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Amazon.com held its annual meeting of shareholders this past Wednesday, where the company’s board of directors and top executives presented their case to investors that even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the commercial retail giant was stronger than ever.
But Amazon glossed over something big during their presentation: they did not say a single word about the progress the company is making in keeping its employees safe from COVID-19.
The famously data-driven company offered no statistics on the impact of COVID-19 on its business or its workers. The company has steadfastly refused to disclose the number of COVID-19 cases among its employees, the number of facilities affected, or whether those numbers are growing or shrinking. At the meeting, the executives touted the $4bn the company is investing in its COVID-19 response but said nothing about how the “safety” return on those investments is being measured. Workers and investors remain in the dark, and have had to rely on grassroots resources such as a COVID-19 tracker created by workers themselves.
Amazon is one of the key businesses delivering “essential” groceries and household goods to people subject to stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. To process its rising tide of orders and make its deliveries, Amazon employs more than 500,000 workers directly and tens of thousands of subcontracted workers throughout its global logistics network, making it the second largest employer in the US and one of the largest in the world.
Given the nature of the pandemic, these employees are putting their lives on the line every time they go to work. Press reports and worker groups are making this ever clearer. They estimate the number of COVID-19 cases is near 1,000 across scores of facilities in the US alone. Despite Amazon’s significant policy changes, reports are still emerging of poor health & safety implementation, including scant sick leave, inadequate personal protective equipment, insufficient sanitisation, and weak social distancing.
A recent Change to Win survey of over 4,000 Amazon workers found that one in nine workers reported going to work feeling sick over a period of six weeks and more than half of those respondents cited a lack of sufficient paid sick leave and fear of retaliation as a reason. Workers are afraid to come to work, absenteeism has been high, and Amazon has terminated at least five workers who have raised concerns about workplace safety and health.
We believe human capital management is a material and relevant factor in company sustainability. As so many chief executives remind us, their biggest asset is their workforce. Companies that turn this platitude into practice by treating their workers with respect, investing in their pay, benefits, training and engagement, reap the benefit through greater productivity, better financial profitability and higher returns to shareholders.
From this, it should be clear that human capital management is a fundamental responsibility of boards of directors. The board, particularly the independent directors, must provide informed and judicious oversight of the key aspects of workforce management, such as employee engagement, training, compensation, retention, and health & safety. If board oversight of human capital management is fundamental in normal times, it is absolutely critical during a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic. The current dire situation at Amazon demonstrates this need. The disconnect between management’s public statements regarding its employee initiatives and media reports of widespread COVID-19 health & safety concerns among Amazon workers raises alarms for us, and calls out for board supervision.
Yet Amazon’s independent board members are nowhere to be found. They have not said a word publicly and said nothing at the annual meeting. These are the people, elected by shareholders, who are responsible for holding management accountable for its leadership of the company.
Several weeks ago, New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer together with the New York City Pension Funds and Dutch pension asset manager APG called on Judith McGrath, an independent director who chairs the Board Leadership Development and Compensation Committee, to report at the annual meeting on how her committee is monitoring and measuring the impacts and outcomes of the company’s safety and health investments. Her committee has oversight of human capital management, including workplace safety, at Amazon. She has not answered that letter and said nothing at the meeting on Wednesday.
Amazon’s board cannot stay silent. Amazon stakeholders desperately need to know that the board is taking steps to lower the incidence of coronavirus among the workforce. For workers, it is a matter of life and death.
The shareholder meeting was an opportunity for the independent directors at Amazon to demonstrate their oversight of management, to fulfill their duty to investors and other stakeholders, to assure us that they have set clear goals for lowering the incidence of infection among the workforce, and to demonstrate they are measuring progress toward those goals. McGrath and her co-directors missed that opportunity.
Luckily, they can make the needed disclosures anytime they want. We call on them to do so as soon as possible.
Deb Goldberg is the State Treasurer of Massachusetts. Sarah Godlewski is the State Treasurer of Wisconsin. Michael Frerichs is the State Treasurer of Illinois.