Ocasio-Cortez and Warren Pressure Amazon to Explain Its Role in Tornado Deaths

Progressive lawmakers are seeking answers on Amazon’s role in deaths caused by a warehouse collapse earlier this month after reports emerged showing that the company didn’t allow employees to leave even when a tornado was about to strike.

In an effort led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Cori Bush (D-Missouri), lawmakers have demanded that Amazon explain “what happened at your Edwardsville warehouse and whether your policies may have contributed to this tragedy.”

On December 10, a string of tornadoes tore through parts of the South and Midwest. One of these tornadoes ripped through an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, causing it to collapse and killing six workers.

Reports released after the collapse put the company’s policies under scrutiny. Texts sent that night from Larry Virden, one of the workers who died, suggested that managers weren’t allowing employees to leave when it was clear that there would be a window of safety before the tornado hit. Workers at other warehouses noted that a company policy banning employees from having phones at work might have put lives in danger, and that the company didn’t adequately prepare workers for emergencies, if at all.

In their 10-page letter to Amazon, the Democrats seek answers to a long list of questions about Amazon’s safety policies, requesting a response no later than January 3. The letter includes questions about the company’s inclement weather and phone policies, and asks the company to provide details on previous deaths that have happened on site.

The letter was signed by 23 members of Congress, including Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan).

The letter points out that Amazon has a long history of perpetuating unsafe conditions for their workers. “Amazon profits should never come at the cost of workers’ lives, health, and safety,” the lawmakers wrote. They then praised the investigation into the collapse by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“With atrocious conditions for workers, including constant surveillance and intolerance for bathroom breaks during grueling, 11-hour shifts, Amazon literally grinds down the bodies of its workers,” the lawmakers continued. “These are just the everyday costs of Amazon’s inhumane business model. As the Edwardsville tragedy shows, the stakes are even higher in emergencies.”

During Hurricane Ida in September, for instance, the company kept a New York warehouse open as the city flooded; in past years, the company has kept warehouses open and made delivery drivers stay on their routes during extreme weather events, despite the dangers posed to the workers. During a record heat wave in the West earlier this year, warehouses stayed open even as workers complained about rising temperatures, including at one facility where the temperatures reportedly reached nearly 90 degrees.

These problems are underscored by the fact that Amazon has been accused of union busting for years, raising concerns that its workers don’t have the collective power to demand safer working conditions. In their letter, Congress members condemned the company for its anti-union efforts, calling the deaths on December 10th “a sobering reminder of how dangerous it is when workers are denied collective bargaining power.”