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A New Gilded Age


Yes, it’s that time of year again: the shopping season. For many people, shopping is synonymous with Amazon, the world’s top online retailer. Amazon Marketplace is the largest online retailer in the U.S., with reported sales of $175 billion in 2018. Amazon surpassed Walmart as the world’s biggest retailer in 2018, and is second only to Walmart as the largest private employer in the nation. With Amazon valued at 900 billion, its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest man. (This title depends on the performance of Amazon’s stock, of which Bezos owns more than 57 million shares; after a recent plunge of the stock’s value, Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is said to be the new richest man in the world, a title he held prior to Bezos for 24 years.)

The Peak Season for Amazon is the run-up to Black Friday through Christmas Eve. Prime members are entitled to free one day delivery. Amazon has built its business and reputation on this: on its ability to give its customers what they want, when they want it. Amazon even calls its warehouses “fulfillment centers” to incorporate this theme into its production facilities. But Amazon’s obsession with speed has come at a huge human cost: Amazon’s injury rate is more than double the national average for the warehousing industry, and some fulfillment centers had four times the industry injury rate. A former Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) head recently stated that the type of injury rates Amazon centers have recorded should not be acceptable to any employer.

Why are the injury rates so high for Amazon employees? Workers say that in order to make their quotas—reach the numbers of products ultimately sent out each day—the lifting, squatting, reaching, pulling and other heavy repetitive motions over long days cause multiple injuries. During Peak Season, mandatory 12 hour shifts are instituted, making already long days with few breaks even longer. In fact, 2018 records show that weekly injuries spiked Cyber Monday and Prime Day.

Amazon’s own safety managers point to technological innovations as sources of workplace harm. Automation and a computer system called ADAPT have driven production targets and quotas to unrealistic levels, causing a break-down in the human part of the process.


A completely different industry has a very similar story. Elon Musk is co-founder and CEO of Tesla, Inc., which specializes in electric car manufacturing, and through its SolarCity subsidiary, solar panel manufacturing. Musk is worth an estimated $22.3 billion. Tesla, Inc. had assets of app. $30 billion in 2018, but it has never had a profitable year.

Injury rates at Tesla’s Freemont, California auto plant are higher than the national average for auto plants. From 2014-2018, there were 24 Cal/OSHA investigations resulting in 54 violations with fines, numbers far exceeding investigations, violations and fines for other auto manufacturers. Tesla workers reported “strains” that coincided with Elon Musk’s relentless and well-publicized push to produce 5,000 Model 3 Teslas a week in late 2017-2018. In order to produce Tesla’s best-selling car in these numbers, workers were required to clock 10-hour shifts and weekend work. During that time period, Cal/OSHA opened 8 separate reviews and issued 18 violations, the most in a single year in Tesla’s history.


With tech entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk (and Bill Gates and Tim Cook…) fantastically wealthy and owning companies where their employees make a fraction of that wealth, the growing wealth gap has many people concluding that the 21st century is a new Gilded Age, with tech industry magnates replacing coal, steel and oil tycoons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the source of the wealth might differ, the inequality has produced strikingly similar results, one of which is greater employee stress and poor working conditions in many industries and at many levels. Some of this is due to a decreased influence of unions in this country; without unions to represent workers and protect workers’ rights, unrealistic quotas and production numbers, long hours and/or mandatory overtime are not easily challenged. (Neither Amazon nor Tesla has unions in their plants.) Safety violations are often ignored in order to keep production numbers up; sexual harassment often goes unreported for fear of retaliation. Employees report to work even when injured or sick because they don’t have any sick days or they fear being let go if they take time off. In other words, basic worker protections are disappearing at a time when upper management, and shareholder and CEO wealth are soaring. Welcome to the Gilded Age of the 21st Century.


Many employees today—both white and blue collar—report working too many hours, and that their workload is too stressful. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) found that job stress is the major source of stress for American adults, and that job stress has escalated progressively over the past several decades. Nearly 80% of workers feel stress on the job, and 75% of workers believe that there is more job stress today than there was a generation ago. This stress is due to having little control and a lot of demands in the workplace.

Job stress is more strongly associated with health complaints than financial or family problems. Without intervention, the stress leads to heart attacks, hypertension, diabetes, and other serious health issues. The link between job stress and health problems is so clear that in certain professions, an adverse health event is considered a work-related injury and compensated accordingly even when it did not occur at work; e.g. if a police officer suffers a heart attack, the stress of the job is presumed to be the cause even if the heart attack occurred while the officer was off duty.


If you are experiencing unsafe conditions at work, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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Thomas Law Firm
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