Amazon’s Plague Year
As small businesses closed and layoffs hit, Amazon expanded its power — despite a string of crises and worker uprisings
When the Covid crisis went into full swing in March, two trend lines emerged almost immediately: Small businesses were forced to close down, and Amazon started hiring. At the time, I worried that as the pandemic raged we would see an accelerated consolidation of power among the tech companies that rely on part-time gig labor and e-commerce to gain advantage while everyone else hemorrhaged jobs. That decent jobs at vital local institutions would be traded for precarious jobs at a handful of online markets and platforms. I worried that 2020 would be the year of Amazonification.
With independent businesses shuttering, unemployment would skyrocket — and the conditions would be perfect for companies like Amazon (and Uber, InstaCart, DoorDash, etc.) that hire non-benefited workers to seize the opportunity to both press their advantage against traditional retail and entrench these precarious jobs as the norm. Covid looked like an incredible accelerator of trends set in motion long ago; trends that would push Amazon and gig companies to new heights of dominance at the expense of independent businesses. I was right to worry.
It’s hard to overstate the economic devastation the virus — and near-total failure of our government to provide adequate support for workers and small businesses — has brought. Millions of people have been thrown out of work: Even after a modest recovery, the unemployment rate is 3% higher than it was in February. According to Yelp data, nearly 100,000 small businesses had permanently closed by September. Small businesses, independent restaurants, “main street” shops — these were the hardest hit by the pandemic, and 60% of all closures that happened this year have been permanent. Major retailers like J.Crew and Dean and Deluca filed for bankruptcy. As a result, one study estimates that as many as 40 million people cannot afford to pay rent, and are on the brink of eviction right now; a crisis of almost unthinkable scale looms as the CDC’s eviction moratorium expires on January 1.
Any “stumble” that allows a business to make $6.3 billion of profit in a quarter is…