Michelle Quinones, 27, started working at a Fort Worth, Texas, Amazon Fulfillment Center in July 2017 as an order picker, where she spent long hours on overnight shifts in the Amazon warehouse meeting mandatory rates for filling orders.
A few months into the job, Quinones started having carpal tunnel symptoms. She was sent back to work at least 10 times from her warehouse’s Amcare clinic, put in place to provide Amazon employees with on-site first aid.
By November 2017, Quinones’ carpal tunnel progressed to the point where her right wrist required surgery to repair damage to her tendons. But Amazon’s workers’ compensation insurer did not authorize surgery until February 2019, after more than a year of court battles.
Amazon’s rapid growth has turned its CEO, Jeff Bezos, into the wealthiest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of $148.7bn. Meanwhile, the company’s workers have long reported brutal working conditions in Amazon warehouses.
A Guardian investigation has revealed numerous cases where Amazon workers are left to suffer after sustaining workplace injuries, leaving them unable to work, deprived of income, and forced to fight for months to receive benefits and medical care.
"It’s been a long 17 months. I ended up losing everything. I lost my apartment. I had to move back home to New Jersey,” Quinones told the Guardian.
Shortly after her injury, Quinones explained, Amazon’s leave of absence team told her she had to return to work as a picker in December 2017 against her doctor’s orders. Amazon didn’t offer a different assignment to accommodate her medical restrictions until December 2018, shortly before Quinones’ workers’ compensation court date against Amazon was scheduled.
In April 2017, Amazon’s workers’ compensation insurer, Sedgwick, even hired a private investigator who conducted surveillance on Quinones to try to disprove her injury claims. A Sedgwick document provided to the Guardian cited the company authorized an assignment requesting two days of surveillance on Quinones in February 2018 to "determine her activity level”.
Quinones is still recovering, unable to work, and had to drop out of classes at the University of Texas-Arlington.
An Amazon representative told the Guardian: "We follow all Texas state workers’ compensation laws, and this case is no different. Michelle is no longer employed by Amazon but continues to have a case manager to help navigate ongoing discussions.”
Kim Wyatt, a workers’ compensation lawyer in Texas who represented Quinones, explained she has frequently represented Amazon workers who have experienced similar issues.
"A lot of the cases we see with Amazon are repetitive injury cases. Basically people are just a component to machine industry of mass production,” said Wyatt.
Amazon was listed on the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s "dirty dozen” list of most dangerous places to work in the United States in April 2018 due to the company’s pattern of unsafe working conditions.
In December 2017, Lydia York began working for a subcontractor at Amazon as a delivery driver in Rockville, Maryland. In January 2018, York slipped on ice while on a route and badly bruised her knee. She went to urgent care as soon as her shift ended.
She was medically cleared to return to work a month later, but denied workers’ comp pay or light duty. When she returned, York was let go for finishing her route late, despite being provided a faulty delivery truck. "I ended up finishing my route late, partly because my leg wasn’t fully healed, partly because of truck malfunctions,” said York, who added she felt supervisors were hostile toward her because she filed a claim.
York took Amazon to court. Six months after her injury, the court ruled in her favor to cover medical expenses and provide workers’ comp pay for the month she could not work due to the injury.
Fulfillment centers aren’t the only workplace where Amazon employees have been denied and delayed benefits. In November 2018 the family of Ronald Ashley filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Amazon. Ashley worked as a human resources executive at Amazon headquarters in Seattle, Washington.
The lawsuit describes how Ashley fell and suffered a fracture in his spine during a business trip in February 2016. Despite the diagnosis from his doctors and his previously disclosed medical conditions associated with HIV, Ashley’s request for short-term disability benefits and a request to work from home were denied by Amazon after three months of paying benefits, at which point Ashley’s financial situation and health rapidly deteriorated.
In October 2016, Ashley resigned from Amazon under the impression it would be easier to fill his drug prescription and health benefits if he no longer tried to fight Amazon through appeals.
In November 2016, Ashley wrote directly to Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, outlining his issues with the appeals process. Bezos called Ashley in response, asserting he would fix the problems and had Ashley formally reinstated as an Amazon employee. But Ashley died later that month from a heart attack at 53 years old.
"It’s not just the warehouse workers who are being mistreated. Ronald was an HR executive. This was a high salary position,” Michael Kapin, the attorney representing Ashley’s family in the lawsuit, told the Guardian. "He was denied his short-term disability benefits and essentially had to go out of pocket for his expenses when he was entitled to these benefits, which we believe led to the stress that ultimately caused the heart attack.”
Amazon declined to comment on the lawsuit involving Ashley’s death.
An Amazon representative told the Guardian in an email: "Employees are the heart and soul of our operations and we work hard to ensure they are provided a safe, comfortable, and modern work environment as well as opportunities for upward mobility.”