House committee launches investigation into Amazon labor practices

Politicians are concerned about worker safety following a deadly warehouse collapse.

The site of a roof collapse at an distribution centre a day after a series of tornadoes dealt a blow to several U.S. states, in Edwardsville, Illinois, U.S. December 11, 2021. REUTERS/Drone Base TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY (Dronebase Dronebase / reuters)

Amazon's labor practices are facing political scrutiny following a tornado that collapsed a warehouse and killed six people in Edwardsville, Illinois last December. The New York Times notes the House Committee on Oversight and Reform has launched an investigation into Amazon's practices in severe weather conditions. Committee chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney as well as member Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush are worried about reports Amazon forced staff to work at and around the Illinois facility despite the tornado threat, jeopardizing the safety of employees and contractors.

After the collapse, reports emerged that Amazon supervisors threatened to fire or otherwise punish workers if they left to take shelter. One contracted driver, for instance, was told to keep delivering packages or risk losing her job. The representatives also pointed out previous concerns, such as workers being made to stay through two days of air quality warnings during California's November 2018 wildfires.

Maloney, Ocasio-Cortez and Bush sent a letter to Amazon chief Andy Jassy requesting communications and documents surrounding the Illinois collapse. They also asked for documents covering firings or other discipline around the time of seven labor incidents, including at Bessemer, Alabama and Staten Island, New York warehouses where workers have tried to join unions. Amazon has until April 14th to respond.

Amazon didn't directly address the letter in a statement to The Times. Spokeswoman Kelly Nantel told the newspaper the company would answer the letter "in due course" but that its focus was on supporting "all those affected by the tornadoes."

The House investigation won't necessarily result in legislation or other actions requiring Amazon and other companies to better protect workers in extreme weather. It may draw more attention to Amazon's labor policies, though, and comes soon after senators began an investigation into possibly illegal terminations for employees who took time off. Amazon is under close watch, and it's unlikely to get a break any time soon.