Technology

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy says the company could do more to treat workers better


Andy Jassy, CEO Amazon Web Services, speaks at the WSJD Live conference in Laguna Beach, California, October 25, 2016.

Mike Blake | Reuters

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said Tuesday the company could do more to treat employees better and acknowledged one of its approaches to worker safety during the coronavirus pandemic fell short.

“I think if you have a large group of people like we do — we have 1.2 million employees — it’s almost like a small country,” Jassy said on stage at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle. “There are lots of things you could do better.”

When asked what Amazon could do better, Jassy pointed to the company’s processes around pandemic leave in its warehouses. Amazon told workers it would provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave for employees who showed symptoms, had the virus, or were in quarantine.

But that process did not work perfectly. Amazon employees told CNBC last April they experienced issues getting paid while they were out on leave. Additionally, the company’s highly automated human resources systems became so overloaded with workers requesting Covid-19 leave that some employees were mistakenly denied sick leave or threatened with termination, Bloomberg reported.

“During the pandemic in our fulfillment centers, we had a system and a process around people being able to request short and long term leave and the process just didn’t scale,” Jassy said. “We never anticipated having a pandemic or having demand like that. It didn’t work the way we wanted it to work.”

Amazon and other e-commerce companies benefited from the coronavirus-fueled surge in online orders. But the pandemic also generated unprecedented strain on Amazon’s fulfillment and logistics operations and tested the company’s relationship with its front-line workers, who couldn’t work remotely. Amazon disclosed last October that nearly 20,000 front-line workers contracted Covid-19 between March 1, 2020 and Sept. 19, 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic set in motion a growing push among Amazon warehouse and delivery workers to advocate for better working conditions, leading to protests and organizing attempts. In the months before stepping down as CEO, Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos outlined a vision for making the company “Earth’s best employer” and pledged to treat workers better.

“We don’t pretend that we’re perfect,” Jassy said. “Sometimes I think there are exaggerations and anecdotal references that aren’t reflective of the whole. But there’s plenty we can keep working on and that we will be working on.”

Jassy also said he’s interested in reshaping Amazon’s relationship with the city of Seattle, where the company is headquartered. Seattle lawmakers sparked animosity with Amazon in 2018 when they passed a so-called “head tax,” that aimed to levy higher taxes on large companies. Lawmakers ultimately scuttled the tax, but that did little to repair the city’s relationship with Amazon.

“I think our relationship with Seattle has had ups and downs frankly. I think the first 20ish years at the company was pretty collaborative,” Jassy said. “I’d say the last five years, as you know, the city council has become less enamored with business or Amazon, it’s just been rougher.”

In recent years, Amazon has grown its presence outside of Seattle. It has staffed up in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue and leased office space in Microsoft’s longtime home of Redmond, Washington.

“We don’t think of HQ1 being Seattle any longer. We really think of it as Puget Sound,” Jassy said. “We have a lot of people in Seattle, but we also have a lot of people in Bellevue and it is where most of our growth will end up being.”

WATCH: California Gov. Newsom signs bill bolstering warehouse worker protections

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