One year into the pandemic and the changes to how Americans work have not all been fair or equal. KVCR’s Megan Jamerson took a look at the Inland Empire’s biggest sector, logistics, and found the pandemic has raised the stakes for changing the future of warehouse jobs.
Joey Alvarado of Hesperia, a 42-year-old husband with two kids, makes $29 an hour at a local Stater Bros. warehouse.
“I was able to purchase a new home, purchase a new vehicle, and this is all during the pandemic," said Alvarado. "And our union rep was able to negotiate the best contract we’ve ever had at Stater Bros. Increased members protections, highest wages we’ve ever had, pension contributions, everything was great.”
Alvarado, who has been in the industry for 19 years is a member of the Teamsters Local 63. Pretty much only union workers make this kind of wage and protections despite the warehouse industry seeing record profits due to big demands on grocery stores and the online shopping boom during 2020.
Randy Korgan, the Secretary Treasurer for the Teamsters Local 1932, says it’s been difficult to see the difference in labor protections for union versus non-union workers. He says, when he started a union warehouse job in the late 80’s, he was quickly making over 15 dollars an hour.
"Right now you have some employers being patted on the back for paying 15 dollars an hour," said Korgan. "It’s thirty, it’s more than thirty years later. There’s a problem there. That’s ridiculous. Why has that happened and that has clearly been an exploitation of the circumstances in these situations and clearly an industry that wants to push wages down and delegitimize the importance of this work. I think this work has proven over the last year to be extremely vital to the supply chain.”
The demands on the supply chain last year meant logistics was one of the few sectors to add jobs during the pandemic, including the region’s biggest employer, Amazon, who made headlines for a hiring spree, employing 427,300 new employees nationwide at a pace never seen before.
Over 181,800 workers in the Inland region are now employed in the logistics-related industry according to the latest state data. The work they do has always been strenuous. There’s lots of lifting and carrying at a very fast pace, and the worker turnover rates are high.
Especially for Amazon workers where wages are low, the pace of work is monitored electronically, injury rates are above average, and positions are often temporary with no path to a stable income.
“Certainly these conditions are not new, but you know they’re certainly affecting more and more workers as more workers are getting employed within this industry,” said Ellen Reese, a U.C. Riverside professor who studies warehouse workers and labor movements.
Add COVID-19 to all that, and now these workers, who due to systemic inequalities are mostly people of color, have a 28 percent higher risk of dying from the virus simply from their job, according to a UCSF study. Which has raised the stakes for workers to see the changes they have long been asking for.
“To make gains, workers usually have to organize," said Reese. "Usually bosses don’t just readily make things better. Often it’s when workers are working together and making demands for improvements that things really improve in the workplace.”
Reese says in recent years there have been more worker protests as people have become aware of growing class inequalities. Remember the wave of teachers’ strikes pre-pandemic or the nurses’ strike to demand more protections during the pandemic? Now you have Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama in the process of voting on unionization.
While every worker in American has the right to unionize, that’s not the only option for organizing says Sheheryar Kaoosji,executive director of the Warehouse Workers Resource Center. He says after the past year, it’s clear there are two paths forward.
“There’s a path where we do take care of our essential workers and all of our workers, because at the end of the day all of us are essential," said Kaoosji. "Or there’s a path where it’s just out the window and everybody’s just got to fight for what they can do and it’s just a race to the bottom.”
Kaoosji’s organization wants to improve working conditions through advocacy and education on warehouse workers rights. They are working with San Diego State Assembly member Lorena Gonzales on a bill that would require a review of practices inside warehouses that put requirements on workers to keep a certain pace or meet quotas for moving product.
Bottom line, Kaoosji says in order to help these workers organize for good jobs, they need the support of communities. Maybe this means customers are willing to pay slightly higher prices or opt out of two-day shipping.
“If these workers have a situation where they’re empowered to organize and call for better conditions, the conditions would change," said Kaoosji. "We don’t need a different sector here, we just need the employers we have here to do better.”
Jobs are not inherently good or bad says Kaoosji. A job is good based on what workers and the community are willing to hold it to.