Eric Deshawn Lerma felt waves of anxiety when he sat down to tally the new costs in his routine since Amazon’s return to the office this spring. There’s parking. There’s fuel. There’s lunch. They add up to at least $200 extra a month, all to support a policy whose justification he can’t fully understand — after three years in which he and his teammates have been doing their jobs from home.
Still, when Mr. Lerma heard that some of his colleagues were organizing a walkout to protest the return-to-office policy, which asks employees to come in at least three days a week, he initially wavered on whether to participate. After all, he realizes that thousands of Amazon workers have no flexibility to work from home. Their jobs require them to go into warehouses to do physically taxing labor each day.
“It really provided me with a sense of internal conflict about working from home being a luxury or a right,” said Mr. Lerma, 27, who is an executive assistant in Seattle and joined the company, where he feels he has grown personally and professionally, in 2022. “There are different rights and amenities afforded to my role.”
He ultimately decided, though, that he would probably join virtually. “While warehouse workers have much harsher working conditions than I do,” he said, “I should still be able to reserve the right to protect my autonomy as an employee.”
Thousands of corporate employees, across industries, who remain adamant that they do not want to return to the office are now confronting a tension: How do their demands compare with those of the millions of workers whose jobs have never permitted them the ease of remote work? And can a corporate employee’s advocacy be of use to workers, including those trying to unionize, outside the corporate sphere?
This tension follows a pandemic that exacerbated the divide between white-collar workers who could do their jobs from the safety of their homes and workers who often could not and were exposed to higher Covid risks.
Simultaneously, workers in both the corporate and noncorporate realms have re-evaluated their working conditions, quit their jobs in waves and called for higher wages, amid a tight labor market at one point called a “workers economy.” The unemployment rate this spring has remained low, at 3.4 percent, with wages rising.
At Amazon, hundreds of corporate employees plan to walk off the job on Wednesday, for one hour during lunchtime, in protest of the company’s return-to-office rule, among other issues including layoffs and the company’s impact on the climate. Weeks earlier, employees voiced their frustrations with the R.T.O. policy in a Remote Advocacy channel, with over 30,000 members, on the Slack workplace messaging system.
The company has more than 350,000 corporate and tech employees globally. More than 800 in Seattle and 1,600 globally have pledged to participate in the walkout. Some employees, particularly working parents, pin some of their frustration to the financial toll of returning to the office, especially the cost and pressures of child care.
The vast majority of Amazon’s more than one million workers, including those who formed a union at a Staten Island warehouse, have been working in person throughout the pandemic.
Apple, where employees issued open letters protesting in-person work, and at the Gap have encountered a similar dynamic. At Starbucks, more than 70 named employees, along with others who remained anonymous, released a petition this year urging the company to permit them to keep working remotely. Members of the union representing Starbucks baristas have been supportive of these corporate workers, even though most of the company’s roughly 250,000 U.S. employees, including those across more than 300 unionized stores, cannot work from home.
Indeed, many workers in warehouses and stores have been quick to show support for their corporate colleagues, noting that they have nothing to gain from seeing office workers lose out on the flexibility that the pandemic proved was possible.
“The work that we’re doing is in two separate fields,” said Anna Ortega, 23, who is active in Inland Empire Amazon Workers United, a group of warehouse workers, and has been working at an Amazon facility in San Bernardino, Calif., for almost two years. “It’s just showing us that Amazon has a problem with workers and listening to us.”
Ms. Ortega spends her days lifting 50-pound packages — a task she could never do from home. But she said she supported the Amazon workers who were asking for the flexibility to keep working remotely.
“If your employees are happy and are able to work productively from home, I think they would be able to bring better results,” Ms. Ortega said.
An Amazon spokesman, Brad Glasser, said that the company respected “employees’ rights to express their opinions and peacefully assemble,” but that it had felt “good energy” since more employees returned to the office.
At Starbucks, members of the union representing store workers have corresponded with corporate employees on Discord and other platforms, offering their support. And when corporate employees released their petition, they asked the company both to reverse its return-to-office policy and to allow free and fair union elections across stores.
Jake Sklarew, 34, a software engineer at Starbucks who signed the petition, was frustrated by the return-to-office policy because during the pandemic he had bought a home in an affordable area, 30 miles from the office, thinking he’d be able to keep working remotely. Earlier in his career, when he worked in restaurants, he commuted as much as three hours a day, and he sees his current calls for fairer company policies as connected to the struggles of baristas demanding workplace respect.
“The people that are working in stores, when you talk to them, they’re not asking for other people to have to work in person,” he said, adding that it wouldn’t make sense for Starbucks to end remote work for some just because not everyone can do it. “It feels to me like kind of an eye-for-an-eye situation: You’re not helping anyone — you’re just hurting everyone.”
Starbucks has suggested that its policy, which requires its 3,750 corporate workers to come in three days a week, contains an element of equity for its employees, or “partners,” because “many partners didn’t have the privilege of working remotely.” But some union members have rejected this logic.
To Sarah Pappin, 32, a Starbucks shift supervisor in Seattle, what corporate employees are asking for is directly related to what store employees are demanding, such as increased Covid safety protections.
“Even jobs that you might think of as dream jobs can be exploited,” she said. “I think there is a growing understanding that we’re all workers.”
But that sense of solidarity doesn’t erase the guilt that some office workers feel as they ask to hold on to the freedom of a workday in their living room. Many office workers have realized, too, all the advantages they have even in their organizing efforts.
“We’re so much closer to leadership,” Mr. Lerma said. “I have access to a work-issued laptop that has provided me with the complete address book of everyone within Amazon. I have access to Slack, which can give me any contact I want. A warehouse employee doesn’t have that luxury.”