Bernie Sanders launches Senate investigation into Amazon labor practices

By Lauren Kaori Gurley and Caroline O’Donovan; The Washington Post

Sanders’s Amazon probe is the latest in a series he has launched since becoming chair of the Senate HELP Committee in January.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chair of the influential Senate committee on health, education, labor and pension, launched an investigation this week into the nation’s second-largest employer, Amazon, and the working conditions inside its warehouses.

In a letter to Amazon chief executive Andy Jassy, the Vermont senator demanded information about the company’s “systematically underreported” injury rates, turnover, productivity targets and adherence to federal and state safety recommendations. Sanders has often castigated Amazon in fervent speeches on income inequality and corporate greed in America.

“Amazon sets an example for the rest of the country,” Sanders told The Washington Post in an interview about his decision to focus on the e-commerce giant. “What Amazon does, their attitude, their lack of respect for workers permeates the American corporate world.”

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post. Interim Post chief executive Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.

Sanders’s Amazon probe is the latest in a series of investigations that the self-proclaimed socialist and two-time presidential candidate has launched since assuming his role as chairman of the Senate HELP Committee in January. The position has given him vast authority to direct national attention to the practices of some of the country’s most powerful companies, such as Starbucks and Moderna, and to interrogate their corporate leaders.

An investigation into workplace health and safety practices at Amazon — the e-commerce giant that has drawn attention for opposing union organizing efforts and for injury rates roughly double the industry average — gives Sanders an outlet to push for accountability from one of the country’s most influential employers amid a party split Congress.

Steve Kelly, a spokesperson for Amazon responded that the company had “received Chairman Sanders’ letter this evening and are in the early stages of reviewing it.” He noted that Amazon had an open invitation for Sanders to tour one of Amazon’s warehouses.

The HELP committee’s previous major target was Starbucks. In January, Sanders wrote a similar letter to Starbucks founder and former CEO Howard Schultz, accusing the company of refusing to bargain a contract with workers who voted to unionize. In March, Schulz testified before the congressional committee under threat of subpoena from Sanders. “Over the past 18 months, Starbucks has waged the most aggressive and illegal union-busting campaign in the modern history of our country,” Sanders said at the hearing.

A Starbucks spokesperson said at the time that Starbucks had not attempted to delay bargaining and that the company has come to the table as legally obligated at stores that have voted to unionize.

Regarding whether the senator intends to call Amazon’s Jassy or founder Bezos to testify in a similar hearing, Sanders said, “that’s an absolute possibility.”

In his letter to Jassy, Sanders describes Amazon’s warehouse conditions as “uniquely dangerous.” He pointed to a recent report compiled by a coalition of labor unions using federal data that found Amazon’s serious injury rate was double the warehouse industry average in 2021. He also cited government investigations that found health and safety violations at Amazon facilities, and his own conversations with Amazon warehouse workers.

“Amazon is one of the most valuable companies in the world, worth $1.3 trillion and its founder, Jeff Bezos, is one of the richest men in the world worth nearly $150 billion,” Sanders wrote. “Amazon should be one of the safest places in America to work, not one of the most dangerous.”

Kelly, the company spokesperson, said that Amazon has recorded a 23 percent reduction in injuries since 2019, and pointed to a past statement about Amazon’s critics splicing the data “to suit their narrative.”

“We’ve invested more than $1 billion into safety initiatives, projects and programs in the last four years, and we’ll continue investing and inventing in this area because nothing is more important than our employees’ safety,” Kelly said.

Sanders has long slammed working conditions and pay at Amazon. After a campaign led by Sanders, Amazon in 2018 made a surprising announcement: It would raise its base hourly pay rate to $15, more than twice the national minimum wage.

“We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do and decided we want to lead,” Bezos, who was CEO of Amazon at the time, said in a statement. “We’re excited about this change and encourage our competitors and other large employers to join us.”

Sanders said he was “appreciative” of Amazon’s decision to raise its starting wage in his interview with The Post. But said he has been “extremely upset by their vehement anti-union behavior” and workplace safety record.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Sanders said, noting the Amazon’s high level of attrition. A 2021 New York Times investigation found that the company’s turnover rate was roughly 150 percent a year.

Sanders has requested that Jassy and Amazon respond by July 5.