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Seattle Amazon workers plan walkout over return to office, layoffs

By Lauren Rosenblatt, The Seattle Times
Published: May 23, 2023, 7:42am

SEATTLE —Some Amazon employees in Seattle plan to walk off the job to show their frustration with recent layoffs, return-to-office mandates and a lack of action to address the company’s impact on climate change, organizers said.

A group of workers is urging their colleagues to walk out May 31, a week after Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting and a month after the company’s return-to-office mandate took effect. The Washington Post first reported on the plans Monday.

The action hinges on at least 1,000 Amazon employees from the company’s Seattle headquarters agreeing to participate in the one-day walkout, one worker who plans to walk out told The Seattle Times.

“We’re really walking out to show leadership is taking us in the wrong direction and employees need a say in the decisions that affect our lives,” said the worker, a software engineer based in Seattle who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job. “It’s a one-day walkout to show power.”

In response, an Amazon spokesperson said, “We respect our employees’ rights to express their opinions.”

Drew Herdener, senior vice president for communications at Amazon, said there has been a good energy on the company’s South Lake Union campus and other urban centers where Amazon has a significant presence.

“We’ve had a great few weeks with more employees in the office,” he said. “As it pertains to the specific topics this group of employees is raising, we’ve explained our thinking in different forums over the past few months and will continue to do so.”

The walkout would come after a year of cost-cutting measures that have affected nearly every part of Amazon’s sprawling business and led some employees to question how committed the company is to former CEO Jeff Bezos’ goal of becoming “Earth’s Best Employer.”

Amazon has cut 27,000 jobs since November. The layoffs have affected workers in advertising, human resources, gaming, stores, devices and Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing division.

On top of that, Amazon has ended entire projects, ranging from its health care endeavor, Amazon Care, to a philanthropic program, Amazon Smile, to a roving delivery truck with discounted items for sale, Treasure Trunk.

It’s still not clear how the job cuts have impacted Amazon’s HQ1. In January, following state laws, Amazon told the Washington Department of Labor it had laid off 2,300 workers in the Puget Sound. Of those, 1,852 were in Seattle and 448 were in Bellevue.

Since then, Amazon announced another 9,000 job cuts companywide, but has not notified Washington’s unemployment office of the local impact.

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At the same time Amazon was re-evaluating its teams and workforce, the company announced it would require workers to return to the office at least three times a week beginning May 1. That was a change from Amazon’s prior policy, put in place in the second half of 2021, that allowed leaders to decide for their teams where they should work.

Announcing the mandate in February, CEO Andy Jassy told employees that senior leaders had observed that it’s easier to “learn, model, practice and strengthen our culture when we’re in the office together most of the time and surrounded by our colleagues.”

Boosters for downtown Seattle, where Amazon’s headquarters campus is located, cheered the mandate and hoped that thousands of returning workers would enliven the neighborhood.

In response to the return-to-office mandate, more than 20,000 workers signed a petition urging Amazon to reconsider.

Now, almost a month since the policy took effect, some Amazon employees are ramping up efforts to push back. The walkout would start at lunchtime and workers would gather outside the Spheres in Amazon’s South Lake Union campus.

“I think it’s an unfortunate step … but a necessary one at this point,” said an Amazon employee based in Virginia who plans to participate virtually by logging off that day.

That employee, who is a software engineer and asked to remain anonymous to protect their job, said they are concerned about the health risks of working in the office. They said they asked the company to designate an area of the office where masks are required to protect against the spread of COVID. The company declined to do so, the worker said.

That worker says they’re expected to make data-driven decisions in their day-to-day work. It doesn’t feel like Amazon leadership is held to the same standard.

“There’s a feeling of the culture and the values that are being told are important for us to bring to the table are not being mirrored by the top executives,” the worker said. “They do not model with their behavior what we are told to do with our roles.”

The walkout is a joint effort between two groups: an informal group that expressed concern about Amazon’s return-to-office mandate and Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, which organized a walkout in 2019 calling for the company to do more to address its impact on climate change.

Amazon’s “failures on the climate front” are the main factor pushing the Seattle-based software engineer to walk out. The company has said it’s making progress on its climate goals but the worker accused Amazon of “greenwashing.”

“To me, there’s so much risk in not doing anything,” the worker said.