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House Oversight panel launches investigation into Amazon's labor practices

Committee Democrats said they were concerned the company "may be putting the health and safety of its workers at risk."
Image: Tornado Hits Amazon Warehouse In Edwardsville, Illinois
Safety personnel and first responders survey the damaged Amazon Distribution Center on Dec. 11, 2021 in Edwardsville, Ill.Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images file

A major investigative committee on Capitol Hill is launching a workplace safety probe into one of the nation’s biggest employers by demanding Amazon provide details on its labor practices.

Three key Democrats on the House Oversight Committee — Chair Carolyn Maloney of New York, Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — sent a letter Thursday to Amazon's president and CEO, requesting documents on the company’s labor policies and procedures, particularly during severe weather events. Tornadoes killed six workers last year at an Amazon distribution center in Edwardsville, Illinois.

"We are concerned by recent reports that Amazon may be putting the health and safety of its workers at risk, including by requiring them to work in dangerous conditions during tornadoes, hurricanes, and other extreme weather," the lawmakers wrote in a letter Thursday to Chief Executive Andy Jassy.

“As one of our country’s largest and most profitable corporations, it is imperative that Amazon protect workers’ safety and refrain from practices that could put them in danger,” the lawmakers wrote.

The tornado in Illinois prompted workers to ask questions about the company's handling of emergency responses, with some suggesting Amazon was ill-prepared for the natural disaster and did little to train workers for those kinds of emergencies.

In an effort to piece together what led up to the Edwardsville tragedy, the House panel is requesting documentation of attendance and leave policies, any emergency drills and communications before last year's tornado regarding severe weather protocol and preparedness.

At least five workers told NBC News in the aftermath of the deadly storm that their supervisors had warned employees they would be fired if they left their shifts early to find shelter. The family of one of the victims filed a wrongful death suit against Amazon in January.

Image: Emergency vehicles surround the site of a roof collapse at an Amazon distribution centre in Edwardsville
The site of a roof collapse at an Amazon distribution center on Dec. 11, 2021.Drone Base / Reuters file

"We also seek information about Amazon’s workplace policies or practices that may have prevented the workers from seeking safe shelter, as well as Amazon’s actions in responding to other severe weather incidents and natural disasters," the letter said.

In a statement to NBC News, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said, "Our focus continues to be on supporting our employees and partners, the families who lost loved ones, the surrounding community, and all those affected by the tornadoes. We will respond to this letter in due course."

Lawmakers added that the probe "will inform legislative efforts to curb unfair labor practices, strengthen protections for workers, and address the effects of climate change on worker safety."

The letter also requested information on disciplinary actions taken against employees or contractors at facilities in seven locations related to reports detailing directives requiring Amazon employees to “stay on the job” during deadly wildfires in California in 2018, extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest last summer, and dangerous flooding during Hurricanes Irma in 2017 and Ida in 2021.

The investigation comes at a challenging time for Amazon. The number of charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the company of interfering with workers’ right to organize more than tripled during the pandemic.

Last February, New York Attorney General Letitia James sued Amazon over allegations that it violated New York labor law, whistleblower protections and anti-retaliation laws. The lawsuit, filed in the Supreme Court of New York County, asserted that Amazon failed to provide adequate health and safety measures for employees at the company’s New York facilities.

A company spokesperson said at the time that James' lawsuit did not present "an accurate picture of Amazon’s industry-leading response to the pandemic."

More recently, Amazon has been attempting to defeat efforts by workers to unionize in Alabama and New York.