Tracy, California is an hour drive inland from the San Francisco. If you're an Amazon customer in the San Francisco Bay Area, chances are your packages pass through the hands of an Amazon warehouse worker in Tracy.
One day last October, Patty Hernandez, a 23-year-old packer at OAK4, one of Amazon's six fulfillment centers in Tracy, felt the sudden urge to go to the bathroom. She dashed across the warehouse to a bathroom stall, and discovered blood in her pants.
Hernandez was seven weeks pregnant at the time. In the weeks before, Hernandez had pleaded repeatedly with her manager and the warehouse's human resources for lighter duty, and submitted a doctor's note to Amazon's human resources requesting pregnancy accommodations. The note, which was obtained by Motherboard, said no lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying more than 20 pounds, and no walking or standing for more than 50 percent of her shift.
As a packer, the last person in an Amazon warehouse to handle Amazon packages before they're loaded onto trucks, Hernandez' job was to lift yellow bins filled with merchandise that weighed up to 50 pounds off conveyor belts on 10-hour shifts.
Some bins were heavier than others and were filled with cases of energy drinks, shampoo bottles, and dog food.
Amazon's human resources denied Hernandez's doctor's note, according to Hernandez who said the denial was communicated verbally by a human resources rep. "[HR] just told me there was no specific area for light work that wouldn't require over 15 pounds of lifting, or for me to be off my feet," she said.
The Center for Disease Control says that repeated heavy lifting, standing on your feet for long hours, and repeated bending at the waist can increase the chance of miscarriage for pregnant workers.
After being denied lighter duty, Hernandez said her manager, who knew she was pregnant, repeatedly asked why she was taking longer bathroom breaks, sitting, and moving slower.
"My manager wasn’t accommodating," Hernandez told Motherboard. "He was on me, asking, 'Why is your rate so low, why are you spending so much time in the bathroom, why is your [time off task] more than ten minutes?' We were only allowed 10 minutes of time off task each day, but the warehouse is so big. It takes six minutes just to get to the bathroom and back."
'Time off task' is a metric that Amazon uses to measure productivity and discipline workers—by tracking how often its workers scan packages at their workstation. Hernandez said she was allotted 10 minutes of time off task per day OAK4, and had to maintain high productivity rates tracked by her scanner.
After Hernandez discovered she was bleeding, she notified her manager that she was having a medical emergency and could be miscarrying, and went home. She asked for medical leave, which was denied, according to a letter reviewed by Motherboard showing that Amazon had denied her request for Family and Medical Leave Act leave because she hadn't worked enough hours.
"You are not eligible for leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act because you have not worked 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months. You have worked approximately 841.57 hours," the letter dated October 26, 2020, states.
Rena Lunak, an Amazon spokesperson, said Amazon is looking into the situation. "We partner with each Amazon employee on an individual basis to ensure they have what they need to stay healthy,” Lunak said. “We gladly offer support and medical accommodations to thousands of employees across our operations daily."
That week, Hernandez continued to bleed—similar to a heavy period, she said—and stayed home to rest. Amazon never responded to two pending requests for California Pregnancy Disability and a medical leave of absence, Hernandez said, and so she resigned from Amazon, knowing that she had run out of personal time off.
A week later, her nurse confirmed using an ultrasound that Hernandez was no longer pregnant. "I went to the doctor and they couldn't detect a heartbeat," she said. Her fiancé confirmed the details of her story with Motherboard.
"It all took a very emotional toll on me. I never imagined this would happen to me. I would cry every day," Hernandez said.
Amazon has a well-documented track record of delaying and denying all sorts of disability accommodations—including lighter duty for pregnant warehouse workers—which squares with its notoriously high turnover business model (roughly 150 percent per year). Between 2011 and 2019, at least seven pregnancy discrimination lawsuits were filed against Amazon. Workers alleged that the company failed to accommodate requests such as more frequent bathroom breaks and fewer continuous hours standing and then fired them. In 2019, Amazon warehouse workers in Phoenix wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos that said that pregnant workers had received final warnings from Amazon for "time off task." Last year, Motherboard reported that Amazon failed to quickly accommodate four pregnant workers at a warehouse in Oklahoma City—forcing workers to risk miscarriage, homelessness, and eviction.
Under federal law, it is often legal for companies, including Amazon, to deny pregnant workers lighter duty. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 says that an employer has to accommodate pregnant employees only if it is already doing so for other employees who are "similar in their ability or inability to work."
In California, pregnancy accommodation laws are stronger than other states. California laws specifically require that employers with over five employees provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees—including changing job duties or work hours—unless they can prove “undue hardship…to its operation.”
Jennifer Karlin, a professor at the University of California Davis Medical Center who specializes in reproductive health, told Motherboard that it is impossible to know whether working at Amazon caused Hernandez to miscarry, but persistent occupational stress and night shifts increase risk for miscarriage, according to medical literature. Hernandez occasionally worked night shifts at Amazon for extra income.
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"While this does not prove causality, it is reasonable to offer ways to decrease stress for individuals who are pregnant rather than create more stress in their lives in order to provide the best possibility for a healthy pregnancy," Dr. Karlin said. "This worker was put between a rock and a hard place. Either you don’t get paid, so you can’t feed yourself and your family, or you come to work and put your pregnancy at risk."
Approximately, 10 to 15 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to a 2013 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The majority of those miscarriages occur in the first trimester.
In April 2020, a few weeks into the pandemic, Hernandez signed up to work at the Amazon warehouse in Tracy, because her family closed the Mexican restaurant and a few taco trucks they owned, where she worked.
Amazon was rapidly hiring when most places were shutting down—and it had a good reputation in Hernandez' community. "I was mostly aware of the positives," she said. "I had two cousins working there. They said it’s so fun. You work four days a week. They made it sound like the place to work. In my perspective, I feel like they don’t care about you no matter what you’re going through. It’s very hard to miscarry because they don’t want to accommodate you."