such as breathing, going to the bathroom, bathing, walking, and eating were laborious. Every muscle and joint hurt. Every inch of my body was in excruciating pain. I felt like I was giving birth to enormous drops of sweat the size of baseballs through every pore of my body. I wanted to cry so badly but couldn’t because the act of crying, producing tears, was torture. Laying, sitting, and standing produced the same excruciating pain. There was no pain reliever strong enough to reduce the pain long enough to feel some relief. For ten agonizing days, I laid in bed on the brink of crying or I slept like I hadn’t slept in ten years. For ten days, I slept with a bottle of Motrin, Tylenol and electrolytes. Food consumption comprised bone broth soup with rice. It had no flavor, no smell, no texture. It was all I could get myself to eat without vomiting.

When the ten days were over, I felt half alive. I was physically a shell of a person – my strength and endurance left me. I lost twenty pounds and shrunk in size considerably. I could hardly lift a gallon of milk, let alone walk up a small flight of stairs without feeling like I ran a marathon. On the 15th day after testing positive for COVID-19, I returned to work to finish out the last weeks of the holiday season.

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