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How to be a more ethical Amazon shopper during the coronavirus pandemic

By Samantha Murphy Kelly | CNN Business

Households across the country are facing a stark moral dilemma on a weekly, if not daily, basis: go out during the pandemic to shop for groceries and supplies but risk your own health, or order those same items online and risk the health of the people who pack and deliver them to you.

Perhaps nowhere is this conflict more apparent than with Amazon, which has emerged as a vital lifeline for countless families — with so much demand that it is in the process of hiring another 100,000 workers at its distribution centers — even as there have been concerning reports about the safety of its warehouse workers.

Amazon workers at several of its warehouses have protested in recent weeks, alleging the company has mishandled its response to coronavirus. Some of the concerns include what workers say is pressure to work longer hours at some facilities, inadequate social distancing measures, a lack of worker screening for possible coronavirus symptoms and access to protective gear. Amazon is also facing an investigation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration into its warehouse near Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

On its website, Amazon said it has started implementing warehouse worker temperature checks, provided more protective gear, increased worker pay by $2 an hour and doubled its overtime pay.

“Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our teams,” an Amazon spokesperson told CNN Business on Friday. “To date, we’ve made over 150 significant process changes at sites around the world to ensure the health and safety of our teams.”

For customers who may feel uneasy about these workplace issues but are desperate for household goods, there are a range of options to shop more consciously, from avoiding unnecessary purchases on the platform and tipping Amazon’s grocery delivery workers handsomely to buying more from local stores online. But there are conflicting views on whether the best way to be an ethical shopper at this moment means not shopping from Amazon at all, especially given its position as one of the biggest hirers during a severe labor market crunch.

“If people choose to work at Amazon, we should respect their decisions,” said Peter Singer, an ethics professor at Princeton University and author of “The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically.”

The US Department of Labor announced Thursday that about 6.6 million people filed for unemployment benefits in the last week alone, bringing the number of lost jobs during the pandemic to nearly 17 million. Singer highlighted how delivery services are one of the few areas in which businesses are hiring.

But Christian Smalls, the former Amazon employee who partially organized a protest calling for senior warehouse officials to close the Staten Island, New York, facility for deep cleaning after multiple cases of the virus emerged there, advises otherwise. (The company later fired Smalls, citing he did not stay in quarantine after exposure to someone who tested positive.)

“If you want to practice real social distancing, stop pressing the buy button,” Smalls told CNN Business. “You’ll be saving lives. I understand that people need groceries and certain items, depending where you live, are limited. But people are buying things they don’t need and it’s putting workers’ health at risk.”

Although the issue is complex, shoppers who decide to continue using Amazon, or any online delivery platform, can keep a few best practices in mind.

Only buy the essentials

The most important thing customers can do right now is not give in to the temptation to panic buy a bunch of unnecessary items just because it’s easy to do.

“People should not order things they don’t truly need,” said Dania Rajendra, director of ATHENA, a coalition of 52 organizations that closely scrutinize Amazon’s business practices. “It’s true that people are risking their health and their family’s health to make sure consumers have what they need, so shoppers should remember this and only buy something if it’s important.”

An Amazon spokesperson told CNN Business consumers should prioritize items such as household staples, sanitizers, baby formula and medical supplies.

According to Smalls, a processing assistant at his facility, Amazon shoppers are far from following these guidelines. “We sent out so many non-essential items; things like video games, [sex toys] and Amazon Echos,” he said. “It was really frustrating. Boxes don’t magically just show up on doorsteps. People don’t realize what happens behind the scenes to get them to you.”

The debate over what is and isn’t an essential item isn’t just unfolding within households, but inside state governments, too.

The responsibility of deciding which warehouses stay up and running falls on state governments, many of which are being called on to close local facilities exposed to COVID-19. In Kentucky, an Amazon-owned Zappos facility was still operating after the state instituted a shelter-in-place rule, but Governor Andy Beshear stepped in and ordered it to close, citing sneaker returns were not an essential business.

Bulk buying doesn’t help, but no-rush deliveries might

Even conscientious consumers who want to be disciplined about what they order from Amazon, with an eye toward picking a mix of products that are easier for warehouse workers to handle, may have trouble.

According to Smalls, it’s nearly impossible for a shopper to control what happens inside the warehouse when they place an order. Items are not necessarily organized by certain categories, like they are in a grocery store. That means just because you order a few similar items or a bunch of products at one time doesn’t mean it’ll be any easier on the backend — or that they’ll even ship together.

An Amazon spokesperson confirmed this process to CNN Business, noting it implemented a “random stow and pick” approach about 15 years ago. At the time, it was considered counter-intuitive to how warehouses were traditionally run — for example, toys are not stored with other toys; books are not with other books. But the company said its system has proved efficient over the years and saves its associates time.

Smalls said it doesn’t matter if you order one thing or 17,000 items because it goes through the same process; from receiving to packing to sortation and other buildings. “You’re still putting people at risk,” he said. “One product touches about seven people before it ever gets to your home.”

Perhaps one of the easiest ways shoppers can alleviate some of the stress at warehouses is to choose no-rush delivery. Amazon is incentivizing shoppers to delay arrival dates for digital credits that are redeemable for Amazon Prime downloads, e-books and audio books, and other offerings.

A little kindness can go a long way

Beyond evaluating your spending habits, Patricia Campos Medina, a worker rights advocate and co-director of the Union Leadership Institute at Cornell University, said shoppers can write to governments, which are relying on groups like warehouse employees to keep the economy afloat, demanding workers have the right supplies and equipment to stay protected.

“This is a powerful time for consumers to make a change by demanding how certain workers are treated,” she said. “If Amazon warehouse workers get sick, we will never flatten the curve. If we don’t take care of everyone, we are not taking care of ourselves.”

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