In late 2018, Amazon announced that it would open two new headquarters in or near East Coast power centers, New York City and Washington, D.C., despite spending fourteen months encouraging cities across the country to woo it. It's unclear whether or not Amazon ever seriously considered going anywhere else, but the year-plus search period gave states and cities the chance to pitch the company increasingly over-the-top giveaways. Chicago stood out as one of the most egregious, offering to give $1 billion in Amazon employees' income taxes back to the company, meaning Amazon would essentially be taxing its own workers. Amazon passed over Chicago anyway.
Still, the company managed to extract other concessions during the search process. In 2017, maintenance worker Phillip Lee Terry was crushed to death by a forklift while working at an Amazon warehouse in Plainfield, Indiana. A state investigator found that Amazon was at fault, cited four major safety violations, and fined the company $28,000. But that relatively meager fine—Amazon reported a record-setting $72.4 billion in profit that year—was too much for the company to take on the chin. According to a new report from Reveal in partnership with The Atlantic, after Amazon appealed citations and fines for the incident, Indiana governor Eric Holcomb quietly overturned those citations to lure Amazon's second headquarters to Indiana. State labor officials deleted every fine and officially accepted Amazon's claim that Terry was responsible for his own death.
That claim was in direct conflict with the findings of John Stallone, the state's investigator on the case. Per Reveal's reporting:
As he surveyed the site of the accident, Stallone quickly figured out the problem: A tall pole, lying just feet away, should have been used to prop up the forklift during maintenance. In a recording he made of his inspection, Stallone asked an Amazon manager whether there was any written documentation of Terry being trained on that. "No, sir," the supervisor says on the recording. He told Stallone that Terry had been informally trained by a co-worker. Stallone interviewed a co-worker of Terry’s, who put the blame on Amazon's safety culture coming in second to production demands. "The safety issues I've brought up have been dismissed and not dealt with," the worker said in a signed statement. "I want to see the safety culture in Amazon change and ensure the maintenance workers have the appropriate amount of training. There's no training, there’s no safety, it's 'Get 'er done.'"
Documents obtained by the tech website The Verge earlier this year shed light on the immense pressure Amazon places on its workers, firing as much as 10 percent of its warehouse staff annually for failing to meet productivity goals. Some workers at Amazon warehouses in the United Kingdom claim they're forced to pee in bottles rather than lose precious minutes heading to the bathroom, and in her book On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, reporter Emily Guendelsberger described Amazon providing free pain-killers via vending machines in the Kentucky warehouse where she worked.
Stallone reportedly felt pressure from higher-ups to placate Amazon as soon as he began his investigation, and was so troubled that he began recording his boss, Indiana OSHA Director Julie Alexander, when she instructed Amazon on what to do to lessen possible fines. "It’s like being at a card table and having a dealer teach you how to count cards," Stallone told Reveal.
One recording from November 2017 shows Alexander openly colluding with Amazon officials, as she describes to them exactly what she needs from the company in order to shift blame for the accident to "employee misconduct." After hanging up, she told Stallone, "They’re wanting to probably take this offer and go back and look and say, 'Hey, we’re partnering with Indiana. We're going to be the leader.'" She added, "I hope you don’t take it personally if we have to manipulate your citations."
Just days after that call, Stallone said the state Labor Commissioner Rick Ruble pulled him into his office, where Stallone found Governor Holcombe standing by Ruble's desk. The governor reportedly told him how much it would mean to Indiana if Amazon chose the state for its new headquarters. And Ruble then told Stallone to either back off or resign. Stallone quit days later.
In the end, of course, Amazon didn't choose to open a new headquarters in Indiana. All the state accomplished was handing $28,000 back to one of the biggest companies in the world.
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Originally Appeared on GQ