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Feds investigating Amazon warehouses in New York, Chicago, Orlando

Probe centering on unsafe workplace conditions has begun

An Amazon associate sorts packages at a fulfillment center (Photo: Amazon)

It’s no secret that a sizable chunk of Amazon warehouse workers are unhappy with workplace conditions

Chances are you’ve heard the stories of workers being forced to meet strict productivity standards and even urinate in bottles because they don’t have time to use the restroom on the job. Federal investigators have heard them too.

Monday morning, federal prosecutors from the Department of Labor and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York launched an investigation into potentially unsafe working conditions at Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) warehouses in New York City, Chicago and Orlando, Florida, an SDNY spokesman said.

“The Civil Division of the SDNY is investigating potential worker safety hazards at Amazon warehouses across the country, as well as possible fraudulent conduct designed to hide injuries from OSHA and others,” New York office spokesman Nicholas Biase said Monday.

The Department of Labor confirmed to Modern Shipper that the probe into “allegations of health and safety violations at several Amazon facilities” was opened in response to a referral from the SDNY.

“Because these are active investigations, we are unable to provide more information at this time,” a Department of Labor spokesperson told Modern Shipper.

Read: Amazon cancels or delays plans for at least 16 warehouses this year

Read: What Amazon’s first fully autonomous robot means for warehouse workers

According to Biase, the hazards relate to Amazon’s “required pace of work for its warehouse employees.” The company’s productivity standards are well documented. An automated system records the number of packages workers pick and pack per hour — if a worker takes a break for too long, the system flags it as “time off task.” The company even fires employees based on that data.

Amazon unsurprisingly pushed back against the idea that its productivity standards create unsafe working conditions.

“We’ll of course cooperate with OSHA in their investigation, and we believe it will ultimately show that these concerns are unfounded,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told Modern Shipper.

A pair of studies from the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions, suggested Amazon’s fixation on productivity is the reason for high injury rates among warehouse workers and delivery drivers. One study revealed Amazon warehouse employees suffer injuries 80% more often than non-Amazon workers.

“The company’s obsession with speed has come at a huge cost for Amazon’s workforce,” the Strategic Organizing Center asserted in one report.

Watch: Unions, Semiconductors, and Employment

Legislators already have taken notice. Bills passed recently in California and New York took aim at Amazon’s productivity quotas, requiring the company to provide employees with documentation of their work and notify them of any change in expectations.

New York Attorney General Letitia James sued the e-commerce giant in February 2021. In the lawsuit, James claimed Amazon’s “flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements” put workers’ lives at risk. An appeals court later dismissed the suit, saying the case would be better handled by the federal National Labor Relations Board.

One of the facilities targeted in the litigation was Amazon’s Staten Island JFK-8 fulfillment center, which in April became the site of a monumental moment in the company’s history. In a 2,654 to 2,131 tally, the workers of JFK-8 voted to unionize a warehouse for the first time in Amazon’s 28-year existence. The company, however, swiftly pushed back with accusations of voter coercion.

The victory for union supporters was a massive one after Amazon successfully quashed union efforts at another facility in Bessemer, Alabama. Since then, further efforts have been made to unionize warehouses in New Jersey, Washington and elsewhere in New York, but to no avail. The newly formed Amazon Labor Union, led by JFK-8’s Chris Smalls, is behind several of those attempts.

As part of the investigation launched Monday, the SDNY is directing current and former warehouse workers or anyone with information about Amazon safety issues to share it on the Justice Department’s website.

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Jack Daleo

Jack is a staff writer for FreightWaves and Modern Shipper covering topics like last mile delivery and e-commerce fulfillment. He studied at Northwestern University, majoring in journalism with a certificate in integrated marketing communications. Previously, Jack has written for Backpacker Magazine and enjoys travel, the outdoors, and all things basketball.