Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., is introducing legislation that would provide employees with paid time off during severe weather events certain to be intensified by climate change, as well as protections for those who walk off the job to seek safety during these events.
The proposal follows a devastating tornado that ripped through an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, in December 2021, killing six employees — two of whom were Bush’s constituents. Amazon warehouse workers were given virtually no workplace safety training for tornadoes or other severe weather events, as The Intercept reported at the time. “Amazon won’t let us leave,” one of the warehouse employees, a father of four, reportedly texted his girlfriend before a tornado caused the building to collapse, killing him.
Amazon employees at the time expressed consternation at the lack of concern from corporate. “I know it’s the weekend and Amazon was busy blasting Michael Strahan and other wealthy people into space but can we get any kind of statement about the ‘mass casualty incident’ in Illinois,” one employee wrote on an internal Amazon message board. “I feel something could be said or a plan of action to review tornado and [severe] weather safety could be announced,” adding that “we had tornado touch downs not far” from the Jacksonville, Indiana, fulfillment center.
“Every person deserves to be safe when climate disasters hit,” Bush told The Intercept. “Likewise, all workers deserve to know that they won’t be punished by their employers for prioritizing their safety during these events.”
The bill, titled the Worker Safety in Climate Disasters Act, mandates that employers offer employees two weeks paid time off in the event of a “climate disaster,” defined as a weather or climate event with the potential to cause great damage or loss of life. These include earthquakes, floods, heat events, hurricanes, severe blizzards, tornadoes, and wildfires. The bill text is available here.
High heat has endangered many workers this summer, especially delivery drivers. Many delivery vehicles, including Amazon’s, do not have air conditioning. Temperatures inside UPS trucks can reportedly reach over 150 degrees; several have died from heat stroke. A video captured one UPS worker collapsing during one delivery. In July amid the Prime Day rush, an Amazon employee in a New Jersey warehouse died; Amazon moved to fix the air conditioning but denies that the worker died because of the heat.
At one Amazon delivery hub in California, nearly half of the drivers vomited from heat-related illness in recent weeks.
I wrote about how drivers feel pressured by Amazon’s strict metrics to push themselves beyond safe limits during a crazy heatwave https://t.co/Cb4UKGKwzb
— Avi Asher-Schapiro (@AASchapiro) September 13, 2022
The bill’s protections would also extend to employees who, because of a climate disaster, would need to care for family members affected by the closure of schools or other facilities, experienced an injury or illness affecting the employee or their family, or are affected by disruptions of public transportation or commuter routes.
The bill’s co-sponsors include Reps. Chuy García, D-Ill.; Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y.; Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y.; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.; Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.; Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.,; Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.
By way of enforcement, employers who violate the legislation would be considered to have not paid minimum wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“Currently there are no protections that support job security nor paid time off due to missed work because of a climate disaster, or even the requirement for employers to give guidance on what safety measures to take should an unpredictable climate disaster occur,” Bush said. “My bill changes that. It would ensure that as climate disasters become more and more frequent, workers’ safety is not impeded by their bosses.”
An investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration into the Amazon warehouse collapse raised concerns about potential risks to Amazon employees during severe weather emergencies, citing interviews with employees who could not recall ever participating in severe weather drills. OSHA sent Amazon a “hazard alert letter,” ordering them to improve its safety procedures, but did not levy any fines or penalties.
In April, the House Oversight Committee launched an investigation into the tragedy, demanding documents regarding Amazon’s labor practices regarding severe weather events, led by committee Chair Maloney, Bush, and Ocasio-Cortez. The results of the investigation are not yet known, and the same three committee members this summer accused Amazon of obstructing the investigation by failing to provide key documents. Amazon for its part insists that it has cooperated with the investigation.
“What happened in Edwardsville could’ve been prevented,” Bush said. “If Amazon had invested in a storm shelter or emergency protocols, or if they had allowed their workers to leave and seek shelter without punishment, then I believe six lives could have been saved. That’s why I introduced this bill: to prevent tragedy when the unpreventable strikes.”
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