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New Report Outlines Amazon's Environmental, Labor Damages

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A new report by the Economic Roundtable outlines substantial environmental and human costs for the SoCal communities where retail giant Amazon operates its warehouse and distribution infrastructure.

Amazon warehouse

The report was underwritten by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents more than 800,000 members in 300 unions in the region.

The nonprofit Economic Roundtable estimates that shipping goods to and from warehouses in the four-county region covered by the report (Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino) produced an estimated $642M in uncompensated public costs for noise, road damage, accidents and harmful emissions in 2018. Amazon flights in and out of regional SoCal airports also released 620,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air last year.

The report also alleges poor working conditions and substandard pay for Amazon workers in Southern California. It said warehouse jobs are high-stress positions but get paid so little that for every $1 in wages earned, warehouse workers receive about $0.24 in public assistance benefits.

The Economic Roundtable's report further asserts that there is little local oversight of Amazon's facilities in Southern California (hence the report's title, "Too Big To Govern").

The organization submitted Public Records Act requests to 39 public jurisdictions where Amazon facilities are located, and 19 of those jurisdictions, including Riverside and San Bernardino, said they had no records related to Amazon. 

Some SoCal cities completed environmental impact reports on Amazon facilities, but no environmental impact was identified that warranted stopping development of an Amazon facility, the report says. Job creation was invariably cited as the reason for proceeding with Amazon developments.

The report denies that many high-paying jobs were created by the facilities, alleging that municipalities received the benefit of construction jobs and fees from Amazon facilities, but not much else. Moreover, Amazon has received $850M in public subsidies in the four-county region, some documented in public records, others estimated, with $647M in "uncompensated public costs for warehouse trucking" as part of that total.

Amazon did not respond to Bisnow's request for comment about the report.

It is not the first criticism of Amazon's business practices, and the concept of the retailer becoming too big may be spreading. Recent polls show some willingness on the part of Americans to see Amazon (and other tech giants like Google) broken up, or at least have recent acquisitions reversed.

The report arrives as organizations critical of Amazon are banding together to take on the behemoth more forcefully. One such coalition, known as Athena, includes over 30 groups involved in issues like digital surveillance, antitrust and working conditions in warehouses, the New York Times reports.

“We’re learning from what makes Amazon back down, and looking to replicate that as much as possible with as many people as possible,” Athena Director Dania Rajendra told the NYT.

The pushback has yielded some unexpected results lately: Amazon failed to unseat one of its most vocal critics on the Seattle City Council, Kshama Sawant, who is a strong advocate of reinstating a local tax that Amazon pressured Seattle to repeal last year.