Amazon delivery drivers across the Midwest were faced with horrifying choices last week: Keep driving and delivering packages amid blaring tornado warnings or risk being fired.
Text messages viewed by Bloomberg show the agonizing dilemma that Amazon workers faced amid Friday’s deadly tornado outbreak. In the thread, a driver contacting their dispatcher tells them about a tornado warning sounding. In response, the dispatcher told the driver to “Just keep driving.”
Around 40 minutes later, the driver sent a follow-up text saying they were hearing tornado sirens all around them. “Just keep delivering for now,” the dispatcher responded. “We have to wait for word from Amazon. If we need to bring people back, the decision will ultimately be up to them.”
Fearing the tornado would turn their van into a “casket,” the driver asked to return to the facility and shelter, only to be told doing so could lead to their termination. “If you decide to return with your packages, it will be viewed as you refusing your route, which will ultimately end with you not having a job come tomorrow morning,” the dispatcher said. “The sirens are just a warning.”
The driver was reportedly about 30 miles (48 kilometers) away from Amazon’s Edwardsville, Illinois, warehouse, which was decimated by one of the tornadoes that ripped through six states. At least six workers died as the storm ripped off the facility’s roof and destroyed two 40-foot (12-meter) high concrete walls. Forty-five other workers who sheltered in place were rescued. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has since opened an investigation into the warehouse collapse.
Both the warehouse workers and drivers found themselves risking their lives amid Amazon’s busiest season of the year. Online sales rise nearly every day leading up to Christmas, and online ordering, in general, has seen a boost due to changing shopping habits brought on by the pandemic. Amazon’s reliance on a dispersed network of contract workers to deliver packages reportedly complicated rescue efforts and created challenges for local police to figure out just how many people were at the facility, according to the New York Times.
When asked about why its drivers were out delivering packages during well-forecast and extremely dangerous storms, Amazon tried to pin most of the blame on its dispatcher.
“This was a developing situation across a broad geographic area, and unfortunately the delivery service partner’s dispatcher didn’t follow the standard safety practice,” an Amazon spokesperson told Bloomberg. “This dispatcher should have immediately directed the driver to seek shelter when the driver reported hearing tornado sirens. While this text exchange was going on, the local Amazon team was ensuring each delivery service partner had directed their drivers to shelter in place or seek shelter and advised them to stop delivering for the evening.”
But the lax or even nonexistent safety standards fit a pattern; other workers interviewed by Bloomberg claimed to have received minimal weather safety training. One previous manager who worked at a fulfillment center near the destroyed facility claimed the company hadn’t conducted a single tornado drill in his entire two years of working there. Amazon disputed that, saying workers are required to take trainings covering safety and emergency plans every year.
These first-hand accounts from drivers and facility workers will likely add to a growing chorus of concerns around Amazon’s safety practices. This week, a group of Amazon shareholders filed a resolution calling on the board to commission an independent audit of workplace safety at the company. That resolution—which could be voted on next May—looks beyond weather events and would seek to investigate the ways Amazon’s efficiency maximalist business practices and productivity trackers may be contributing to worker injuries. The tech behemoth has faced criticism and faced legal challenges for firing a worker who spoke out about unsafe covid-19 protocols, having workers report for duty during deadly floods, and keeping warehouses open during extreme heat.
Update 12/20/21 8:55 a.m. ET: Amazon’s comment—or lack thereof—has been added.