Amazon accused of underreporting COVID cases contracted at work
Amazon.com Inc. provided “misleading or grossly incomplete” data about the number of COVID-19 infections potentially spread in its U.S. facilities, according to a labor group that is calling on the federal government to investigate the company.
Of the almost 20,000 employees the company said contracted the coronavirus last year, Amazon maintains that only 27 potentially caught it at work, according to the group known as the Strategic Organizing Center, which reviewed Amazon’s annual workplace illness and injury disclosures to the Department of Labor. Federal authorities last year required companies to report work-related COVID-19 cases.
The center, whose members include the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, compared Amazon’s COVID-19 disclosures with county health department records about COVID-19 outbreaks in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and the Portland, Ore., suburb of Troutdale. The three health departments found more than 750 COVID-19 cases among Amazon workers, but Amazon’s disclosures suggest none of them were work-related, according to the study.
“The available information is screaming for an investigation,” said Eric Frumin, the Strategic Organizing Center’s health and safety director. “How is it possible for the company to say it had 20,000 cases and only 27 were transmitted at work? That defies science and logic.”
Amazon disputed the study’s conclusions, saying that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has acknowledged the difficulty of proving whether a person contracted COVID-19 while on the job. Amazon interviews employees to determine exposure risk and has conducted 1,800 vaccination events at its facilities, spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said.
Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta ordered Amazon to pay $500,000 and to better comply with state laws regulating the reporting of COVID-19 cases.
“These claims are intentionally misleading to try and paint a false picture,” Nantel said. “While we know we aren’t perfect, we’re working hard every day to listen to the experts and keep our teams and communities safe, which has included incurring more than $15 billion in costs for things like extensive contact tracing, on-site vaccine clinics and testing.”
Amazon benefited from a surge in online shopping during the lockdown period of the pandemic as many retailers were forced to close stores. Last year, Amazon’s sales jumped 38% to $386 billion, and the company posted a record profit.
The company’s sales boom coincided with a barrage of criticism from workers, labor groups and government officials, who said Amazon didn’t do enough to protect workers and was stingy with COVID-19 data.
Earlier this month, Amazon agreed to improve its communication with California employees and local health departments about COVID-19 outbreaks and pay $500,000 to resolve an investigation launched last year by the state’s attorney general. In February, New York’s attorney general filed a lawsuit alleging Amazon failed to comply with workplace safety rules during the pandemic and retaliated against warehouse employees who voiced concerns. That case is pending.
Federal authorities should take a broader look at Amazon’s practices, said Steven Markowitz, an epidemiologist at City University of New York and an expert in occupational risks.
“People are acting like the pandemic is over, but we’re still in trouble,” he said, citing the new Omicron variant. “OSHA says you have to make a good-faith effort to determine if a case is work-related, so you want to know how Amazon arrived at only 27 cases out of nearly 20,000.”