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'Us grocery store workers need to be fairly compensated.' Protests at Amazon, Whole Foods begin.

Mike Snider, USA TODAY

Some employees at Whole Foods Market nationwide executed a work stoppage Tuesday, while a former employee at parent company Amazon considered legal action after his dismissal for participation in a labor walkout Monday.

Expect escalating tensions between employers and workers as workplaces deemed essential during the coronavirus crisis weigh issues of safety with pressures to meet the demands of a sheltering-in-place populace.

Amazon, which acquired the supermarket chain in June 2017 for $13.7 billion, is seeking to hire thousands of workers for both businesses. But workers for the supermarket chain want improved workplace safety and benefits including hazard pay and sick pay for employees who may be sick but haven't been tested for the coronavirus.

Whole Foods workers had originally scheduled May 1, International Workers' Day, as the date to stage a sickout, in which they call in to say the won't come to work that day. But concerns about contracting and spreading the COVID-19 virus between co-workers and customers led them to move up the daylong strike.

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"Many cities and states have effectively shut down, making us literal emergency workers," the group said in a statement. "The level of risk combined with the inflated profits from the past few weeks mean that us grocery store workers need to be fairly compensated, as well as given an option to self-quarantine without fear of being evicted."

The protest by some Whole Foods employees who "called out" to not report to work Tuesday had "no operational impact" and service continued at "all of our stores without interruption," the company said in a statement to USA TODAY.

Whole Foods workers who planned to participate in the work stoppage talked to USA TODAY but asked that their names not be used because they feared the would be fired.

The workers at Amazon, Whole Foods and Instacart – shoppers and deliverers for the online grocery service had their own strike on Monday – describe a work environment that can echo those in hospitals and health care facilities: not enough preventive equipment and sloppy safety precautions, a combination that could contribute to the virus' spread. 

"We are having nurses and physicians and others working in an environment where don’t feel like they have the necessary equipment to take care of patients the way they have been trained to take care of them and to also protect themselves," said Sally Watkins, executive director of the Washington State Nurses Association. "That is what is rising to the surface. We don’t have what we need."

The association filed a complaint with the state labor department over unsafe work conditions at a hospital in Bellingham, Washington, and had criticized the firing of emergency room physician Dr. Ming Lin who was fired after he voiced similar concerns on Facebook and in The Seattle Times.

Similarly, New York Attorney General Letitia James is calling for a National Labor Relations Board investigation into the firing of worker Christian Smalls, who had organized Monday's protest at an Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island, New York.

“It is disgraceful that Amazon would terminate an employee who bravely stood up to protect himself and his colleagues. At the height of a global pandemic, Chris Smalls and his colleagues publicly protested the lack of precautions that Amazon was taking to protect them from COVID-19," she said in a statement. "The Office of the Attorney General is considering all legal options.”

Smalls was fired for violating "multiple safety issues," the company said in a statement to USA TODAY. The company said it instructed Smalls to stay home with pay for 14 days due to being in close contact with an infected employee, but Smalls went to the warehouse Monday.

Workers had demanded the building be sanitized after several workers tested positive for the virus, Smalls told USA TODAY.   

On his Twitter feed, Smalls said after he was sent home Saturday, other employees who were in direct contact with an employee who tested positive were not.

Smalls is reportedly considering legal action against Amazon, he told USA TODAY.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Tuesday that he has directed the city's human rights commission to investigate the incident. "The commission has opened an investigation to determine whether Amazon has violated the New York City human rights law," said commission spokesperson Alicia McCauley.

Meanwhile, Whole Foods workers say they want improved sanitation and physical distancing between workers and between workers and customers at stores. They are also seeking double-time wages for hazard pay and three weeks of sick pay for workers who isolate or self-quarantine instead of coming to work.

The supermarket chain has had several employees test positive for COVID-19 in its stores across the U.S. and Canada, according to various news reports. Whole Foods has 500 stores in North America.

The company recently increased hourly pay for full-time and part-time workers by $2 through April. They also get double pay for any overtime hours worked through May 3. All employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or quarantined get up to an additional two weeks of paid time off.

But those measures fall short, say the workers organizing Tuesday's protest. "It is important to note that these demands are only a starting point for these companies to do what is right. These are only our IMMEDIATE demands related to the Covid-19 outbreak," the workers' statement said.

Those who participated in Tuesday's protest were "a small but vocal group" of employees, Whole Foods said. The company has taken "extensive measures" to protect its workers and increased pay and new safety protocols include daily temperature screenings of employees, it says.

Worker opposition has been growing, says Mary-Hunter McDonnell, assistant professor of management at The Wharton School, The University of Pennsylvania, with an example being the walkout by Wayfair employees in Boston in June 2019 after the online goods company sold furniture to an organization that is managing migrant camps along the U.S-Mexico border.

Employees in essential industries see they have some leverage and that they are putting themselves at additional risk currently. That additional leverage provided during this ongoing crisis potentially gives workers "the power to break what is a critical confidence in their employers right now," she said. "

Joshua Murray, a Vanderbilt University assistant sociology professor who specializes in strikes and walkouts, agrees. "Amazon and grocery stores are now the center of economic activity and are the key supply line for a quarantined nation," he said. "Any stoppage reverberates down the line and is incredibly visible to consumers and observers. … these workers are seen as risking their health for the rest of us, so the public is likely to be on their side. All of this combines so that less workers need to stop working for a shorter amount of time in order to get major concessions from their employers because the employer can’t afford to be shut down."

Despite worker concerns about conditions, public officials may be reluctant to disrupt the current supply and delivery chains becausetheir continued operation is critical for this to work," McDonnell said. 

Amazon's case to fire Smalls will be watched closely. Employers typically have the right to fire workers for many reasons as long as they are not being discriminatory, but those workers who can be classified as whistleblowers do have protection, McDonnell said. Whether that applies to Smalls' case remains to be seen, she said.

Support and interest in the Tuesday work stoppage was significant on Twitter, with many attempting to put the protest in context. One apparent Whole Foods worker tweeted being torn between showing solidarity and knowing "none of my immigrant brothers and sisters are" participating over fear and "will be stuck with all the work." 

Another compared grocery store workers to health care providers who "are not getting any hazard pay and have a higher risk of getting #Covid19."

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus workplace conditions spur protests at Whole Foods, Amazon