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Amazon apologizes for denying that its drivers pee in bottles

Amazon union vote count underway
Union vote count underway for Amazon warehouse in Alabama 09:59

Amazon apologized for disputing a lawmaker's claim that its workers urinate in bottles, admitting in a Friday blog post that it was "incorrect" to deny the report. The online retailer said the issue affects drivers, not employees in its many warehouses across the U.S.

Questions about whether Amazon workers operating under severe time constraints sometimes resort to urinating in bottles surfaced in a 2018 book by British journalist James Bloodworth, who went undercover to briefly work at an Amazon warehouse in documenting the hardship of low-wage work in the U.K. In his account, he came across what appeared like a bottle of urine hidden on a warehouse shelf, which he assumed was one worker's solution to the difficulty of squeezing in bathroom breaks at the massive facility. 

Until its apology, Amazon had refuted such accounts entirely. "You don't really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us," the company's Amazon News account tweeted on March 24 in response to criticism from Rep. Mark Pocan that the online behemoth wasn't enlightened in its workplace practices just because it offered a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Even as Amazon denied these reports, other journalists documented workers at the company who relied on bottles to relieve themselves. Last month, the Intercept disclosed internal Amazon documents that chided workers for "public urination" and "public defecation," while one worker reported receiving an email from management telling drivers to check their vans for "urine bottles" and to report such "infractions."

At the same time, Amazon has battled a host of other allegations about worker conditions, such as a lawsuit filed by New York State alleging that the company failed to protect workers from COVID-19. Investors are also pressing Amazon for change, including CtW Investment Group, which represents pension funds from about 5 million union workers.

"Very important symbol"

Amid such challenges for Amazon, it's the reports of employees peeing in bottles that have galvanized public attention and sympathy. Bloodworth told CBS MoneyWatch this month that his description of finding a bottle filled with what looked and smelled like urine was a "throwaway line" in a book about low-wage work conditions.

"It's become an iconic image because we're talking about the wealthiest multinational in the world headed up by the richest man in the world, and yet you have a workforce which, from my own experience, was afraid to take bathroom breaks," Bloodworth told CBS MoneyWatch earlier this month. "That is quite a shocking thing in the 21st century."

The issue has also drawn scrutiny from investors. CtW Investment Group executive director Dieter Waizenegger told CBS MoneyWatch that its pension funds care about worker conditions and that the company wants to ensure those values are reflected in its investments. The investment group, which owns 900,000 Amazon shares and manages $250 billion in assets, has reached out to Amazon about improving workplace conditions, such as improving health and safety protections. 

"The peeing in bottles is basically a very important symbol, but it's part of a much bigger picture," Waizenegger said. "If you invest in your workers and give them good working conditions and some sense of dignity and respect, they will work harder for you."

Amazon didn't immediately return a request for comment.

One former worker's experience

Although Amazon acknowledged that its drivers may sometimes resort to peeing in bottles, it described a different situation at its warehouses. 

"A typical Amazon fulfillment center has dozens of restrooms, and employees are able to step away from their work station at any time. If any employee in a fulfillment center has a different experience, we encourage them to speak to their manager and we'll work to fix it," the company said on Friday. 

But former warehouse workers say that it can be challenging to take a bathroom break, given their 15-minute breaks and the vast spaces they sometimes must traverse to reach one. Chris Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse assistant manager who was fired in March 2020 after organizing a walkout over lack of precautions to halt COVID-19 infections, said it wasn't easy to use the restroom. 

Workers "are tracked down to the second," Smalls told CBS MoneyWatch, adding that the warehouse bathrooms are often a five- to 10-minute walk from a worker's station, which makes it difficult to use the restroom in a 15-minute break. If workers ran over their break time, managers would write them up, Smalls said, which could eventually lead to getting fired.

Amazon senior manager: "There's a problem with the culture and with practices" 06:13

As a supervisor, he said workers came to him with complaints about not having enough time to use the restroom. "I would say, 'You can use the bathroom,' but I had to warn them about repercussions of going over time," he recounted.

Once, Smalls added, human feces were found on a set of warehouse steps, which he believed was due to a worker not being able to make it to the restroom on time. 

Smalls said his recommendation would be for Amazon to stop tracking workers when they use the restroom. "That time shouldn't be used against them at all," he said. "That is a human right."

All eyes on Alabama warehouse

The latest scrutiny on Amazon's workplace practices come as roughly 6,000 workers at a company warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, await the results of a vote last month on whether to unionize, representing the biggest labor push in the retailer's history. 

If the vote supports unionization, it could encourage more warehouses workers to unionize or demand better working conditions, experts say. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which led the union drive in Bessemer, declined to comment because votes are currently being tallied. 

Amazon's initial response last month to Rep. Pocan's criticism, claiming that people wouldn't work for the company if such tales were true, echoes the logic that other employers have historically used for failing to provide safe and sanitary workplaces, said Professor Rebecca Givan, associate professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University.

"'If children didn't want to work in the mines, why would they take this job? If people didn't want to be sexually harassed, why did they work there?'" she said, summarizing such views. "It's insulting because it demeans workers who have bills and mouths to feed."

Even if the union vote fails, Amazon will likely continue to face scrutiny from customers and other stakeholders, experts say. A vote against unionization will also spotlight the issues facing low-wage workers at a time of enormous wealth-creation for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and investors. 

"A lot of workers, especially lower-wage workers, don't have a lot of options," Givan said. "I don't think we'll be able to conclude that these workers don't want a voice on the job, but rather it's extremely difficult to organize" under current law.

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