Lane: Amazon Needs a Taste of Its Own Medicine

Our government must uphold its responsibility to protect workers, and it should take a new approach to workplace safety to do so.

by Thomas Lane | 2/22/22 3:00am

On Dec. 10 of last year, a tornado hit an Amazon warehouse in Illinois and collapsed its roof, killing six workers inside who were not able to find proper shelter despite advance warning of the tornado’s approach. The deaths renewed discussion about Amazon’s long-standing and, frankly, disgusting habit of mistreating its workers. I say “renewed” because anyone who follows the news has also heard about Amazon’s other workplace scandals, such as revelations that its executives know their delivery drivers are forced by Amazon’s productivity expectations to pee in bottles while on the job and that warehouse workers have been sent immediately back to work after a colleague, who wasn’t given help for a full twenty minutes, died on the job of a heart attack. The employee had even reported having heart attack symptoms at an on-site clinic beforehand, and yet Amazon still did nothing. Tragic stories like these illustrate how large and wildly profitable conglomerates like Amazon cannot be trusted to respect their employees without substantial corrective action to hold them accountable.

The key to addressing Amazon’s misbehavior is in the big picture. Their workplace safety numbers overall are atrocious. An in-depth analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration data of Amazon’s facilities conducted in my home state of Minnesota found that since opening its first warehouse in the state about five years ago, Amazon warehouses have developed an injury rate more than double that found at Minnesota warehouses operated by other companies — with many of these injuries stemming from stress-related symptoms of being overworked. Furthermore, employees have recounted facing retribution for reporting such injuries. In case anyone still doubts Amazon’s tendency to take advantage of its workers, the data also showed that Black workers at Amazon’s Minnesota warehouses — many of whom are immigrants and refugees from war-torn East Africa — were generally paid only 63% of what their white colleagues were paid. Nationally, OSHA data shows that Amazon’s workplace safety record in its warehouses is similar to its record in Minnesota: very bad. There should be no question that the company is neglecting its workers and that action needs to be taken immediately.

Amazon’s behavior shows us how the company thinks its bottom line is what is most important — even more than human life. Thus, how can Amazon be compelled to correct this issue without somehow targeting its bottom line? States and the federal government should require employers to pay hazard pay to their workers for each hour worked, say an additional 50% of the base wage on top of everything else, if their workplace safety numbers are a certain percent above their industry median. For instance, warehouse workers could be required to be paid this hazard pay if their warehouse reported 20% or more injuries per hundred workers than the median in that state. This method would impose substantial costs for any company that puts its workers in danger, and any company which fails to promptly respond would likely suffer serious financial consequences. As a further way to protect workers, companies which have workplace safety problems that require them to pay this hazard pay could be required to prominently state that their workplace is substantially more dangerous than their peers on their job listings.

Businesses are designed to make money. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone when they sacrifice other things, whether that be workplace safety or anything else, in order to make more money. That is why we need to approach regulation differently. The pitiful one-time fines for safety violations handed out after extended litigation that America has traditionally used are not effective means for ensuring safe working conditions. Amazon has been repeatedly sued and punished for violating safety guidelines — just last November, Amazon paid a settlement with the state of California over claims it hid the rate of COVID-19 infection among its workforce from employees — yet the scandals keep occurring. No doubt, that paltry $500,000 settlement with a company worth hundreds of billions did not do much.

We need a new way of provoking change. By penalizing companies on an ongoing basis based on metrics related to the problems we seek to prevent, we would send the message that companies are directly responsible for their behavior and will pay the price — literally — until they get their act together. The basic dignity of the countless ordinary Americans simply trying to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads demands nothing less.

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