Managers of public pension funds in New York, California, Illinois and beyond plan to press Amazon’s directors on workplace safety at its annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday.
Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs urged Amazon director Judith McGrath, who chairs the company’s leadership development and compensation committee, to address the board’s oversight of workplace safety amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re asking her to speak at the annual meeting … about [Amazon’s] goals for keeping workers and the company safe, and its progress toward achieving those goals,” Frerichs said, adding McGrath, as chair of the committee tasked with oversight of Amazon’s human capital management policies, is “best positioned to speak to the board’s independent oversight of COVID-related risks and opportunities.”
The fund managers spoke during a web conference Thursday organized by CtW Investment Group, a union-affiliated fund, and heard accounts from current and former Amazon employees and contract workers. Labor groups have increased their focus on Amazon, homing in on its response to the pandemic. About 260 people attended the web conference, mainly pension fund and asset managers, organizers said.
“All day we walk around being called heroes,” Courtenay Brown, an Amazon employee in New Jersey, said on the web conference. “We don’t want to be a hero. We want to be treated like human beings.”
Brown said employees, networking with each other, have counted seven deaths and more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases among employees at about 200 Amazon warehouses across the nation. She said employees in her facility are scared for their safety, but have no choice but to come to work since the company ended its unlimited unpaid time off policy May 1.
Amazon executives have declined to provide official COVID-19 case counts, saying infection rates in company facilities tend to match or run slightly below those in surrounding communities. They also point to a wide array of operational changes and improvements Amazon has rolled out over the last two months, including face masks for all employees, increased access to hand-washing supplies, more frequent facility sanitation, temperature screening and development of its own COVID-19 testing capabilities. “Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our teams,” an Amazon spokesperson said Friday after declining to comment Thursday on the company’s board.
Some of the investors applauded those efforts but called for more transparency from Amazon and other companies about the results, particularly given increasing COVID-19 case counts and continuing reports of inconsistent application of new safety measures in some parts of Amazon’s fulfillment and logistics network. Brown said certain procedures in the Amazon Fresh grocery warehouse where she works don’t allow social distancing, for example.
“We welcome Amazon’s commitment and the measures they are taking to keep their workers safe,” said Anna Pot, head of responsible investment in the Americas for APG Asset Management, a Dutch pension fund manager. “Hearing about the efforts is important, but we want to see the outcomes.”
The fund managers said as long-term investors, they care about the relationship between companies and their workers. Better relationships correlate with better financial outcomes, they said. Some are concerned Amazon’s handling of the pandemic could have long-term consequences for that relationship.
“Actions taken today by companies will be judged in hindsight by all stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, regulators and shareholders like us,” said New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. “Amazon’s response to [employee] concerns will have a lasting impact on its corporate reputation and its relationship with its workforce for many years to come.”
Amazon was the focus of activist investors before the pandemic, who again this year advanced a platform of environmental, social and governance proposals for consideration at the shareholder meeting next week, which will be held virtually for the first time in Amazon’s history.
And while criticism of Amazon has grown louder and more pointed, the company’s customers, broadly speaking, have been undeterred. Amazon sales grew 26% percent in the first quarter, though profit sank 29% because of higher expenses from its coronavirus response.