An Amazon Fulfillment Center in Oklahoma City is ignoring doctor’s notes requesting lighter job assignments for pregnant warehouse workers by taking weeks—sometimes months—to accommodate workers’ needs, forcing them to choose between risking miscarriages or forgoing pay, according to documentation provided by four warehouse workers at the facility, known as OKC1.
In March, Michelle Posey, an OKC1 warehouse worker, started developing what she thought were Coronavirus symptoms. After taking a COVID-19 test that came back negative, she learned the fatigue and vomiting were early symptoms of pregnancy.
OKC1, which neighbors the city’s airport and a Walmart Supercenter, is the largest Amazon facility in the state of Oklahoma and was one the first Amazon warehouses in the country to report a COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year.
At the time, Posey was working at OKC1 as a stower—her job was to stand on her feet for 10-hour shifts, while scanning and lifting an endless stream of boxes of up to 60 pounds onto merchandise racks. Posey has epilepsy, which puts her at high risk for miscarriage and premature labor, so she took a personal leave of absence in March. When Amazon called her back to work in June, her doctor wrote up what’s known as a “modified duty letter,” informing Amazon that she should not lift, push or pull packages above 15 pounds, according to a document reviewed by Motherboard.
On June 11, Amazon denied the request: “Site cannot accommodate. There are no available paths/positions at site that meet listed restrictions due to reduced capacity though Social Distancing,” according to the job accommodation report reviewed by Motherboard.
Posey returned to work, and Amazon asked her to do the same work she was doing before she was pregnant, saying that no other positions were available. “One supervisor threatened me, saying ‘if you can’t do your job, why don’t you leave?'” she said.
Modified duty orders are temporarily adjusted work assignments given to injured or pregnant workers to accommodate any physical limitations determined by a doctor. Under federal and state laws, employers often are not obligated to provide these adjustments, but they have an incentive to provide workers who are injured on the job with modified duty accommodations: temporarily modifying a worker’s job is cheaper than paying them workers compensation benefits or paying out damages from a lawsuit if the person is badly injured. The incentives for accommodating pregnant workers are less strong. In a 2015 Supreme Court case involving a pregnant UPS worker who was denied a modified duty accommodation, the court did not come down definitively on either side.
In addition to Posey, three pregnant warehouse workers with modified duty orders who currently or recently worked at the Oklahoma City warehouse shared similar stories with Motherboard, saying the company did not accommodate them for weeks when their doctors provided modified duty letters, forcing them to choose between forgoing income to stay home from work or put themselves at risk of miscarriages and other pregnancy complications by continuing to work. The warehouse workers described a lack of clear communication between the warehouse’s internal human resources team and Amazon’s Employee Resource Center, which handles HR concerns for Amazon employees around the world, as well as case managers who took days to return calls, or failed to return them altogether. In some cases, Amazon refused to follow restrictions even after workers had been moved to new departments.
An Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard that the company’s accommodations process usually takes 7 days, and that once accommodations are in place the facilities honor them.
“We partner with each associate on an individual basis to accommodate their needs,” Leah Seay, the Amazon spokesperson said. “We take this matter seriously and it’s important to us that our associates feel safe and supported. If we find any occurrence where this has not been the case, then we will make it right.”
In June, Posey took another unpaid personal leave of absence in order to avoid complications with her pregnancy and in July, an Amazon representative contacted her and asked her to tell her gynecologist to lift her restrictions. Her doctor, she says, declined the request.
“I haven’t been paid nothing since June,” she told Motherboard in mid-September. “I’m on a leave of absence but my bills aren’t stopping. I’ve lost my house twice since I became pregnant. I couldn’t make rent. Because of Amazon’s lagging and the accommodations team’s failure to do their job, it’s fallen back on me.”
In late September, roughly five months after she initially got a modified duty order, Amazon finally accommodated her, moving her to a role placing bubble-wrap envelopes on a moving conveyor belt for eight hour shifts. It also paid her back wages of roughly $500 for the period between June and September.
Pregnancy discrimination—including the denial of promotions and wage increases and the violation of paid leave laws—is rampant in the United States. But for pregnant workers in physically strenuous jobs, such as warehouse work, the stakes are particularly high. They can face miscarriages, early pregnancies, stillborn births, and significant risks to their own health.
Often a company’s refusal to accommodate pregnant workers is entirely legal. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, pregnant mothers may have the legal right to request work adjustments that allows them do to their job without risking their health and safety, but it is not guaranteed, and often companies do not have to adjust workers’ duties, even when doctors send notes requesting modifications and companies have open positions with lighter duty. The law, which was passed in 1978, only requires that companies comply with pregnant mothers’ requests if it has already accommodated other workers who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.”
At least 23 states, including California, Illinois, and New York, have passed laws that grant employees the right to pregnancy accommodations at work. The details vary from state to state but generally mandate that companies accommodate pregnant workers unless they can prove such accommodations place an undue financial burden on them. The state of Oklahoma does not have a pregnancy accommodation law.
A second pregnant Amazon warehouse who worked at the same Oklahoma facility in several strenuous roles until September visited the emergency room twice for heavy vaginal bleeding and blood clots before Amazon agreed to move her to lighter duty, according to documents reviewed by Motherboard. It took Amazon at least 16 days to approve the accommodation that the worker filed after her first visit to the emergency room, which included a 20 pound weight limit on pushing, pulling, and lifting, and a ten minute break every two hours, according to documentation reviewed by Motherboard.
Motherboard agreed to grant the worker and two others anonymity because they feared retaliation from Amazon.
“I feel like they need to get these accommodations done immediately like the next day, or they should let the team leads know that we can’t do certain tasks while the accommodation is being processed,” she said. “I wish I could reach out to Jeff Bezos to tell him that. The conditions that pregnant women are under make us choose between risking our baby or not getting paid and losing everything. If they were able to accommodate us during this process, we could still be on payroll and not have to give up our pay.”
Amazon moved the worker to a new position stacking totes from a conveyor belt 16 days after she filed her request. The new role was considered lighter duty, but the worker said she had to constantly remind her supervisors about her breaks, and consistently pushed over 60 pounds of totes across her work station.
“After a while, I was having issues, my back problems flared up,” she told Motherboard. “The stuff was heavy as hell, at least 35 to 50 pounds for 10 hours on my feet. It was a sharp, throbbing pain in the lower right side of my back. I was limping. It was like ‘Man something’s not right, maybe I don’t need to be pushing these totes.'”
When she complained, Amazon told her she needed to put a request in for a new pregnancy accommodation. Days later, her new accommodation was approved, but she had already quit, not wanting to risk a miscarriage.
“I’ve always been an active person, but I’m still having back problems. When I walk, I have a limp,” the worker who is in her twenties told me, shortly after she quit.
Another Amazon pregnant worker at OKC1 provided documentation showing that Amazon took roughly six weeks to adhere to pregnancy accommodations requested by her doctor. The modified duty order included an eight-hour workday among other physical limitations.
“I went to HR and my case manager, but it was impossible to get ahold of her. I called at least five times to ask about my accommodations. Eventually, they moved me, but before then, I lost my car, was close to losing my apartment, and received cut off notices from utility companies,” she told Motherboard.
During that period, the worker took a personal leave of absence, but Amazon still sent her notifications that it was docking her attendance points. If Amazon workers are docked enough points from their unpaid time off balance, Amazon makes it known that workers can be fired. “You have gone negative into your Unpaid Time (UPT) balance,” Amazon emailed her during the period she was waiting on the company to move to her a different position, according to documentation seen by Motherboard. “As a reminder, a negative UPT balance or exceeding the point threshold is considered a violation of our attendance policy, which can potentially lead to termination.” The worker said Amazon eventually corrected her attendance points.
Eventually, Amazon moved the worker from a strenuous role to lighter duty. Still, she says she continues to accrue points for working eight-hour shifts instead of ten-hour shifts, even though Amazon already approved her eight-hour accommodation. Motherboard reviewed documentation where an Amazon HR representative, telling her that her 8-hour accommodation had not been approved, more than three weeks after it had been approved.
Amazon has a well-documented record of firing pregnant warehouse workers who request accommodations. At least seven pregnancy discrimination lawsuits were filed against the company between 2011 and 2019, where workers alleged that the company had failed to accommodate their needs, such as longer and more frequent bathroom breaks and fewer continuous hours on their feet, and then fired them. Six of those cases were settled outside of court. In 2018, Amazon warehouse workers in Phoenix said in a letter to Jeff Bezos that pregnant workers received final warnings for “time off task” during bathroom breaks. “You are literally damaging the developing child with the stress you put on mothers,” they wrote. Motherboard spoke to Amazon warehouse organizers Queens, New York and Rialto, California who said Amazon has failed to honor pregnancy accommodations at their facilities.
These stories add to the widespread evidence that Amazon, in order to maintain its on-demand shipping empire, in particular two-day delivery to its Prime customers, can push workers to their physical limits. As has been documented extensively, Amazon warehouse workers have suffered workplace injuries at rates above the industry average.
According to guidelines published by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for doctors, women who do heavy lifting in their jobs face “a slight to modest increased risk of miscarriage.” For pregnant workers in physically demanding jobs whose pregnancies are classified as high risk, the potential for miscarriage is even higher.
Researchers hypothesize that extensive bending and lifting diverts blood flow from the uterus and high intensity work can push blood from the uterus to the muscles, which could trigger a miscarriage.
“Amazon doesn’t care about employees,” said Posey. “They don’t care whose life they put at risk or anything like that. It doesn’t matter if they’re pregnant or disabled. They only care about making money to take care of Jeff Bezos.”
A fourth woman at the Oklahoma Amazon Fulfillment Center told Motherboard she informed Amazon immediately when she learned she was pregnant earlier this summer. After her doctor sent an accommodations note to Amazon, requesting she receive a ten minute break every hour to sit and to avoid lifting over 20 pounds, it took Amazon more than five weeks to move her to lighter duty, according to emails reviewed by Motherboard.
During that time, she says she was reprimanded by her supervisor for “time off task” she spent in the bathroom dealing with bouts of nausea. (Amazon’s tracks workers’ time off task, abbreviated as “TOT,” by monitoring how frequently they scan packages and workers can be fired if workers are away from workstations for too long.) Frustrated, and scared of losing her job, she reached out to Amazon’s global human resources office, known as the Employee Resource Center. A representative informed her she could do nothing besides wait for her warehouse’s in-house human resources team to approve her request.
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“They treat us like nothing,” she said. “Me and other pregnant women want to start a petition because I feel like they count us like bodies instead of people. They’re quick to fire you for whatever reason, and you could be going through whatever. They never ask you what’s really going on. I don’t feel secure or appreciated.”
Although Amazon eventually relocated her to the “social distancing team,” handing out face masks and doing temperature checks on other workers, she says they still aren’t honoring accommodations the company explicitly already approved.
“They still don’t give me a ten minute break to sit. If I pull up a chair, my supervisor tells me ‘Amazon isn’t a sitting company,'” she said. “They don’t care. I would say they don’t even pretend like they care.”