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Amazon is pushing for a milestone union vote to take place in person despite the pandemic

Amazon is once again asking the National Labor Relations Board to direct thousands of the company’s warehouse workers at an Alabama facility to cast votes in-person on whether to form a union, rather than by mail, despite the ongoing pandemic.

The e-commerce giant filed a motion Thursday to delay the union election, which is set to begin February 8, so that the NLRB may revisit its decision to hold the election by mail over the course of nearly two months instead of through an in-person event.

The NLRB declined to comment on Amazon’s request.

The union vote is a milestone moment for the Alabama facility and for Amazon. While some Amazon workers are unionized in Europe, the company has so far fended off unions in the United States. A union election was held in 2014 at a Delaware warehouse, but resulted in workers largely rejecting the effort.

The NLRB said last week that the approximately 6,000 employees at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, facility would cast a vote by mail, noting the health risks from the pandemic.

“A mail ballot election will enfranchise employees who cannot enter the voting location for health reasons or due to positive COVID tests,” the NLRB decision stated. “In addition, a mail ballot election will protect the health and safety of voters, Agency personnel, the parties’ representatives, and the public during the current health crisis.”

In filings this week, however, Amazon said the NLRB decision regarding its election doesn’t specify what is considered an “outbreak.” Amazon said the NLRB’s Acting Regional Director, Lisa Henderson, “reached the remarkable conclusion that any level of infection or potential infection among employees counts as an ‘outbreak.'”

Amazon said that at its Bessemer facility, 2.88% of Amazon’s 7,575 employees and third-party workers at the facility — or 218 people — tested positive during the 14-day period ending on January 7. Amazon rejected the idea that this would be considered an outbreak.

“If true, facilities will be in a constant state of ‘outbreak’ unless and until the virus all but disappears, with no manual elections occurring until that unknown time,” the filing read, also citing that a mail election could “disenfranchise dozens or hundreds of voters” because it is imperfect.

In the NLRB’s decision last week, Henderson noted that Jefferson County, where the facility is located, had a positivity rate of over 17% as of January 11, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The NLRB said in November that a mail-in election would “normally be appropriate” if the number of confirmed cases in the county is increasing, or if it is 5% or higher. In its filing, Amazon said this decision “reflected assumptions developed comparatively earlier in the pandemic.”

In a statement to CNN Business, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox said the company believes “the best approach to a valid, fair and successful election is one that is conducted manually, in-person, making it easy for associates to verify and cast their vote in close proximity to their workplace.”

“Amazon provided the NLRB with a safe, confidential and convenient proposal for associates to vote onsite which is in the best interest of all parties — associate convenience, vote fidelity, and timeliness of vote count,” Knox said in the statement. “ We will continue to insist on measures for a fair election, and we want everyone to vote, so our focus is ensuring that’s possible.

The union push comes as Amazon’s warehouse working conditions have come under heightened scrutiny during the pandemic. The company has hired hundreds of thousands workers globally to support a surge in demand. A number of warehouse workers have spoken out about safety concerns since the start of the pandemic.

Workers at the facility first filed a notice in November with the NLRB about holding an election to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

“Having a union at Amazon would give us the right to collectively bargain over our working conditions including items such as safety standards, training, breaks, pay, benefits, and other important issues that would make our workplace better,” reads a website in support of unionizing Amazon’s Bessemer workers.

Article Topic Follows: Biz/Tech

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