Democrats press Amazon for details on tornado warehouse deaths

A group of 20 senators and House representatives are seeking answers from the company.

Lawrence Bryant / reuters

Senators and House representatives including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Cori Bush have sent a letter to Amazon asking whether the company's policies played a role in the deaths of six workers after a tornado struck an Illinois warehouse earlier this month. An extreme weather event on December 10th led to the deaths of at least 58 people across the Midwest. The fulfillment center was destroyed in the incident.

In the letter, Democratic lawmakers claim that "Amazon puts worker safety at risk in everyday situations and emergencies alike" and that the incident "fit a larger pattern." The group asked CEO Andy Jassy and executive chairman Jeff Bezos whether Amazon's "policies may have contributed to this tragedy."

The senators and representatives are demanding details on Amazon's safety policies and information about the workers at the fulfillment center on the day of the incident. They also want to know whether the company told workers to remain at the warehouse in the face of a tornado warning.

The list of questions and requests also includes demands for details about every on-site death of an Amazon worker over the last 10 years, communications from warehouse managers to workers between December 10th and 12th and "copies of all company emails sent in the course of dealing with this disaster" for the same timeframe." The group — which includes Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey — asked for a response by January 3rd.

The lawmakers also expressed concern over Amazon's reported plans to reinstate a ban against workers using phones on the warehouse floor. The company confirmed over the weekend that it would allow employees to continue using phones. Workers asked for access to their devices so they can receive safety alerts and remain in contact during emergencies.

A report by Bloomberg last week detailed an exchange between a delivery driver in the area and a dispatcher. The dispatcher told the driver to "keep delivering" packages, despite warning sirens and radar showing a tornado strike was imminent. Amazon said the dispatcher didn’t follow safety guidelines and that they should have instructed the driver to find shelter. It's investigating the matter.

“Amazon’s profits should never come at the cost of our community’s lives, health, and safety," Rep. Bush told The Verge in a statement. "This cannot become the cost of doing business in America.” Two of the workers who died were Bush's constituents.

“We’re reviewing the letter and will respond directly, but right now our focus remains on taking care of our employees and partners, the family members of those killed by the tornado, and the communities affected by this tragedy," Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told Engadget.

Update 12/20 12:50PM ET: Added a link to the letter and more details.

Update 12/20 1:25PM ET: Added Amazon's statement.