John Oliver dedicated most of this week’s Last Week Tonight to the plight of essential workers, who are shouldering the brunt of dangerous and dirty work during the coronavirus pandemic.
Right now, one in ten Americans are out of a job. Only a third of those still employed are able to work remotely. And a huge number of people working “essential jobs” — everything from grocery clerks and fast food workers to custodians and healthcare professionals — are keeping the world running. But many are doing so without a safety net.
Amazon has been one of the worst offenders. The company put out ads framing its warehouse employees and delivery drivers as “heroes,” which Oliver pointed out is some grating propaganda.
“It’s hard to say what I like least about that. Maybe it’s the schmaltzy piano music, maybe it’s Amazon patronizingly claiming they care about the well-being of their ‘heroes,’ or maybe it’s just the fact that, out of context, the Amazon smile logo is a quick sketch of an uncircumcised dick. It’s probably a combination of all three,” Oliver quipped on Sunday night’s episode.
Because in reality, Amazon workers around the country have staged protests to call attention to unsafe working conditions in its warehouses, including an inability to maintain social distancing guidelines, lack of access to protective gear and hand sanitizer, and even lack of time to properly wash their hands.
Warehouse workers in Michigan walked off the job last Wednesday, protesting the fact that they were risking their lives filling nonessential orders. “Dildos are not essential items,” Amazon employee Mario Crippen declared during the walkout, in a video that went viral. “Books for kids, yes, but dildos? No.”
Oliver also slammed Amazon for dragging its feet on offering government-mandated extra sick time to its employees. He pointed out that all essential workers should be entitled to additional paid time off as well as bonus pay for working in hazardous conditions. Oliver then touched on how bogus it is that healthcare is tied to employment — a fact that’s self-evident for many out-of-work Americans now terrified of not only contracting COVID-19 but also going into serious debt if they do get sick.
As Oliver pointed out on Sunday night’s show, the coronavirus pandemic has (some) politicians scrambling to fix social problems that’ve been festering for decades, just out of view for those privileged enough to ignore them. And shame on the conservatives blathering on about how systemic improvements made during the pandemic shouldn’t be permanent.
Positive, productive movements can come from hardship. The OG New Deal was FDR’s way of putting America back to work, fixing up our parks and infrastructure, after the Great Depression. Right now, the government’s job is to get the country through the pandemic and take care of its citizens, to the best of its ability. But when the worst of coronavirus is over, forward-thinking, imaginative legislation like the Green New Deal could be just the ticket to get the country back on its feet.
Anyhow, Oliver is known for lambasting abuses of power. He’s got an effective track record of stirring the pot. It was powerful to see him champion essential workers on Sunday, throwing shade at Amazon, because he’s absolutely right: they’re the people society most relies on, they’re getting sick and dying at a higher rate than white collar workers and right now, big corporations like Amazon are greedily taking advantage of the fact that its employees don’t have a choice in the matter. They have to put food on the table and pay the bills, so they go to work, whether or not their job literally puts their life at risk.