In This Episode
- Over two million Texans are still without power, and there’s a new storm on the way that’s expected to prolong the icy conditions. Oregon, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia are among the other states dealing with fallout from the extreme weather.
- New York’s AG Letitia James sued Amazon this week, alleging that some of its warehouses failed to keep workers safe during the pandemic. We also spoke to an Amazon employee that works in the company’s Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment center about the unionization effort there, and what the company is doing to suppress it.
- And in headlines: Facebook blocks all news in Australia, LA’s board of education defunds school police, and millions of counterfeit N95 masks have been seized in the past few weeks.
Akilah Hughes: It’s Thursday, February 18th. I’m Akilah Hughes.
Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick, and this is What A Day. Where we are testifying at the GameStop hearings today on behalf of people who bought a tiny bit of Nokia stock at the absolute wrong time.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, they were expecting a text message saying to get out now, but it never came. So they got to be heard. Y’all.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. I didn’t get a text. I didn’t get a call. I didn’t get an email.
Gideon Resnick: On today’s show, a new lawsuit against Amazon and a conversation with one of their employees in Alabama. Then some headlines.
Akilah Hughes: But first, the latest. The freezing temperatures and inclement weather in Texas are still ongoing, with over two million still without power as of last night. Safe water is also an issue. Harris County, which includes Houston, was under a boil-water advisory and officials asked that water be used for essential purposes only. But to make matters worse, there’s a new storm on the way that’s expected to prolong frigid temperatures and cause more icy conditions. More than 100 million Americans are still under some winter weather advisory, according to the National Weather Service.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Truly, truly nuts. And there’s also people feeling this in Oregon, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and elsewhere. And yesterday we talked about why the Texas grid is under so much pressure and why it is failing—basically going it alone, not preparing and not regulating companies to make winter upgrades.
Akilah Hughes: And it really does bear repeating that Republicans like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Texas AG Ken Paxton all blamed California’s Democratic leadership for the devastating wildfires that happen here. So I really hope that they’re ready to accept hefty blame for what’s going on in Texas. Ted Cruz, for his part, was like: I have no defense. [laughs] So clearly he’s aware of his idiocy. But thankfully, FEMA is on it. The agency has sent 60 generators to help power critical infrastructure, as well as sent blankets, bottled water and meals. And power grid officials there have spoken up about the rolling outages, saying they hope to shorten the duration to 30 minutes to an hour for residents so that people can maintain heat and safety. But they’re not confident in their ability to do so for the next couple of days yet.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Certainly hope that the situation gets better and fast.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, and finally, you may have heard some really ignorant statements from Governor Abbott saying that wind turbines are the cause for this, which Gideon and Aaron explained yesterday was not true. So there’s also been this now former mayor of Colorado City, Texas, calling his citizens lazy and saying he has no obligation to help them. And lest we forget, former Texas governor and former energy secretary Rick Perry saying Texans are willing to freeze to stop green energy from coming to the state which, speak for yourself, Rick. Just know that these are unhelpful idiots and that there are organizations that are actually on the ground helping.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, we’ve put links in our show notes, if you do want to learn more or donate.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, check them out. But let’s move on to our next story: the state of New York versus Amazon. On Tuesday, New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, sued the company over working conditions in their warehouses. So Gideon, take us through what we learned.
Gideon Resnick: Yes. So James is largely focusing on two specific facilities here: one in Staten Island and the other in Queens, according to The New York Times. The suit alleges that these facilities just didn’t provide good enough safety measures for their workers during the pandemic, including that the company didn’t adequately clean their buildings or do adequate contact tracing when people tested positive. The suit claims that Amazon got written notifications of at least 250 employees at the Staten Island facility having COVID and in more than 90 of those instances, the suit alleges that the employee had been at work the week before without Amazon closing those portions of the facility and doing state-mandated ventilation.
Akilah Hughes: Yes, so par for the course for Amazon. But the last time we talked about Amazon, it was in an interview with Christian Smalls, a former employee who led a walkout at the Staten Island warehouse and was later fired. His name did come up in the suit.
Gideon Resnick: That it did. The suit referenced his very firing. James alleges that it was in retaliation, which is also what Smalls told us during our interview. Though Amazon has said it was because he violated their quarantine policy by showing up at the building after being exposed to another person with COVID. But here’s an important addition: James’s suit says that there were two Amazon human resource employees who talked about Small’s firing. These people reportedly said that it was not fair to fire him because the company hadn’t said that its quarantine policy barred him from being outside the building, which is where the protests took place. It wasn’t actually in the facility.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah. And so how has Amazon responded to this so far?
Gideon Resnick: Well, in a way that I’m sure would not surprise you or most people listening. For one thing Amazon preemptively filed a suit seeking to stop James from filing this one. Their argument seems to be that federal labor laws are applicable here as opposed to New York state laws. They also reportedly said that their safety measures, quote “far exceed what is required under the law.” And they mentioned a surprise positive inspection by the New York City sheriff’s office and other things that they were doing on-site, like testing and temperature checks. So we’ll have to see where this all ends up going and if Amazon will pay damages to workers like Smalls, which is something the suit is also seeking.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, and this is all happening as a major union push is underway at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama. So let’s talk about that. Voting is ongoing and so are the efforts against it.
Gideon Resnick: They are indeed. According to reporting from the outlet More Perfect Union, Amazon allegedly changed the timing of a traffic light outside the facility—
Akilah Hughes: Goodness.
Gideon Resnick: —which union organizers believe is a way to keep them from canvasing workers who stop at the light. Now, what this outlet is reporting is that late last year, Amazon had told officials in the county that there were traffic delays around shift changes that were happening and then asked for the light change as a result. The county reportedly obliged, but it’s unclear if they knew or understood the impact on the union drive itself. And as we talked about before, Amazon has reportedly been putting up antiunion fliers in some places and tried unsuccessfully to delay the start of this very vote.
Akilah Hughes: Yikes. And you’ve been trying to get in touch with employees down there to get a sense of how this whole process is actually going. So fill us in.
Gideon Resnick: Yes. This is the most fascinating story, I think, to me and you and a lot of other people, because it’s the first union push in the US to even make it to a vote in seven years. It Is a big, big deal. Last week, I got the chance to speak with Jennifer Bates. She’s worked at the Bessemer facility since last year and she’s a learning ambassador, which basically means that she trains employees. I asked her about the work and literally the first thing that she started telling me about it was just how much walking and climbing stairs and physical labor is involved. These are big facilities and these are active roles. She said that shifts are typically around 10 hours or more with just two 30 minute breaks, and that from the moment you enter the building, you have to scan your badge as you move around so that they can monitor your work and measure your so-called ‘time off task’, which is the phrase that gets thrown around. There are write ups if you hit something like 30 minutes in time off task outside of breaks. By the way, that includes time spent going to the bathroom and walking back and forth to it—sometimes they could be spaced far out from where you are. And Bates supports the unionization effort and is feeling pretty positive about her coworkers support for it as well. But she also told me about how management is messaging against it and what they are telling employees about it.
[clip of Jennifer Bates] They’re going to take your money and buy luxury cars and go on vacation. And another one is, well, we had the newsletter in the bathrooms behind the door. Right now we have the flier for talking to us about why we don’t need it. Also, we have, antiunion people coming to our workstation and talking to us about it, about not voting and telling us that, uh, you’re going to lose your benefits if you vote the union in.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. So, as a result of all that, Bates said that some employees are fearful and only getting one side of the story, which is the one that Amazon wants to tell.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah. And what did she say personally about what the union would mean for her?
Gideon Resnick: The thing that was crazy was that the asks here are just not that big, like a little more time for breaks, a little less overbearing monitoring, making sure the space workers out by six feet because of the pandemic. And she’s hoping that small changes like that will make a big difference.
[clip of Jennifer Bates] You’ll have time to spend with your family and won’t have to be in a wheelchair, in knee braces and back pain, you know, taking pain medication. Who wants that? Want to be able to go to restroom without someone watching me or watching my time, and I have go in and try to rush what I’m doing just to try to get back and scan in.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, not a lot being asked there. She also told me that she’s hoping, yeah, a union will be able to stick up for workers. And one of the things that she mentioned is that rules change and that workers don’t feel like they’re able to share their sides of the story when issues do come up with management. We’re going to keep following the story as it progresses and I’m hopeful for the opportunity to report and air more conversations with workers as this goes along. But that is the latest for now.
Akilah Hughes: It’s Tuesday, WAD squad and today we’re talking about some major developments in the field of texting. Over 200 new emojis were announced yesterday, which will be on the new iPhone OS set to come out next month. There are seem to be at least three new emojis relevant to vaping, including exhaling face, face with spiral eyes and face in clouds. You’ll be able to send hearts that are both on fire and covered in bandages. And of course, the headphone emoji has been updated to look like Apple’s own AirPods Max headphones. So. Giddy, have you looked at the new emojis and what are your thoughts?
Gideon Resnick: I feel like our concern about public health has just invaded every aspect of our lives. Now that you have hearts covered in bandages, that’s very like, you know, something could be going wrong. You have this syringe that’s been updated.
Akilah Hughes: I mean, I feel like that’s more about like a broken heart, right? Like, it’s mending . . .
Gideon Resnick: Well, from, from emotion or from the pandemic that we’re living through? Who’s to say? I, and then the syringe thing, too, is like, that’s very clearly a play, you know, having the one without the blood on it is very clearly a play of like, oh, you can post about getting your vaccine and use this new syringe emoji to do it. Which like, you know, that’s, that’s fine and cute, but it just, to me, it shows like, I feel like we’re all, we all got the same thing on the brain and it’s, it’s in every part of our lives.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah. I mean, I think you’re not wrong. You know, they’ve had a lot of time at home in the pandemic and their brains do seem to be focused a little bit on that in this new emoji drop.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, but have you looked at these so far? Like, what are your thoughts here? There’s a lot of there’s a vape action? That’s, I don’t, that’s weird.
Akilah Hughes: I mean, I’m super into the new vape emojis. I think that they’re ridiculous. Like, I think the one where there’s all the face in the smoke should be like: I just walked through a vape cloud. You know, if those become a thing again when we get them leave our houses because that is a big deal for me in New York. I’m like, can you guys stop vaping giant clouds of cherries? It’s disgusting. I hate it.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah.
Akilah Hughes: So I think that one’s pretty innovative also maybe speaks to what they were doing in the pandemic. But there’s some other really cool things in the new emoji drop. You know, there’s like interracial, inner-sex, inner-everything relationships—so there’s like little hearts between them, which I think is really important and inclusive. And like, yeah, I think that people have had to be very creative in the past trying to show who they’re with through emojis. And I’m like, oh, finally, you all figured this out. I do think that there’s a lack of like a red afro. [laughs] The overlap of curly haired, red headed people is just never going to be addressed.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, there’s, there’s definitely like more inclusivity that’s happening, but not full, inclusivity that is happening. But, you know, with each new drop, I think we’re getting a more perfect society. That’s what uh, the emojis want us to think it. And I think it.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah. You know, they’re definitely trying to bring us all together with these. They’re very cute. And just like that, we’ve checked our temps. Stay safe. Send us your favorite emoji and we’ll be back after some ads.
Akilah Hughes: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.
Gideon Resnick: Facebook implemented a policy blocking all news content for users in Australia yesterday. Last year, the tech giant announced its decision to put a ban on news for Australian users in response to a proposed law that would require tech platforms to pay publishers for their content. Under the proposal, platforms would have to negotiate contracts with publishers in order for news to appear on their sites. A spokesperson for Facebook argued that publishers were the ones who chose to share stories on their platform to get new readers, which is another way of saying we are actually already paying you in clouds. Both Facebook and Google criticized the proposal when it was announced, but Google ended up taking a very different approach, actually cutting deals with major publishers to license content for their site.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, I hope that news sites start blocking Facebook from being posted on their stories. You know, I don’t want to see anybody’s update in the stories anymore. Well, the Board of Education in Los Angeles voted on Tuesday to defund its school police department and invest in programs that serve black students. Way to go. Happy Black History Month. The plan cuts 25 million dollars from the school police department’s budget, plus a third of its staff, and it bans pepper spraying students. Finally. The bulk of the money will be used to hire support staff, including climate coaches who will be responsible for de-escalation strategies, ending racial discrimination in disciplinary actions, and addressing implicit biases. Extra funding will also go to over 50 schools with higher black student populations. Activists and community leaders have long warned that school police forces disproportionately target and over police black and brown students, and many are calling the decision a move in the right direction. In response to the cuts, 20 officers resigned. I guess they’re upset they can’t abuse black people anymore. Well, in taking this action, L.A. joins other school districts like the ones in Oakland and Portland, which have cut down or eliminated school police.
Gideon Resnick: Young people in England will soon be able to make money just by participating in the global trend called getting COVID as the country has approved the world’s first clinical trial which involves infecting healthy participants. So the primary aim of the so-called challenge trial is to determine the smallest amount of virus that is required to cause infection. Additionally, researchers hope to compare and test different vaccines in a controlled setting and generally learn more about the virus. With 15 million people vaccinated in England and a sense of cautious optimism that the guards at Buckingham Palace can soon take off their masks and go back to flaunting those famous beautiful frowns, some have suggested that this trial is coming too late. Researchers argue that we might need new vaccines to combat new strains of COVID, and these trials will allow them to test vaccines quickly.
Akilah Hughes: Hear, hear. Well, one good rule is to be yourself, which is why bad masks need to stop pretending they can filter 95 percent of airborne particles. Cut it out. 10 million fake N95 have been seized by federal agents over the past few weeks, with the latest busts happening yesterday in a Massachusetts warehouse. These masks say they’re from 3M, which is considered the gold standard for COVID prevention, so there’s a risk they’ll be bought by hospitals and medical groups in need of effective PPE. Over the course of the pandemic, federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security, the FDA and the FBI have recovered 33 million dollars in fake COVID related products and arrested more than 200 people. From my perspective, counterfeiters should focus less on making stuff that could seriously endanger people and more on making Air Force Ones that don’t look like drawings of Air Force Ones like, put it to good use guys. Federal officers said fakes can sometimes be spotted based on grammatical errors or typos on packaging. If your mask is labeled ‘musk’, won’t protect you well from viruses, although maybe it will help you date Grimes or ride a spaceship to another planet. Who’s to say? Also, Rush Limbaugh, who made millions by being racist into a microphone, has finally died. And those are the headlines.
Gideon Resnick: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, avoid counterfeit wads and tell your friends to listen.
Akilah Hughes: And, if you’re into reading, and not just mask packages for grammar like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out, subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Akilah Hughes.
Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.
[together] And be yourself masks!
Akilah Hughes: You know, just go out there and try your hardest, but don’t pretend that you’re something you’re not.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Be confident and flaunt it. Be who you are, you know?
Akilah Hughes: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media.
Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes.
Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon is our assistant producer.
Gideon Resnick: Our head writer is Jon Millstein and our executive producers are Katie Long, Akilah Hughes and me.
Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.