Is Amazon Seeking Public Donations to Fund Sick Leave During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

is-amazon-seeking-public-donations-to-fund-sick-leave-during-the-covid-19-pandemic?

On March 24 2020, journalist Judd Legum published a tweet claiming that as the COVID-19 pandemic began ramping up in the United States, Amazon.com (owned by Jeff Bezos) requested public donations in order to pay for employees’ sick leave:

Alongside a screenshot and a link to a longer claim, Legum began a thread:

1. Amazon, owned by the richest man in the world, is soliciting PUBLIC DONATIONS to pay sick leave for contract drivers who contract COVID-19

This is not a joke

2. Amazon has one of the worst policies for workers who contract COVID-19. Requires a positive test or a formal quarantine order to get paid.

But contractors have it even worse. They have to apply for a “grant” from the Amazon Relief Fund.

3. Amazon gave $25 million to the Amazon Relief Fund and then solicited donations for more.

Apparently someone realized this looked bad so later they added language saying the “aren’t expecting” anyone to donate.

4. There is a lot of talk about PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY during this crisis. That’s important.

But equally important is CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY.

That’s the mission of my newsletter, Popular Information.

… 5. A broader point: If you are delivering packages for Amazon and contract COVID-19 you should not be forced to APPLY FOR A GRANT to get paid while you recover.

It’s ghoulish.

6. As a result of the pandemic, Amazon’s business is booming. It is likely to permanently benefit from this crisis. The absolute least it can do is take care of the workers that make its service possible.

7. UPDATE: Amazon has responded and they say that it is COMPLETELY NORMAL for a company with $281 billion of revenue last year to require workers who contract a potentially-deadly virus to APPLY FOR A GRANT to get paid while they are quarantined.

8. Amazon also claims it has “not asked for donations” despite the fact that it created a public website for this grant fund that solicited donations. The initial version had a way to donate via text!

Amazon thinks this is normal

This is not normal

Legum’s tweets linked to his website, Popular.info, a newsletter-based news service described by Wired as a “a one-man political newsletter ‘for people who are feeling overwhelmed’” in a 2018 profile on the effort. His commentary stretched across those eight initial tweets:

  • Amazon is owned by the world’s richest individual (Jeff Bezos, true);
  • Amazon was profiting tremendously (essentially true) from the COVID-19 pandemic, raking in profits over and above their normal brisk business for a variety of reasons related the pandemic (localized shortages of necessities, an increase in online shopping overall, increased sales in many product categories, numerous states sheltering in place, thousands to millions of Americans quarantined and unable to shop elsewhere); Amazon was likely to benefit from the coronavirus pandemic long after the public health crisis had ended (unknown);
  • Amazon.com maintained overly strict criteria to grant employee leave for COVID-19, requiring a “positive test or formal quarantine” before workers were paid for coronavirus-related time off;
  • Amazon opened the “Amazon Relief Fund” with $25 million, asking the public to pick up the tab for the balance of its COVID-19 sick leave expenses;
  • Amazon.com engaged significant amounts of labor from “contractors”; contractors for Amazon.com were ineligible for formal paid sick leave — even if they contracted COVID-19 on the job;
  • Amazon contractors sickened in the course of working for Amazon were obliged to apply for a “grant” from the “Amazon Relief Fund,” ostensibly with no guarantee that Amazon would pay them;
  • Amazon responded to Legum’s queries, maintaining it was “completely normal” to publicly fund corporation sick leave;
  • Amazon also falsely denied soliciting public donations.

In his seventh tweet, Legum added that Amazon had confirmed the policy he described and added a screenshot with a statement attributed to an Amazon.com spokesperson:

That quote contained an assertion that Amazon was effectively not actively soliciting donations to the Amazon Relief Fund — but that the innate, third-party structured platform “required” that it be “open to public contributions”:

We are not and have not asked for donations and the Amazon Relief Fund has been funded by Amazon with an initial donation of $25 million. The structure to operate a fund like this, which hundreds of companies do through the same third-party, requires the program to be open to public contributions but we are not soliciting those contributions in any way.

The linked Popular.info page was a March 24 2020 article by Legum headlined, “Amazon soliciting public donations to pay workers’ sick leave.” It reported in part:

Amazon’s large contract workforce, which delivers packages and performs other critical tasks, is in even worse shape. Amazon is not providing any sick leave at all for these workers, even if they test positive for COVID-19. Instead, these workers must apply to the “Amazon Relief Fund” and apply for a grant to cover their sick leave. The fund is “focused on supporting our U.S.-based Delivery Associates employed by Delivery Service Providers, our Amazon Flex Delivery Partners, and Associates working for Integrity Staffing, Adecco Staffing, and RES Staffing, and drivers and support team members of line haul partners under financial distress due to a COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantine.”

Amazon donated $25 million to the fund and is soliciting individual donations to add to the pot. It initially included an option to donate by text.

Popular.info had previously reported that the retail giant requested diagnostic criteria (a positive test or being “placed into quarantine”) which made it difficult to employees of the company to use paid sick time during the pandemic. Legum said that Amazon offered “unlimited unpaid leave” for its hourly employees, adding that Amazon’s fleet of contractors were required to apply for a “grant” from the “Amazon Relief Fund” in the event they contracted COVID-19 while on the job or off:

Amazon announced that it would offer “unlimited unpaid time off for all hourly employees through the end of March [2020].” This is of little use for most hourly employees, who in most cases can’t afford to take unpaid leave.

The company also says, “all Amazon employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two-weeks of pay.” This is similar to Kroger’s [since changed] policy. But testing is still extremely limited, and most employees will not be able to evaluated and be “placed into quarantine.”

For contractors, like [an interviewed] driver in Illinois, things are bleaker. Amazon will not guarantee paid leave even for contractors that are diagnosed with COVID-19. Instead, “our independent delivery service partners and their drivers, Amazon Flex participants, and seasonal employees under financial distress” can “apply for grants approximately equal to up to two-weeks of pay if diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine by the government or Amazon.” The company has made an initial contribution of $25 million for this grant program. That’s how much revenue Amazon brought in every 47 minutes in 2019. Contractors are supposed to apply for grants through a website that does not appear to be online yet.

A link in the March 17 2020 article went to blog.aboutamazon.com, an official Amazon.com corporate site, and an entry titled, “Amazon’s COVID-19 blog: How we are supporting our employees, customers, and communities.” (A version of the page archived on March 15 2020 is available here.) A March 11 2020 sub-entry on that post read:

March 11:
Establishing the $25 million Amazon Relief Fund

The Amazon Relief Fund is focused on supporting our independent delivery service partners and their drivers, Amazon Flex participants, and seasonal employees under financial distress during this challenging time. We will be offering all of these groups the ability to apply for grants approximately equal to up to two weeks of pay if diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine. Going forward, this fund will support our employees and contractors around the world who face financial hardships. Applicants may apply and receive a personal grant from the fund ranging from $400 to $5,000 per person. Read more.

“Read more” linked to a March 11 2020 entry titled “COVID-19 update: More ways Amazon is supporting employees and contractors,” which as of March 25 2020 included the referenced policies (emphasis ours):

Effective immediately, all Amazon employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will receive up to two-weeks of pay. This additional pay while away from work is to ensure employees have the time they need to return to good health without the worry of lost pay. This is in addition to unlimited unpaid time off for all hourly employees through the end of March, which we shared with employees last week.

Amazon Relief Fund
We are establishing the Amazon Relief Fund with a $25 million initial contribution focused on supporting our independent delivery service partners and their drivers, Amazon Flex participants, and seasonal employees under financial distress during this challenging time. We will be offering all of these groups the ability to apply for grants approximately equal to up to two-weeks of pay if diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine by the government or Amazon.

Additionally, this fund will support our employees and contractors around the world who face financial hardships from other qualifying events, such as a natural disaster, federally declared emergency, or unforeseen personal hardship. Applicants can apply and receive a personal grant from the fund ranging from $400 to $5,000 USD per person.

We will be publishing a website in the coming days where employees and contractors can apply for grants from the fund.

Neither the reporting nor Amazon’s various statement pages made it easy to locate the page. As Amazon stated, the “Amazon Relief Fund” was hosted on a third-party website. When we accessed the page on March 25 2020, it read:

The Amazon Relief Fund was created to help individuals who are facing financial hardship immediately after a natural disaster or an unforeseen personal hardship. The Amazon Relief Fund relies primarily on individual donations from individuals and support from Amazon Relief Fund to fund this program. Every contribution helps and when combined with the donations of others, can provide the help a fellow individual needs when they are facing the unexpected.

Clarifying their dueling claims based on available information was not straightforward, in part because links weren’t archived and the initiatives described in various stories (such as the Amazon Relief Fund) were difficult to find and hosted on a third-party site.

As Amazon said, the Amazon Relief Fund was administrated through an outside party — the Emergency Assistance Foundation (EAF), an organization enabling “corporations make emergency hardship grants for their employees when they face unexpected and unavoidable financial hardships or disasters.”

However, Legum quoted Amazon’s spokesperson as explicitly stating that the “structure to operate a fund like this, which hundreds of companies do through the same third-party, requires the program to be open to public contributions but we are not soliciting those contributions in any way.” A screenshot of the Amazon Relief Fund taken on March 25 2020 shows that the fund was indeed soliciting donations via credit card, debit card, or PayPal, with options for people inside and outside the United States:

We were unable to determine if any barrier existed for Amazon directly funding sick leave for its range of workers. It did not seem likely using the EAF platform was anything other than optional, and “What We Do” text at the bottom of the page emphasized that the program was primarily for coworkers to donate to one another:

The Emergency Assistance Foundation, Inc. is a 501c(3) charity created to design and operate multiple employer-sponsored disaster relief and employee hardship funds. These funds allow domestic and international employers and employees to help their coworkers in times of crises.

EAF’s FAQ explained that part of EAF’s purpose was to outsource vetting and verifying claims made by employees of any company for financial relief due to hardship:

How does an Employee Relief Fund Work?
There are a number of distinct processes or steps to establishing and operating an effective Employer-Sponsored Employee Hardship and Disaster Relief Fund Program. Here are the basics:

a. An employer creates and names a custom fund within the Emergency Assistance Foundation, Inc. Establishing a fund is offered at no cost to the employer and is as simple as signing a simple Field-of-Interest agreement.

b. Donations are made by employee contributions (through payroll deduction, credit or debit card, check), by the employer (usually through a donation-matching program or direct contribution), by the employer’s foundation, and sometimes through fundraising events.

c. Employees complete applications for assistance, which EAF staff review.

d. Each application undergoes a preliminary review to ensure a qualifying emergency or hardship exists and that all required documentation has been received. The applicant will be contacted if additional information is needed.

e. Trained EAF personnel conduct final application reviews to determine if they meet the criteria established specifically for the company’s Employee Relief Fund. After the review, the grant requests are either accepted or denied based on the objective criteria. For approvals, the amount of the grant is determined.

f. Grants are paid directly to vendors and service providers on behalf of the employee applicant or directly to the employee applicant in accordance with the employer’s guidelines.

Per EAF, the burden was placed on employees to provide documentation that “a qualifying emergency” actually existed:

A Qualified Disaster is defined as:

• Results from terrorist or military actions
• Results from an accident involving a common carrier
• A presidentially-declared disaster
• An event that the secretary of the treasury determines is catastrophic
• An Employee Emergency Hardship is defined as:

Any other permissible hardship other than a Qualified Disaster, which can range from house fire, serious injury or illness, death or a number of other events[.]

A sixth question addressed how employees feel about being asked to donate to their employers’ various funds. EAF’s response seemed geared more to charity and altruism than the distribution of benefits, such as — for example — paid sick leave during a pandemic:

When a company gives employees a chance to donate to a worthy cause it increases their connection to the organization. This may seem counterintuitive, but research shows it’s true. It’s called prosocial motivation, which is the desire to protect and promote the well-being of others, and is distinct from altruism and independent of self-interested motivations. Interestingly, this is also true with Employee Relief Funds where the donor is more connected than the receiver.

The Amazon Relief Fund was also accessible at amazonrelieffund.org. As of March 25 2020, text on that page explicitly solicited donations from anyone visiting the page:

This fund has an initial donation of $25 million from Amazon. The company will continue to make additional contributions to the fund as it’s needed. While we aren’t expecting anyone to do so, you can make a voluntary donation to the fund if you desire to do so.

To make a US Donation using your Credit Card, Debit Card or PayPal click here.

All donations to the fund at the Emergency Assistance Foundation, Inc. are tax deductible in the U.S. The EIN# for the Emergency Assistance Foundation is 45-1813056.

As Legum stated in his tweets, Amazon had indeed changed the language on that page. A version archived on March 19 2020 made no reference to Amazon not “expecting” anyone to donate:

Make a Donation
You can make a voluntary ongoing gift or one-time gift through our secure site using your credit/debit card or directly donate through your payroll.

To make a US Donation using your Credit Card, Debit Card or PayPal click here.

To make a donation via Text-to-Give, simply text the unique keyword “ARelief” to 71777.

All donations to the fund at the Emergency Assistance Foundation, Inc. are tax deductible in the U.S. The EIN# for the Emergency Assistance Foundation is 45-1813056.

In addition to the solicitation for visitors to donate money to the Amazon Relief Fund, it appeared a since-deleted line asked for “text-to-give” donations. Users were instructed to text keyword “ARelief” to 71777 to make a donation via text message, which we tested and found it appeared to still be doing as of March 25 2020:

 

We contacted EAF to ask if it requires the program to be open to public contributions as a platform requirement, which was what the Amazon spokesperson was quoted as claiming, and asked:

Can you tell us whether it is necessary for companies using EAF to solicit public donations for its respective relief funds? Is there a requirement companies include non-employee donations along with employee donations?

We received a response in direct conflict with Amazon’s statement. EAF said that employers and employees were the primary funders of their programs:

There is no requirement , most likely the donors will be the company, the company foundation or employees. Sometimes vendors donate

Based on Amazon’s own statements, full-time employees were required to have tested positive for COVID-19 or under formal quarantine to access paid time off during the coronavirus pandemic; Amazon established the Amazon Relief Fund to cover sick leave for other classes of employee, such as contract workers and Amazon Flex participants who fell ill due to COVID-19; and Amazon’s contract workers who contracted COVID-19 were required to apply for a grant from a third-party-administered fund, the Amazon Relief Fund. In response to questions about the relief fund as well as their solicitation of public donations to fund it, an Amazon employee stated that the company was both required to solicit public donations and that it was not soliciting those contributions in any way.

Archived, earlier versions of the Amazon Relief Fund page not only solicited donations from the public, but also invited donations via texts of “ARelief” sent to 71777. We texted “ARelief” to 71777 the afternoon of March 25 2020, and it appeared donations were still being accepted. (It was unclear how Amazon’s text-to-donate function was set up, but it nevertheless existed and functioned on March 25 2020.)

Finally, we asked EAF if it “requires the program to be open to public contributions” in order to operate; a representative indicated that was false, and that the Amazon Relief Fund was neither required to accept public donations, nor was the program innately structured to include such a requirement.

The post Is Amazon Seeking Public Donations to Fund Sick Leave During the COVID-19 Pandemic? appeared first on Truth or Fiction?.

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