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At 8:35pm last Friday, a tornado swept through Edwardsville, Illinois that caused the walls of an Amazon warehouse to fall inward and the roof to collapse, killing six workers. Minutes before he died, Larry Virden, one of those workers texted his girlfriend to say “Amazon won’t let us leave.” The warehouse collapse has raised questions about whether Amazon sufficiently prepares its warehouses for emergency events and severe weather. Amazon warehouse workers around the United States are speaking out to say they have long been pushed to risk their lives to show up to work or stay put in warehouses during various emergency situations.According to Amazon’s employee handbook, Amazon warehouse workers can be terminated for “leaving company premises without permission during assigned work hours.” During a natural disaster, staying put can often be the best option if you’re already at work, but requiring workers to show up to work during a tornado, blizzard, or other natural disaster or extreme event can be deadly.
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.
Motherboard spoke to an Amazon safety and health specialist on the East Coast who said that Amazon warehouses are not incentivized to protect workers during emergencies and that injuries and accidents are “seen as the cost of doing business.” The specialist asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation from Amazon. “In theory, [the safety team] is set up so we’re not swayed by production interests and make independent decisions,” they said. “In reality, it’s not always that way.”Amazon’s safety team is tasked with creating emergency evacuation plans, running emergency drills, and keeping injuries that involve hospitalization low in the warehouse. When a major weather event occurs, the team communicates with operations and makes a recommendation about whether the warehouse should remain open. “All buildings are supposed to hold one emergency drill a year and have an emergency action plan,” the safety specialist continued. “If you work in tornado alley, you’re supposed to have a tornado drill. But if you’re aware of Amazon’s turnover, you know that your building looks completely different in a year. Your average employee has only been at Amazon a couple of months. Managers are always moving shifts and buildings. There are plenty of associates and managers who are unfamiliar if not completely ignorant of the building’s emergency procedures.”In September, when Hurricane Ida tore through New York City, killing 16 people in the area, the city issued travel advisories, and the National Weather Service issued tornado warnings. But Amazon workers, many of whom commute via bus or subway to get to Amazon warehouses, were still expected to show up to work, despite workers receiving a stream of alerts from the National Weather Service on their phones warning them that this was a “life-threatening event” and to seek shelter.
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“Once public transit closed, our only option was to get a Lyft or walk even though the streets were flooded and impassable,” Ira Pollock, a sortation associate at an Amazon warehouse in Queens, told Motherboard. Workers had to plead with Amazon to cover their Lyft rides home, which were more than $100 in some cases (during extreme weather, Uber and Lyft rides are generally more expensive because of increased demand and fewer drivers are willing to risk their lives to drive).“I was actually told personally by management to come in after the freeways were closed,” Jonathan Bailey, another Amazon associate at the same facility, told Motherboard about his experience during the flood. “Amazon has shown a repeated pattern of behavior of forcing workers to take on dangers of natural disasters to preserve company profits.”The Amazon safety specialist told Motherboard that managers at his East Coast warehouse are typically reluctant to excuse absences during winter storms: “I’ve talked to HR in my building and they’ve said ‘we’re excusing time off because of severe weather, but people have to come and ask for it.’” Last February, when a blizzard swept through the mid-Atlantic, the New Jersey department of transportation issued interstate closures for commercial vehicles and the Governor declared a state of emergency, some Amazon warehouse workers in South New Jersey expected to have their shifts canceled, but Amazon kept some of its warehouses open.“If I had the choice to stay and not go to work, I would have done it. Honestly, driving in the snow is really scary, and I don’t drive that well anyways,” a 24-year-old Amazon warehouse worker in south New Jersey told Motherboard. “My commute is normally an hour, but it took me three hours to get home [during the blizzard]. I saw cars swerve and I couldn’t hit the brakes hard enough to stop. Amazon doesn’t take into account how far people live and commute.”“We still had to go to work even though when there’s a state of emergency, the snow crew isn’t out yet,” another Amazon warehouse worker in New Jersey told Motherboard. “How bad do people want Amazon slippers? You want me to die so you can get your slippers?”Maria Boschetti, an Amazon spokesperson denied that Amazon had pressured workers to show up to work during dangerous blizzards and flash flooding this year. “The safety and wellbeing of our employees and the drivers who deliver our packages has always been and continues to be our top priority,” Boschetti said. “We did in fact close sites in advance of Hurricane Ida and have closed sites, ceased deliveries, or delayed shifts when appropriate in other events involving hurricanes, flooding, winter storms, high winds, or wildfire smoke, and we closely monitor ongoing weather events and follow the guidance of state, county and federal officials on the decision of when to close a site. We evaluate different scenarios and have closed sites when appropriate.”In another instance, in 2017, an Amazon warehouse worker in New York City told Motherboard his manager gave him and his coworkers Fire TV sticks, Kindles, blenders, and gift cards for showing up to work in a snowstorm that had shut down public transit and forced him to walk to work in heavy snow. On Monday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced that it had launched a six-month probe into the Illinois warehouse collapse. In the aftermath of the warehouse collapse, Bloomberg spoke to warehouse workers who raised concerns about Amazon’s policy on cell phone use in their warehouses. At a candle factory in Kentucky, where at least eight workers died, management threatened to fire workers who asked to go home early because of the tornado, according to NBC News. According to Motherboard’s conversations with eight Amazon warehouse workers, Amazon often deducts unpaid time off from workers who don’t show up during major snow and rain storms. If workers run out of unpaid time off, Amazon has been known to automatically fire them, according to Business Insider. In some rare instances during major storms, workers said, Amazon will cancel shifts. More commonly, the company allows workers to leave their shifts early unpaid—-using a policy called voluntary time off, or “VTO.” When workers take VTO, Amazon does not pay them for the rest of their shifts or the time they need to get home in dangerous conditions. “The annoying thing about Amazon’s inclement weather policy is that there isn’t one,” another Amazon warehouse worker in New Jersey said. “You sort of have to come in or not come in based on your own judgment. If enough other people will be affected by it, they’ll excuse it. But if you don’t come in, you don’t know what will happen.”A former employee at Amazon’s air cargo hub in Lakeland, Florida, told Motherboard that in July the company rolled out a new hurricane season policy that allowed Amazon to mandate workers to stay longer on their shifts in the case of inclement weather that delayed incoming flights with Amazon cargo. “This was a policy that rolled out really without any forewarning or any kind of notice at all,” the former sortation associate said. “If you didn’t stay, you lost unpaid time off. It was really terrifying because this is a pretty rural location and the majority of the workers are not from Lakeland. A lot of us are driving an hour or three hours to this facility.”Boschetti, the spokesperson for Amazon, said the company does have an emergency plan in place for hurricanes, but would not specify what it is. Multiple Amazon warehouse workers described not knowing whether their warehouses had emergency evacuation plans, had never been required to attend a fire or emergency drill, and did not know whether Amazon had shelter-in-place locations in their warehouses.
“There are plenty of associates and managers who are unfamiliar if not completely ignorant of the building’s emergency procedures.”
“I have no clue if we have a safety plan,” one of the Amazon warehouse workers in New Jersey who has been at his warehouse for a year-and-a-half said, adding that they personally hadn't had any fire drills during their shifts there. “I have heard it mentioned, but if something happened, I wouldn’t know what to do."An Amazon last mile logistics manager who has worked at the company for nearly five years in three states told Motherboard, “there’s only been one drill I’ve seen in five years.”Boschetti, the Amazon spokesperson, told Motherboard that “emergency response training is provided to new employees and that training is reinforced throughout the year.” She added that these drills are conducted at different “cadences” from warehouse to warehouse.Boschetti added that Amazon buildings have site specific emergency plans that lay out exit routes and shelter areas. All employees, she said—contradicting what workers told Motherboard—are required to sit through trainings on safety and action plans when they are hired and on an annual basis. The safety specialist added, and the Amazon warehouse manager confirmed, that Amazon operations managers’ salaries and bonuses are determined by productivity and are not docked for worker’s comp claims or injuries that result in workers going to the hospital. This creates an environment where managers aren’t incentivized to keep workers safe, they said, particularly during the peak season period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “Unfortunately, [the safety team] plays second fiddle to productivity quotas and holding evacuation drills ruins a day’s worth of productivity,” the safety specialist said. “If Amazon says ‘hey we need one drill per shift each year, you’re probably going to get just that. There’s no real incentive on the operations side for them to go further out of their way than is absolutely minimally required.”“The [Illinois] tragedy that happened is sort of telling of the company’s priorities,” he continued. “The general manager’s bonus isn’t dependent on injuries. It’s about units and output. They’re not penalized for workers comp cases or high numbers of associate injuries. Those are seen as the cost of doing business.”
“How bad do people want Amazon slippers? You want me to die so you can get your slippers?”