Amazon’s announcement of a universal $15-per-hour minimum wage for employees and temps stunned critics on Tuesday, earning the megacorporation unlikely praise from progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders and 2018 U.S. congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The move is, for Amazon’s hundreds of thousands of workers, a net benefit—full stop. Tactically, it’s also a brilliant play ostensibly intended to take the wind out of the sails of a growing pro-union contingent within the company, garner goodwill for a corporation repeatedly accused of grueling and unsafe warehouse conditions, and pressure competitors that may not have other revenue sources—like Amazon Web Services—to underwrite higher wages. On one point, though, it seems the pay increase announcement backed Amazon into a corner.
One of the perks Amazon touted for years when confronted with its disappointed wages was its stock option program, known as the Restricted Stock Unit (RSU) program, which all full-time warehouse workers were enrolled in and which vested after two years of employment with the company. Whole Foods was famous for a similar employee gain-sharing program—something that, according to current workers, disappeared once Amazon bought the grocery chain in 2017. But part of Amazon’s blog post yesterday notes that:
We will be phasing out the [Restricted Stock Unit] grant program for stock which would vest in 2020 and 2021 for this group of employees, replacing it with a direct stock purchase plan before the end of 2019.
In general, the benefit of a direct stock purchases, as opposed to paying for them on the open market, is the avoidance of broker fees. But beyond that general framework, Amazon doesn’t expound further on the scope of the replacement program.
Dissolving the RSU program for higher base pay seems like a fair enough trade, if Whole Food’s CEO John Mackey hadn’t written the following in a letter to all team members on September 12 (emphasis his):
We will create an Amazon stock equity program for all our Team Members with at least 6,000 service hours. Last spring, Amazon granted Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) to all Whole Foods leadership from Associate Store Team Leader level and up. We have heard from many Team Members who expressed disappointment about not providing equity opportunities for all long-tenured Team Members as we had previously done with the Whole Foods Stock Option Plan. I want you to know that we are actively developing a solution with Amazon that will address these concerns.
We reached out multiple times to both Amazon and Whole foods for comment and have yet to receive any clarification on this apparent discrepancy in marching orders. Whatever the resolution, the company is effectively hamstrung: Either Amazon’s directive supersedes Mackey’s, or the company ends up with a two-tiered system where warehouse workers aren’t offered stock but grocery store workers are.
Stock options may be a major sticking point, both because these internal statements appear to stand in contradiction and because gain-sharing is a major concern for organizing Whole Foods employees. But the confusion and lack of response are indicative of the rollout of these changes more generally.
Some Whole Foods workers are unsure how the rising base pay will affect their store’s labor budgets. Members of online forums where Amazon workers gather seem equally confused by edge cases—like the size of a raise those already making $15 or more are entitled to. “Not sure how it turned out for you but our [process assistants] and hard capped T1 associates [those who have worked long enough to receive all available raises] got screwed out of pay from $.25-$1/hr+. All hands was a complete shit show,” a Redditor claimed, citing anger over the loss of stocks and variable-compensation pay, a bonus given to employees when a warehouse exceeds its monthly productivity goals. (Amazon confirmed VCP was being phased out.)
Amazon’s $15-per-hour move is a step in the right direction for America’s second-largest employer, but for organizers, it needs to be the first step of many.