The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions launched an investigation into “dangerous and illegal conditions” at Amazon warehouses, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the committee chair, announced Tuesday in a letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy.
Amazon has spent millions on federal lobbying so far this year and touted improved workplace safety metrics as federal regulators cracked down on alleged violations.
In the letter, Sanders alleged Amazon has “consistently ignored” concerns from federal and state regulators about warehouse safety. The company racked up at least 30 hazard alert letters and 50 workplace safety violations since 2015, according to Sanders’ letter, and the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration had 20 open investigations into U.S. Amazon warehouse locations as of April.
“We’ve reviewed the letter and strongly disagree with Senator Sanders’ assertions,” Amazon spokesperson Steve Kelly told OpenSecrets in a written statement. Amazon has appealed all workplace safety citations referenced in Sanders’ letter.
Amazon spent nearly $5.1 million on federal lobbying on “workplace safety” among other issues during the first three months of 2023, making the retail giant one of the top spenders on federal lobbying so far this year. Amazon spent $21.4 million on federal lobbying in 2022, making it the sixth-biggest federal lobbying spender in a year that saw a nominal record $4.1 billion spent.
Amazon has consistently lobbied on workplace safety since the third quarter of 2020, according to federal lobbying disclosures. Kelly told OpenSecrets that Amazon takes employee safety and health “very seriously.”
“There will always be ways to improve, but we’re proud of the progress we’ve made which includes a 23% reduction in recordable injuries across our U.S. operations since 2019,” Kelly told OpenSecrets. “We’ve invested more than $1 billion into safety initiatives, projects, and programs in the last four years, and we’ll continue investing and inventing in this area because nothing is more important than our employees’ safety.”
The Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions cited in Sanders’ letter, found that while there are fewer Amazon workplace incidents in 2022 than there were in 2019, the e-commerce giant still accounts for a disproportionate number of workplace injuries.
Amazon was responsible for 53% of all “serious injuries” — causing the worker to modify their duties or to take time off — in the warehouse industry last year despite only employing 36% of all U.S. warehouse workers, according to a Strategic Organizing Center report released in April 2023. The serious injury rate for Amazon warehouses was 6.6 per 100 workers in 2022, more than double the rate of 3.2 per 100 workers in non-Amazon warehouses.
Amazon disputes both the Strategic Organizing Center’s and Sanders’ use of statistics about “serious” injuries, saying there’s no official regulatory metric.
“There will always be ways for our critics to splice data to suit their narrative, but the fact is, we’ve made progress and our numbers clearly show it,” Kelly told OpenSecrets.
The Strategic Organizing Center report notes 95% of the almost 39,000 injuries were “serious.” One injury at a New York fulfillment center location, which Sanders referenced, involved a falling box hitting a night shift worker. When the employee bled out of their ear, a symptom of a skull fracture, they reported to an on-site clinic. The employee suffered a headache but Amazon sent them back to their regular duties, where they were unmonitored. Since no physician was contacted and the employee’s duties weren’t modified, injuries like these might not fit under the Strategic Organizing Center’s definition of “serious.”
“Amazon has become one of the world’s most powerful companies not necessarily by offering a better product or service, but by breaking and exploiting gaps in the law to abuse hundreds of thousands of delivery and warehouse workers,” Lee Hepner, legal counsel for the corporate accountability-focused nonprofit the American Economic Liberties Project, told OpenSecrets in a written statement.
Sanders’ letter references OSHA violations involving on-site clinics at Amazon facilities, which are part of the company’s Administering Medical Care to Amazonians Responsibly and Effectively program. In April 2023, OSHA found “Amazon failed to provide adequate medical treatment for traumatic and chronic injuries” at a Castleton, N.Y., fulfillment center, and fined the company $15,625. OSHA found similar deficiencies at a Deltona, Fla., warehouse in January 2023, and it sent a hazard alert letter to Amazon.
Sanders argued that Amazon staffs its on-site clinics with athletic trainers and EMTs who are “not equipped to handle” warehouse injuries, so injuries are misclassified, undertreated and “systematically underreported,” as OSHA does not require companies to report “minor injuries requiring first aid only.”
In the letter, Sanders demanded information about injury rates and the company’s turnover rates, as well as company communications about OSHA-recommended safety measures. The letter also asked Amazon to hand over data about its on-site medical care, like the credentials of its staff and details about calls to the medical program’s physician help hotline, which is provided to on-site clinics.
As part of the investigation, the committee also set up a website where “current or former workers, supervisors, medical staff, or anyone else in Amazon’s warehouses” can confidentially share their experiences.
“It’s an uncomfortable truth for the consumers who enjoy Amazon’s convenience that abusive working conditions are a feature of Amazon’s business model, not a bug,” Hepner told OpenSecrets.
Kelly said Amazon’s standing invitation for Sanders to tour one of their facilities remains open.
Sanders’ office did not respond to OpenSecrets’ request for comment.
Amazon’s in-house lobbyists also reported renewed focus on legislation aimed at breaking up the retail giant’s alleged monopoly. Amazon accounted for 37.6% of all e-commerce in the U.S. as of May 2023, according to an analysis by the market research firm Insider Intelligence, with Walmart coming in at a distant second at 6.4%.
Amazon deployed more than three dozen retailers who sell through the e-commerce giant to Capitol Hill one day before Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) reintroduced the American Choice and Innovation Online Act last Thursday. The legislation includes a ban on “self-preferencing” that would prevent major tech companies from giving “preferred status or placement” to their own products. Lobbyists for Amazon reported more activities related to the American Choice and Innovation Online Act than any other bill in 2022.
Tech giants Apple, Meta and Google parent company Alphabet joined Amazon in opposing the American Choice and Innovation Online Act, spearheading an eleventh-hour lobbying blitz to kill the bill at the end of 2022. Lobbyists for Apple, Meta and Alphabet reported more activities related to the American Innovation and Choice Online Act than any other bill last year, an OpenSecrets analysis of federal lobbying disclosures found.
As part of efforts to kill a previous iteration of the bill, Amazon and Amazon-funded advocacy groups argued the legislation would harm small businesses selling on the platform and restrict Amazon’s ability to offer perks like free two-day shipping, POLITICO reported.
The Lobbying Disclosure Act deadline for activity during the second quarter of 2023 is July 20, and new disclosures will provide more details about what Amazon’s lobbyists have been working on for the past three months.