Politico New York: Dozens of elected officials urge Amazon to improve Staten Island worker conditions

Michelle Bocanegra

December 09, 2019

Originally published in Politico New York on December 09, 2019.

More than three-dozen lawmakers urged Amazon to improve how it treats workers in a letter to be delivered Monday, following reports of a high number of workplace injuries at the tech behemoth's Staten Island plant that have allegedly been shrugged off by management.

"We will be watching to be sure that Amazon management responds supportively to address and remedy the workers' concerns," read the letter which was signed by 42 elected officials. "And we assure you that we will not tolerate any retaliation or adverse action of any sort against these courageous workers for speaking up."

Elected officials including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Rep. Max Rose decried the "alarming press" swarming its Bloomfield-based facility, JFK8, where workplace injuries reported to the federal government have accrued at a staggering rate, according to an analysis by the advocacy group Make the Road New York.

"I think what this letter shows — with these high profile signatories — is that Amazon's days of successfully bullying elected officials into giving them their way are over," said Deborah Axt, the group's co-executive director.

Make the Road's November report says the Staten Island warehouse, which opened in September 2018, saw a rate of roughly 15.2 recordable incidents for every 100 employees that year, based on data Amazon submitted to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These incidents pertain to "significant" injuries or illnesses, the report says.

That number was more than four times higher than the number of recorded incidents in the coal mining and logging industries, the report says, basing its claim off Bureau of Labor Statistics industry-wide data for 2018. It was also three times higher than the standard rate among warehouse workers, the data shows.

The figures have been accompanied by claims of Amazon's grueling work demands, allegedly shelving safety in the name of expediency — an outcry echoed by Amazon workers throughout the U.S.

More than 100 local protesters gathered for a rally in front of the Staten Island facility in November, demanding changes that include longer breaks during workers' over-10-hour shifts. They carried a petition with 600 signatures addressed to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and urged a manager to come outside and accept the letter.

Amazon said only a handful of its employees were part of the rally and an "outside organization" was using the gathering to raise its own profile.

"We provide a safe, quality work environment in which associates are the heart and soul of our operations — to these elected officials we say, please come tour our building, see it for yourself and experience our culture of safety firsthand versus listening to the self-interested critics who claim falsely that it's unsafe," said Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty in response to the letter. "You'd join more than 280,000 people who this year alone already took tours to see our innovative workplace and focus on safety."

Some Amazon workers and former workers on Staten Island have also spoken to the press, including former Philippine Basketball Association player Alex Crisano, who told the Staten Island Advance that he was ordered to return to work after his foot was injured by a forklift push and prescribed "light duty" by doctors.

Officials defended workers' claims against Amazon in their letter and reinforced their calls for reform.

"We write in support of those workers' clear right to speak up about dangers at their job," the letter says, "and any terms of their employment that they think need to change."

In addition to Johnson, 16 other council members signed onto the letter, including Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens and Carlina Rivera of Manhattan. Also from Queens, State Sen. Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris signed on, along with Sen. Jessica Ramos; Sen. Julia Salazar, from Brooklyn, also signed.

Perhaps the most notable of the signatories was Rose himself. Swept into Congress during the 2018 midterm elections that Democrats have called a "blue wave," Rose has come under pressure from both the left and right and now faces a mounting number of potential political challengers for re-election.

Amazon has previously argued that it was "inaccurate" to say its facilities were "unsafe," given the tech giant's size. It asserts that other companies in the industry tend to undercount workplace injuries and that comparisons to other companies are unfair because it makes a point of counting and reporting each incident.

But that assertion has already drawn some criticism.

"It's just absurd to say that they're being punished for transparency," Axt said. "We need to put a stop to that human cost."

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