SAN FRANCISCO — Amazon faced fresh scrutiny for its treatment of workers at a Senate hearing Wednesday on income inequality as senators introduced a new bill to tax chief executives who make 50 times more than their median workers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., criticized the gap between most Americans and billionaires during his opening remarks, noting data showing that billionaires have gained significant wealth during the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, millions of people are struggling to put food on the table, [and a] handful of billionaires are becoming much richer,” he said. “Is that the America that we want? I don’t think so.”

Sanders’ Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act would impose increased taxes on companies that have CEOs making significantly more than a median worker at the firm. It is also sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. The bill includes stock options and awards as part of a CEO’s salaries, and if the CEO is not the highest-paid employee at the company, the equation would be based on who is.

Sanders invited Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to testify at the Budget Committee hearing, but he declined to appear. Bezos’ salary was $81,840 in 2019, as it has been for many years. But the company calculates his total compensation as nearly $1.7 million. Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, is the richest man in the world, with an estimated net worth of $182 billion, according to the Bloomberg billionaires index.

Jennifer Bates, a worker at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse, testified about the unionization efforts there, saying the company had been trying aggressively to get workers to back down.

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Bates said the company had been holding meetings to discourage workers from joining the union, sometimes multiple times a week. Amazon has also been texting workers and posting fliers in bathroom stalls urging workers to vote no on the effort.

Union organizers canvass outside the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, outside Birmingham, Ala., on Friday, March 5, 2021. President Joe Biden’s support for the rights of unionizing Amazon workers delighted political organizers in Alabama who are hoping to build long-term Democratic momentum in a reliably red state. (Lynsey Weatherspoon/The New York Times)
Union drive at Amazon warehouse in Alabama could spur ‘domino effect,’ Washington state labor leaders say

Voting by mail is underway in Alabama and will end March 29. Sanders is one of many high-profile people to support the unionization efforts, including President Joe Biden, who expressed support for the union late last month without explicitly naming Amazon.

Bates said workers need the union to advocate for better working conditions and a higher living wage.

“Working at an Amazon warehouse is no easy thing,” she said. “The shifts are long, the pace is super fast, you are constantly being watched and monitored. They seem to think you are another machine.”

Amazon has said it offers Bessemer workers generous benefits, as well as a starting pay of $15.30 an hour, well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. (Alabama has no minimum-wage law.) The company has said the union does not represent the views of a majority of its employees.

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In a statement Wednesday, Amazon spokesperson Jodi Seth emphasized Amazon’s health-care and paid leave benefits.

“We take employee feedback seriously, including Ms. Bates’s, but we don’t believe her comments represent the more than 90% of her fulfillment center colleagues who say they’d recommend Amazon as a great place to work to friends and family,” she said.

Republicans on the committee acknowledged the struggle that many in the country are facing, especially during the past year. Rather than focusing on billionaire wealth, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called for providing better education and opportunities to low-income communities.

“One thing that I think we can start focusing on is how do you lift people up who have been in poverty, how do you present better opportunities,” he said.