Amazon took the time this morning to respond to Senator Bernie Sanders in a blog post where the company decried his “misleading statements about pay and benefits.” We can (and will) address the many counter-claims the company makes. But the inescapable question resulting from this response by a usually tight-lipped, media-averse firm is: Just what is Amazon so afraid of?
In recent tweets, Sanders—long a crusader against the wealthy—has called out Amazon as emblematic of capitalist’s parasitic influence, and the everyday Americans crushed under the weight of a “rigged economy.” The Vermont Senator created a petition to be delivered to CEO Jeff Bezos which reads:
Mr. Bezos: It is long past time you start to pay your workers a living wage and improve working conditions at Amazon warehouses all across the country. It is beyond absurd that you would make more money in ten seconds than the median employee of Amazon makes in an entire year.
Meanwhile, thousands of Amazon employees are forced to rely on food stamps, Medicaid and public housing because their wages are too low. I don’t believe that ordinary Americans should be subsidizing the wealthiest person in the world because you pay your employees inadequate wages.
Sanders, upon learning of the prevalence of Amazon workers currently enrolled in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (colloquially, “food stamps”), sent out an open call to current and former employees to share their experiences with the company.
Amazon, in its rebuttal, trots out many of the same talking points it has in the past, sneakily inflating its average hourly wage with stocks options that require two years to vest and incentive bonuses individual workers have no direct control over. “We encourage anyone to compare our pay and benefits to other retailers,” the press release explores. We did. Compared to its warehousing competitors, Amazon is the same or worse in terms of pay, with hard caps on raises, and far more punishing in terms of the productivity it extracts from its workers.
Amazon further contends its facilities are climate controlled and safe. In years past, the company was criticized for operating facilities that registered over 110 degree inside, and many current workers told us if any climate control has since been installed in their fulfillment center, its effects were non-obvious. Where safety is concerned, Amazon was named among the most dangerous workplaces this year by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
The press release closes with a challenge that reads as more of a plea:
No one knows what it’s like to work in one of our fulfillment centers better than the skilled and dedicated people who do it every day. That’s why we are encouraging all employees to take Senator Sanders up on his request and respond with their actual experience
According to John Miller-Lewis, Deputy Communications Director for Senator Sanders, that call-out resulted in over 100 recent entries that were traceable to just four IP addresses, all located within Seattle.
While Senator Sanders is specifically calling attention to issues like workers on SNAP, generally his goal is to reframe the wealth of Amazon and its CEO—currently the wealthiest man on Earth—against the relative poverty of the workers who make that company so prosperous, as well as the federal, state, and local governmental systems that continue to dole out funding, liens, and other favors to Amazon. According to subsidy tracking efforts by Good Jobs First, the amount that has so far been received by Amazon is at least $1.6 billion. Guess where that money comes from? Taxpayers. In effect, anyone working for Amazon is getting screwed twice, and three times if they’re Prime members.
But still, why is Amazon so concerned with what Bernie Sanders thinks? Investigative journalists have, for years, documented the rotten culture and raw deal Amazon creates for its employees and contractors—from high-paid engineers reportedly sobbing at their desks to delivery drivers Amazon won’t even recognize as employees. Unlike reporters, Bernie Sanders, who was recently polled as the most popular politician in American, is vested with the power to potentially make business much harder for Bezos. And in the current climate of Republicans marching in lockstep with Trump, himself a staunch opponent of Amazon (though for deeply misguided reasons), the company may be concerned that it is rapidly running out of allies on the Hill.
Senator Sanders has since released a rebuttal to Amazon’s post, which includes the lived experience of a number of current and former workers. Read it in full below:
Let’s start with the facts. All over this country, many Amazon employees, who work for the wealthiest person on Earth, are paid wages so low they can’t make ends meet. Thousands of Amazon employees are forced to rely on food stamps, Medicaid and public housing because their wages are too low, including 1 out of 3 of its workers in Arizona and 2,400 in Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to The New Food Economy. Bottom line: the taxpayers of this country should not have to subsidize employees at a company owned by Mr. Bezos who is worth $155 billion. That is absurd.
Amazon has been less than forthcoming with information about their employment practices. What we do know is that Amazon’s median employee pay is only $28,446 — 9 percent less than the industry average and well below what constitutes a living wage in the United States. Further, we believe that many of Amazon’s workers are employed by temporary staffing agencies and contractors and make even less than the median Amazon employee.
Unfortunately, this is all the information we have because Amazon refuses to make public complete information about the wages and benefits provided by the contractors it uses to run fulfillment centers across the country. If Amazon is so proud of the way it treats its workers, it should make public the number of people it hires through temporary staffing agencies like Integrity Staffing Solutions and make public the hourly rate and benefits those workers earn.
It’s not only low wages that are of concern with regard to Amazon. There are deeply disturbing stories about working conditions at fulfillment centers run by Amazon and its contractors. Amazon’s warehouses are on the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s list of most dangerous places to work in the United States. According to the NCOSH, seven Amazon workers have died on or near the job since 2013, including three workers within five weeks at three separate locations last year. I will be asking the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate unsafe working conditions at Amazon fulfillment centers.
In terms of visiting a fulfillment center, last month I was visiting Wisconsin and requested to visit the fulfillment center in Kenosha. Unfortunately, Amazon could not accommodate me then. In September, I look forward to visiting the fulfillment center in Chester, Virginia, and working out the details with Amazon. We have heard from workers there, including Navy veteran Seth King, about unsafe working conditions and at least one person has reportedly died at the warehouse.
On September 5 we are going to introduce legislation to end the absurdity of middle class taxpayers having to subsidize large, profitable corporations, many of which are owned by billionaires. If Amazon, Walmart and other corporations won’t pay their workers a living wage, our bill would establish a 100 percent tax equal to the amount of federal benefits received by their low-wage workers. The American taxpayer should not be subsidizing the richest people in history so they can underpay their employees.”
Below are some of the stories from Amazon workers Sanders has received in recent days:
I currently am unable to find an afford a home/apartment for me and my daughter. I am a father of 1 daughter. I live with my brother and his family because the high prices of rent and the low wage. I am also a former United States Marine.” - Current worker, Pierce County, Washington
Our starting wage is $12.25/hourly and the first raise of 25 cents after 6 months. I am currently working a second job in an attempt to make ends meet. Our facility is estimated 1.3 million sq feet. We get a 30-minute lunch when is like inhaling your food and two 10 minute breaks. We have asked for longer breaks and lunches as it takes time to walk through the massive facility. We’ve inquired about pay for individual performance. We’ve asked the wage to be considered as the cost of living in California is higher than most states. The answer was simply no.” –Current worker, Riverside, California
Amazon’s ‘Fulfillment’ Centers are not designed with human beings in mind. If anyone wanted to experience what a turn of the 20th century American sweat shop might have looked/sounded/felt like they could look no further than Amazon.” - Former worker, San Antonio, Texas
Was homeless sleeping in the parking lot after I no longer could afford rent.” - Former worker, Fort Worth, Texas
If my aunt wasn’t helping I wouldn’t be able to make it at least put food on the table. And after the rest is said and done I don’t even have enough to put back in case of an emergency. If my care runs into problems or someone gets sick to where I miss a day’s worth of work my daughter and I would be one step closer to being homeless.” – Current worker, Cleveland, Tennessee
My Fulfillment Center rarely makes corporate’s monthly quota. Most of the associates can make the individual’s quota but it’s still a struggle. Because of this, many associates break the safety rules, making an already dangerous warehouse even more so.” –Current worker, Reno, Nevada
It takes 5 minutes to walk to lunch and 5 minutes to walk back but you are timed precisely from scan to scan on items and only given a 30-minute break. Any violation of the aforementioned and you are written up. Three write ups and you are fired. It was sad working there because me and so many of my friends there worked so hard and were treated so poorly.” –Former worker, Houston, Texas
I have emotional trauma from working there as well as physical. It felt worse than being in jail some days. Because you had chosen to be there. Before you knew what it really was. There is so much more to the story and if had the money and resources I would have sued them.” –Former worker, Harrisburg, North Carolina