Public health experts push Amazon to improve working conditions

A group of more than 200 public health experts sent a letter to Amazon Wednesday calling on the company to improve its workplace conditions ahead of the holiday shopping season.

The e-commerce giant has already begun staffing up for the rush of Black Friday and Christmas shopping, announcing plans last month to add 150,000 seasonal workers on top of a hiring spree it has been on since the beginning of the pandemic.

The letter sent to new president and CEO Andy Jassy says that with those hires “creating better working conditions for warehouse workers and delivery drivers has never been more important.”

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“In the past, injuries among Amazon workers increased dramatically during ‘peak times’ like the holiday season and Amazon’s Prime Day,” the public health practitioners added.

Workplace safety has long been an issue for Amazon warehouse and delivery workers, with reports of debilitating injuries to its employees becoming commonplace.

Between 2017 and 2020, the company reported serious injuries requiring workers to take time off or be moved onto lighter tasks at nearly double the rate of other warehouses in the industry.

Amazon reported 24,505 serious injuries among its average annual workforce of 581,624 in 2020, according to federal data, and as of this June was employing a staggering 1.3 million workers.

The company has also struggled to contain the spread of COVID-19 among its workforce. Amazon reported more than 19,000 cases of coronavirus last fall but has not shared public numbers since.

Critics say that Amazon’s steep work quotas and insufficient protections are to blame for high injury rates and disease spread. The Hill has reached out to Amazon for comment on the letter.

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The company has taken some steps to address that criticism, including instituting a $15 minimum wage at its American warehouses and promising earlier this year to show employees videos on how to do tasks without hurting themselves.

The letter from health professionals calls on Amazon to go further and immediately prohibit “inhumane” production standards, stop continuously surveying whether workers are on task, ensure working conditions are within an “ergonomic framework” and tighten coronavirus protections.

“They haven't done anything to systematically improve conditions for their workers,” said Lili Farhang, co-director at one of the groups involved in organizing the letter, Human Impact Partners.

Other signers include Harvard professor of epidemiology Nancy Krieger, former Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Edward Ehlinger and former American Public Health Association Presidents Linda Rae Murray and Walter Tsou.

The signers stress that workplace safety should be considered a health issue and can have spillover effects on public health.

“It's really important to show that it's not only you know, a disease like COVID that affects people's health, but actually day to day experience in a work setting,” Farhang told The Hill in a phone interview.

The public health experts hope that publicly pushing on Amazon to improve conditions could raise the floor for warehouses across the industry.

“Companies like Amazon have the power to set the standard for working conditions both for themselves and for the rest of the country,” Farhang said.