Amazon whistleblowers say company-produced news segment is 'brainwashing in plain sight'

An Amazon ad that was packaged as a news segment touting the company’s delivery of “essentials like groceries” during the COVID-19 outbreak — all while keeping people “safe and healthy” — has the company under fire for manipulating the news.

More than a dozen local TV stations around the country aired Amazon’s prepackaged, company-friendly video last week at a time when Amazon is being criticized for a disproportionately large number of coronavirus infections occurring among its workers and in its warehouses. The ad appeared to be a news segment, complete with pro-Amazon scripts for anchors and reporters.

Last month, more than a dozen state attorneys general asked Amazon and Whole Foods to provide a state-by-state list of workers who tested positive or died from the coronavirus. Amazon has refused to offer numbers — and has thus far declined to reinstate its unlimited unpaid time-off policy or provide paid sick leave.

“Brainwashing in plain sight,” said Maren Costa, a former Amazon web designer, said during an interview on the Yahoo News “Skullduggery” podcast. “That’s not real journalism, and we should be very concerned that many stations and reporters and newspeople were willing to just be fed like a fat goose. It was pretty shocking.”

Costa and a colleague, fellow whistleblower Emily Cunningham, were fired by the company in April after they organized a town hall to hear from the company’s low-paid and largely uninsured warehouse staff. They spoke on “Skullduggery” as state government officials are increasingly asking questions about the company’s protections for warehouse workers during the coronavirus pandemic and its lack of transparency about how many of its workers have become infected.

Amazon said the company-created video package was intended for reporters who couldn’t come to see its warehouses in person.

Workers in Hawthorne, Calif., on May 1 protest conditions at Amazon warehouses and the company’s lack of transparency in not reporting the number of coronavirus infections in its facilities. (Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)

“We welcome reporters into our buildings and it’s misleading to suggest otherwise,” Amazon said in a statement. “This type of video was created to share an inside look into the health and safety measures we rolled out in our buildings and was intended for reporters who for a variety of reasons weren’t able to come to one of our sites themselves.”

A company spokesperson said in an email to Yahoo News that Amazon is spending $4 billion on COVID-related initiatives to more quickly process orders during the pandemic, including $800 million on safety-related measures at its warehouses.

While declining to respond to questions about specific numbers of infections, the spokesperson added: “Our rates of infection are at or below the rates of the communities where we operate. We see that in our quarantine rates as well. ... We alert every person at the site anytime there is a confirmed diagnosis. This alert to employees is a direct text message noting when the person with the confirmed diagnosis was last in the building.”

Most of the local news stations using the video failed to mention that it was produced by Amazon. Cunningham, who like Costa was a web designer before she was fired, scoffed at Amazon’s response.

“If Amazon really wants transparency, why isn’t it releasing the number of COVID cases in its warehouses?” Cunningham said. “I wish someone would make a clip of all the Amazon executives stumbling around not answering the question of how many COVID cases are there. ... To the public, it’s pretty damn important.”

She added that she worries about the workers risking their lives to fulfill orders without accurate information about warehouse conditions.

“People’s lives are on the line,” she said.

Amazon has said its virus transmission rates are consistent with infection rates in the communities in which it operates. But Cunningham said she and Costa believe a third-party observer must “analyze how they are counting cases and really look into that. If they’re not willing to release the numbers, I think we should be very skeptical of any information they’re telling us.”

Costa said she is shocked by Amazon’s lack of transparency and safeguards for workers.

“Since when is Amazon’s bar that low? They are the richest company led by the richest man.”

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News

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