“The managers don’t even show up on site anymore because they don’t want to get the virus, leaving the kids who work there to slack off. People like me, the possums, have to survive by doubling up on our orders so we don’t get fired.”
The realm of political media that involves toilet paper and grocery shopping for Amazon is still in its infancy, but former Allston artist and musician Rob Potylo is at the forefront of the burgeoning genre. Or at least he was until his corporate overlords pulled the plug.
For the past two years, Potylo, who moved to California in 2016, has worked at a Whole Foods Market in Pasadena fulfilling grocery orders for Amazon Prime Now customers.
On March 13, Potylo, a Massachusetts native who created and starred in the Boston-based “reality sitcom” Quiet Desperation and performed as the hyperbolic Masshole Robby Roadsteamer for years, uploaded his first of 12 short videos showcasing the dawn of pandemic grocery shopping—from toilet paper shortages, to social distancing, to the incorporation of face masks into daily routines.
“There was a lot of crazy stuff happening when this pandemic went down,” Potylo said. “I wanted to capture it.”
By the second episode, he was taking shots at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for telling employees that they could get more sick time if they can convince coworkers to give up their own time. Soon after, he called out the lack of management and schedule reductions.
“It’s getting crazy down at Whole Foods,” he said in the penultimate episode of the series, officially titled “Coronavirus Mania Hits Whole Foods.” “The managers for Amazon don’t even show up on site anymore because they don’t want to get the virus, leaving the kids who work there to slack off, pass orders and flirt all day. People like me, the possums, have to survive by doubling up on our orders so we don’t get fired.”
Empty shelves were a common staple, including one episode in which Potylo noted that the chips had been replaced with “pain and fear,” before wondering out loud if the toilet paper would ever return.
“Times are tough, henceforth we are now replacing all of the toilet paper with Easter Eggs,” he said in another installment.
In a divine stroke of coincidence, corporate peeps from Amazon discovered the series and contacted Potylo on the same day that he was shooting his final episode.
“I had filmed enough of this nonsense,” he said. “I was pretty much done with this series.”
The HR flacks had watched every episode and approached Potylo with a laundry list of objections, including making untrue allegations about the company, making videos on company time, and using the offensive term “MILF.”
“In a way, working here is like being Mother Theresa—you go to the darkest parts of the world and help the lepers. That’s God’s work,” said Potylo, while sticking his head in between empty shelves during his third episode. “Only now I’m getting Prime orders for MILFs.”
While acknowledging that there were better things he could have said than “MILFs,” Potylo said that he was never warned or given the opportunity to take down the videos.
“It really broke my heart,” he said. “HR calls me, and informs me they’re doing this full investigation.”
According to Potylo, his coworkers enjoyed the series and even backed him up when questioned by corporate.
“Nobody thought I was going to get canned over it,” Potylo said. “They tried to interview everyone around me and they all said they didn’t see me filming during my shift and that they were included consensually.
“It was bringing a lot of hope and sunshine to a lot of the people I worked with.”
Potylo’s firing was only the latest of a series of terminations that were seemingly designed to silence employees. On May 1, an Amazon VP publicly resigned over the company’s policy of firing warehouse workers who raised safety concerns amid the pandemic.
“Remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned,” Tim Bray wrote in a blog post. His reference was to workers who organized against Amazon to pressure the company into improving its environmental practices.
As Potylo tells it, he and his coworkers were never allowed to work long enough in a week to gain full-time status or the benefits that come with it. Also, although Amazon owns Whole Foods Market, shoppers like Potylo are not given a store discount or the other benefits that come with working for the chain.
“They’ve definitely made it an art form here in terms of delegitimizing any chance we would have to make it full time,” he said. For two months during the pandemic, the company bumped Potylo up to 40 hours a week, but it was only temporary.
“Now we became essential and nobody wanted to work our job,” Potylo said. “Later on, I started seeing that they were just going to treat us like nothing had ever changed. It was like, Thank you for risking your lives, now you’re all back to part time.”
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
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Zack is a veteran reporter. He writes for DigBoston and VICE, and formerly reported for the Boston Courant and Bulletin Newspapers.