When the demand for online grocery delivery grew during the pandemic, supermarket giant Ahold Delhaize USA, owner of Stop & Shop, Giant, Food Lion, and Hannaford, had a business opportunity. But it also had a problem: it needed more workers. 

“We had to rapidly hire and on-board a lot of new people to keep the brands in stock through all those channels,” the company’s chief e-commerce officer, JJ Fleeman, said on a Supermarket News podcast at the time. By the end of the year, online sales were up 105%. The company even stood up a temporary distribution center. 

But late last year, Ahold Delhaize changed course. Where it had once rapidly hired for online services, it was now planning to close its warehouse and lay off more than 400 workers in Jersey City, New Jersey. 

The warehouse industry boomed during the first two years of the pandemic. For those years, crazy hiring, a tight labor market, and heightened health risks combined to give rise to increased leverage for workers, resulting in a wave of labor actions across the country. 

But now the industry is shedding jobs nationally, and workers’ leverage has started slipping away. While warehousing was never an industry where workers found it easy to make change, some signs suggest it may only get more difficult. 

“Tight labor markets both make workers a little more emboldened to push for change, but it also makes employers a little more responsive to the demands and needs of their workforce,” said Alex Kowalski, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Now, he added, “there’s even less of an appetite for trying to make it a better work environment.”

But there are signs that workers are continuing to organize despite the cooling labor market. The culture the pandemic built may not fade easily. 

“Macroeconomic indicators or variables like the unemployment rate or the inflation rate absolutely play a role,” said Johnnie Kallas, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But they are not determinative in the level of strike activity.” 

At one point, warehousing seemed like an industry that could grow forever. Before COVID-19, the sector grew modestly, but steadily. When the pandemic hit, after a brief blip of jobs loss, online sales skyrocketed, not just for groceries but for health products, camping supplies, and pet toys. Companies like Ahold Delhaize began to look for any way to build out their capacity. Employment in warehouse and storage grew nearly 40% in less than two years, adding half a million employees. 

Employers started paying more to find workers. From March 2020 to March 2022, wages in transportation and warehousing grew about 9%. Retailers started offering telehealth appointments, tuition reimbursement and free textbooks. But the quit rate only went up, peaking at 3.7% in August of 2022, up from 2% before the pandemic. 

Warehouse work has always been difficult. But the new fast pace and pandemic restrictions pushed the situation over the edge. The attendant health and safety risks “made workers feel like their jobs and their lives weren’t being respected and taken seriously,” Kallas said. 

They started organizing and mobilizing. Most of the energy was focused on burgeoning campaigns at the e-commerce giant Amazon, including a successful organizing effort at an Amazon facility in Staten Island and an ultimately unsuccessful one in Bessemer, Ala., as well as through Amazonians United, a nationwide grassroots network of warehouse workers.

“Amazon is by far the largest warehousing employer,” Kowalski said. “A lot of what they do sets the bar for other warehousing employers.”

Then, suddenly, the story changed. In March of 2022, hiring began to plateau. By that summer, the number of jobs in the industry was going down. 

From June 2022 to March 2024, the industry lost 172,000 jobs, nearly 9% of its peak workforce. Americans began going to stores again. Companies, with some distance from the supply chain shocks of the pandemic, had less need for inventory. Warehouse vacancy has increased. 

“The ramp-up was so fast, some companies may have overexpanded and realized we’ve got a lot of space and we can probably just work with what we have right now,” said Rob Handfield, a supply chain management professor at North Carolina State University. 

When the labor market in an industry slackens, workers typically lose leverage. Their chances of being laid off increase, as the opportunities to find another job diminish. They’re less likely to take risks organizing work stoppages and petitions, and employers are less likely to listen. The quit rate in warehousing and transportation has fallen by 20 percent in the past year, as workers lose confidence that they can find a better job. 

“If there are workers losing their jobs, it can make it even more challenging for workers to organize in the warehouses,” said Ellen Reese, faculty co-director for the Inland Empire Labor and Community Center at the University of California Riverside. Still, she said, organizing is still going on.

On the ground, companies have begun to see an easier time hiring. At Boxzooka, a fulfillment company with warehouses in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Nevada, turnover has dropped significantly and is now under 10% per year, said Brendan Heegan, CEO of the company. Part of that may be labor market slackening, but Heegan said Boxzooka has also invested significantly in making the company a desirable place to work for its more than 200 employees. Despite the national downturn in demand the company has nearly doubled in the last year. 

“There are a lot of mega big dogs out there that grew during COVID and they’re contracting,” Heegan said. “If you’re adding more business, you can compensate for that, and that’s what we’ve been doing.” 

Some experts emphasize that the job market is just one factor affecting the level of mobilization in the industry. 

With prominent strike wins last summer and younger generations reporting higher levels of union favorability, Kallas and other experts say, don’t count workers out just yet. How workers feel about their jobs — and their class consciousness more generally — can also have an effect.

Workers at the Amazon Air Hub at San Bernardino Airport in California started organizing after the company closed the warehouse over Christmas in 2021. The loss of pay left workers in the lurch, said Sophia Latkin, who has been loading heavy boxes onto planes at the facility for nearly three years. 

Since then, workers at the warehouse, under the banner of Inland Empire Amazon Workers United, have signed petitions, walked out of work, and marched on their bosses. They say their organizing has been the driver of pay increases, national policy changes, and safety improvements — like fans in the warehouse. (Amazon says it began installing fans before employees submitted a petition asking for them.)

When organizing started, COVID was raging, gas was reaching $5 per gallon in California, and Amazon was building fast in the Inland Empire. The situation for workers, Latkin said, became “unliveable.”

“Things got out of control. It was just so expensive to survive,” she said. “People don’t stick around because these jobs don’t pay enough to feel like your time is worth it. And a lot of people get hurt.”

Eileen Hards, an Amazon spokesperson, said employees have the choice to join a union, but that the company prefers opportunities for workers to speak individually. “The fact is, Amazon already offers what many unions are requesting: safe and inclusive workplaces, competitive pay, benefits on day one, and opportunities for career growth,” she said. “We look forward to working directly with our employees to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”

Amazon said an overwhelming majority of employees at the San Bernardino facility say in anonymous internal surveys that their managers are always looking for ways to make things safer and make sure employees do their jobs safely.

The industry has slowed even in the Inland Empire. Warehousing and storage jobs at all employers in the region shrunk last year for the first time in two decades. 

While those things might make mobilization and wins more difficult for workers, the pandemic organizing experience also gave them something intangible, Latkin said: a new culture. 

“We’ve shifted from just complaining about stuff to, ‘What are we going to do to make things better?’” Latkin said. “As a group of coworkers, we’ve been able to provide an alternative of ‘No, we don’t just have to accept this.’”

That sense of agency is the factor that may keep the organizing going across warehousing and fulfillment, even as workers lose leverage.

“I do think labor is ascendant right now, even as the labor market cools,” said Jason Struna, professor of sociology at the University of Puget Sound who has studied warehouse mobilization. “People are less willing to put up with the worst parts of work than we historically have been accustomed to.”


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