Amazon investors want the company to address worker safety at its shareholder meeting

Key Points
  • A group of Amazon shareholders plan to press the company on its coronavirus safety measures at its annual meeting on Wednesday.
  • Investors want Amazon to release a report detailing the outcomes of its investments in worker safety during the pandemic.
  • Tensions have been growing between Amazon and workers at facilities across the country, as the number of positive cases and deaths from the virus continues to rise. 
Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Inc., speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A group of Amazon shareholders is listening to warehouse workers who have raised alarms about safety conditions at the company's facilities during the coronavirus outbreak.

The shareholders, who include the managers of pension funds in New York, California and Illinois, are urging Amazon's board of directors to release more data at the company's annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday about its efforts to protect workers.

Tensions have been growing between Amazon and warehouse workers nationwide, as the numbers of confirmed cases and deaths at its facilities have climbed. Warehouse workers have called for the company to put in place greater safety protections, including providing paid sick leave and closing down facilities where there are positive cases for additional cleaning. 

Amazon has repeatedly declined to disclose how many warehouse employees have died from the coronavirus, but has confirmed eight deaths as they were reported by various media outlets. The company also hasn't provided a total number of workers who have fallen ill from the virus, though one estimate from Jana Jumpp, an Amazon worker in Indiana, pegs the total number of cases at 900 employees nationwide.

Amazon already faces mounting pressure from attorneys general, senators and advocacy groups to address workers' concerns, but the calls from some of the company's shareholders add a new layer of pressure.

Ahead of Amazon's annual meeting, investors held an "alternative" shareholder event last Thursday to bring together investors and warehouse workers. The event was led by CtW Investment Group, an organization that works with a number of union-sponsored pension funds that own about 890,000 Amazon shares. 

Roughly 260 Amazon shareholders tuned into Thursday's meeting to hear from Courtenay Brown, an Amazon warehouse worker from New Jersey; Julian Marval, a worker at an Amazon warehouse in Madrid; and Andre Kirk, a former Amazon delivery driver who was fired after he raised safety concerns. 

Shareholders who spoke at the event acknowledged that Amazon has disclosed more information about internal conditions than it normally does. But they want details on whether the changes have actually improved worker safety. 

"What we are missing is the report on what is the impact of it," said Anna Pot, head of responsible investments for the Americas at Dutch pension fund manager APG Asset Management, in an interview.

"The impression is that we're still not there yet, that there are still unsafe working conditions." 

Last week, Pot co-signed a letter with Scott Stringer, the comptroller who oversees New York City's roughly $211 billion in pensions, urging Amazon director Judith McGrath to explain the efficacy of Amazon's investments in coronavirus safety measures.

"As long-term Amazon shareowners, with $4.2 billion invested in Amazon shares on a combined basis, we are concerned by the potential disconnect between management's reported employee initiatives and these media reports regarding widespread COVID-19 health and safety concerns among Amazon employees," the letter states. "You are best positioned to speak to the board's independent oversight of COVID-19-related initiatives and investments at the annual shareholder meeting." 

Pot and Stringer want McGrath to release data on virus transmission rates, complaints filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the impact on productivity, employee morale and workplace culture following these investments. They're also asking McGrath to provide information on whether Amazon has been in compliance with its policy of no retaliation against workers who raise safety concerns at facilities. 

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the letter.

Amazon has previously said it deployed more than 100 million masks, 34 million gloves, 48 million ounces of hand sanitizer and thousands of janitorial staffers to improve safety at its facilities during the pandemic. The company has also committed to invest its expected $4 billion second-quarter profit in coronavirus-related efforts, such as purchasing additional safety gear for workers and building out its coronavirus testing capabilities, among other things.

The spokesperson added in a statement, "Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our employees and we are doing everything we can to keep them as safe as possible."

CtW and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters General Fund, a pension fund overseen by the Teamsters labor union, had already urged Amazon in April to come forward with more information about its workplace safety efforts. 

Louis Malizia, assistant director of the Teamsters' capital strategies department, characterized Amazon's response so far as "scattershot" and said the company needs to disclose the number of workers who have tested positive or died from the virus.

"If you're an investor, you're getting the news from the news," Malizia said in an interview. "You're not getting it from the company. It's not assuring that the company is not providing better statistics to investors."

Amazon, like many other companies, moved its annual shareholder meeting online as a result of stay-at-home rules mandated during the coronavirus pandemic. So while previous meetings, such as last year's, had the potential to turn testy with shareholder dissent, Wednesday's meeting is unlikely to be as exciting.

Still, Dieter Waizenegger, executive director of CtW, said he's hopeful that Amazon's board will use the annual meeting to address shareholders' and workers' concerns. 

"I think investors are being patient to see what their response will be," Waizenegger said. "There's no better place than the annual meeting to do that." 

What it's like inside an Amazon warehouse during the Covid-19 pandemic
What it's like inside an Amazon warehouse during the Covid-19 pandemic