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Apr 25, 2020

Pandemic, protests and profits

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Around the country, protesters want to loosen stay-at-home orders, even though health experts say that could lead to more deaths from COVID-19. Host Al Letson speaks with Pennsylvania state Rep. Aaron Bernstine, who wants to reopen the economy. 

Next, Reveal’s Will Evans checks in with workers at Amazon, which is seeing record sales as consumers flock to the online retailer to buy essential goods they used to pick up at local stores. The workers fulfilling those orders say the company is not doing enough to protect them from the coronavirus.

Then, with cities all over the country vying to attract companies such as Amazon, Anjeanette Damon from USA Today’s podcast “The City” looks at Reno, Nevada, which several years ago persuaded Tesla to build a battery factory there. Tesla brought thousands of jobs, but it also sparked a housing crisis that’s put thousands of people on the edge of homelessness.  

Much of the segment about Amazon previously aired last fall, as did the story about Reno’s housing crisis.

Credits

Reported by: Will Evans and Anjeanette Damon

Produced by: Katharine Mieszkowski, Najib Aminy, Rachel de Leon and Christopher Harland-Dunaway

Lead producer: Katharine Mieszkowski

Edited by: Taki Telonidis and Kevin Sullivan

Production manager: Mwende Hinojosa

Production assistance: Amy Mostafa

Mixing: Najib Aminy and Claire Mullen

Special thanks: Jessica Bruder, author of “Nomadland.” “The City” podcast was reported and produced by Fil Corbitt, Kameel Stanley, Taylor Maycan and Robin Amer. The editors are Amy Pyle and Matt Doig. Ben Austen was the story consultant. Original music by Hannis Brown.

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Sound design and music: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Episode art by Ben Fine for Reveal. 

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Speaker 1:

Today's episode is brought to you by the Frontline Dispatch. As people around the world face new realities amid the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Frontline, the acclaimed PBS documentary outlet has launched a new podcast series that presents personal and profound stories from the front lines of this historic outbreak. Covering Coronavirus offers a unique lens into how the Coronavirus is threatening communities at this moment and reveals the complicated real human stories that are emerging from every corner of this pandemic. Search for the Frontline Dispatch, wherever you get your podcasts.

Al Letson:

From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Whose responsibility is it to keep people safe from spreading the Coronavirus? Your government? Your workplace? Yourself? In a few minutes, we're going to hear from a worker at Amazon who's worried that the retail giant isn't doing enough to protect employees. But first we start with a movement of people who think they can protect themselves. They're demanding stay at home restrictions be scaled back even as health experts say that could put more people at risk. A coalition of Republican governors from six, seven States is working to lift restrictions across the Southeast. Georgia governor Brian Kemp has been leading the pack and admits there are risks.

Gov. Brian Kemp:

Now, we'll say that when we have more people moving around, we're probably going to have to see our cases continue to go up.

Al Letson:

Kemp says Georgia will be able to handle any increases in cases, but Dr. Anthony Fowchee isn't so sure. The director of the national Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases says reopening the States too early could backfire. More tests are needed to make sure people who don't realize they're sick aren't spreading the disease. And a Reuters poll found that 72% of Americans agree. They think the stay at home orders should remain in place until health officials say it's safe to lift them but a vocal minority has a different opinion.

Al Letson:

In Michigan protesters got in their cars to shut down streets around the Capitol. They demanded that the stay at home orders be lifted and the economy reopened. President Trump has added fuel to the fire with tweets, like liberate Michigan and liberate Minnesota. Protests have spread to several States, including Indiana, Texas, Colorado, California and this last week in Pennsylvania.

Aaron Bernstine:

What's up Pennsylvania? We can have a normal where we aren't locked in our homes, like prisoners.

Al Letson:

That's Pennsylvania state representative Aaron Bernstein. He helped organize a protest and is on the line with me now. Thanks so much for joining me.

Aaron Bernstine:

Al, thanks so much for having me on. Great opportunity to talk about some of the things happening here in the Commonwealth.

Al Letson:

So tell me what it was like at the protest. What did you see?

Aaron Bernstine:

Well, basically what I saw was a group of people that were coming together to petition their government about something that they're very passionate about.

Al Letson:

In your speech in front of the Capitol, you said that you're concerned about both livelihoods and our freedoms that are in jeopardy. Can you explain what freedoms you believe are in jeopardy?

Aaron Bernstine:

One of the things that this country was founded on was the ability for people to go and do hard work and pull themselves up by the bootstraps and work hard, advance their life, provide for their families and having that independence. While practicing CDC guidelines, washing their hands, doing those types of things in order to remain as safe as possible.

Al Letson:

It seems like you support all the recommendations of the CDC to social distance and avoid large gatherings, but at the same time I've seen pictures of the protests at the Capitol and a lot of people had no mask whatsoever. They were standing shoulder to shoulder in a large crowd. You said that you trust people to follow the proper protocols, but they weren't even doing that at the protest.

Aaron Bernstine:

I trust people to do what's best for them. At the end of the day, you're going to rely on a forcible government to mandate what people do or you can trust individuals. If I were to guess, I'd say 50, 50 of those people had masks on of the entire thing. Those are just off the cuff numbers, but that's what I viewed.

Al Letson:

I hear what you're saying, but we clearly see that people aren't following the precautions. We could see it in the video from the protests that you spoke at. A virus doesn't really care about personal responsibility. A virus spreads. And we know that the Coronavirus is highly contagious. At least 44,000 Americans have died from it, probably higher numbers. So are we trading off people's health and lives for the sake of the economy?

Aaron Bernstine:

There are risks, but the point that we're talking about is this, are we going to shut down the entire United States of America until that virus is no longer in existence at all? I understand that there are literally those that believe that that's the best way to go. I don't. I think that ultimately people have to maintain personal responsibility. And back to my original point of, I trust the American people to make decisions that are best for them.

Al Letson:

Governor Wolf vetoed a bill you supported to reopen the economy. He said that reopening tens of thousands of businesses too early will only increase the spread of the virus, place more lives at risk, increased death tolls and extend the length of the economic hardship created by the pandemic. Do you think he has a point here?

Aaron Bernstine:

We have civil conversations and civil disagreements. I'm the first one to say that while I disagree with governor Wolf position on this, I'm not one of those people that saying, "Tom Wolf is trying to wreck the Pennsylvania economy. He's trying to ruin things." That's not true. We just have a firm difference of opinion on how the situation could be handled. I think that what has happened in this situation in Pennsylvania and several other States across this country is it's taken a hatchet rather than a scalpel to the situation.

Al Letson:

I'm in California right now. What California has done, the restrictions of stay at home orders, if we hadn't done that, the projections of what would have happened here would have been completely overwhelming.

Aaron Bernstine:

Yeah. I'm not saying what was done in those regards in order to initially address the situation was wrong. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about today moving forward.

Al Letson:

Why move forward today though if you feel like the restrictions that were put in place a month or two ago were fine, but now moving forward today. What has changed for you that makes you feel like we can bring this down?

Aaron Bernstine:

First and foremost is the education piece that people understand how to keep themselves safe and they can take those actions on their own. The second thing is the fact that we have in fact flatten the curve and we have stockpiled PPE from manufacturing firms. Medical community is ready and able to work. So I think those things have happened and have occurred.

Al Letson:

The experts say that personal responsibility alone is just not enough. That there needs to be more testing, at least triple what we're doing right now. And contact tracing needs to be in full effect so we can figure out where the virus is going. We're nowhere near being able to do that right now. So if we ease the restrictions on it, we really risk new outbreaks happening, new hotspots popping up.

Aaron Bernstine:

To me this is not an all or nothing approach. I think so many times that the general public says things are black and white, but a lot of times there's a lot of gray areas, especially if you're dealing with government issues.

Al Letson:

Lieutenant governor Dan Patrick in Texas said that it's worth reopening the economy so his grandkids can thrive even though it poses potentially fatal risks to Americans over 65. He said, "If that's the exchange, I'm all in." More recently he said, there are more important things than living. Do you agree with him?

Aaron Bernstine:

I think that's a poor choice of words. And I wouldn't even begin to know exactly what he was trying to get at or what he was saying. What I do know is that for freedom, just a couple of generations ago, 17, 18, 19 year old children stormed the beaches of Normandy, were shot at and knew that they weren't going to make it to preserve freedom. Are there things out there in the world that are more important than living? I think there are.

Al Letson:

If the way you see this playing out actually happens and the restrictions are lifted, are you willing to take responsibility if there's a surge in Coronavirus cases and deaths?

Aaron Bernstine:

I mean, I'm responsible for everything I do and people are responsible for the decisions they make. And I have 62,000 constituents and I look at that as my 62,000 bosses and ultimately they can make the decisions on whether I made the right choices or not.

Al Letson:

Aaron Bernstein is a state representative in Pennsylvania. After we spoke to him, governor Wolf announced a plan to gradually lift stay at home restrictions starting May 8th. He leaves the rules on a County by County basis, but only if the number of new cases of the virus remains low. The governor is also allowing some construction work to resume on May 1st. And by the way, the New York times is reporting that the protests are a part of a right wing movement led by national groups including tea party Patriots and freedom works. Representative Bernstein told us his protest was homegrown. When we come back, we check in with an Amazon worker who says more restrictions, not fewer, are needed to keep employees safe.

Speaker 5:

Until Amazon and Jeff Bezos starts realizing there's real people that are going die in his warehouse, that's not going to stop. And we need the customers to speak up. We can't do it alone.

Al Letson:

You're listening to Reveal. From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. As the pandemic rages on, many of us are staying safe at home and getting the stuff we need delivered right to our doorstep. So while the global economy is reeling, business is booming for online shopping. The Coronavirus crisis has sent Amazon stock to a record high. And it's CEO Jeff Bezos already the world's richest person is getting even richer. Meanwhile, inside Amazon's warehouses where workers are churning out packages.

Speaker 6:

So we have recently learned of two confirmed cases of COVID-19 at our site.

Al Letson:

That's a manager of an Amazon warehouse in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. This announcement was recorded secretly at the end of March. A few days later...

Speaker 6:

Today, we learn of seven additional confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Al Letson:

And then again.

Speaker 7:

We want to let everyone know, we have learned additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 [inaudible 00:11:08].

Al Letson:

And they keep coming. That warehouse had more than 60 cases as of mid April. That site is more than most, but it's one of dozens of Amazon warehouses around the country with confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Speaker 51:

The next thing is, what I imagined people are going to start to say is based on the amount of cases that we have, why aren't we closing the building? And the answer is because we're already exceeding the CDC recommendations and guidelines today. If you kind of remove the emotion from the situation, you'll see we're doing more than what's being asked.

Al Letson:

Around Thanksgiving last year. Reveal's Will Evans reported on worker safety at Amazon warehouse. And the past few weeks he's been checking in with workers to ask, do they feel Amazon is doing enough to keep them safe? Now, here's Will.

Will Evans:

I've heard from Amazon workers around the country about what their jobs are like now. Many are scared to go to work and get sick.

Heather H.:

That's why you see Amazon, they're hiring like crazy right now because people are just not coming in.

Will Evans:

That's Heather Har who's been working at a giant Amazon warehouse in Southern California. She's right. Amazon says it's in the midst of hiring 175,000 new workers. But like a lot of workers I heard from, Heather says Amazon has been too slow to protect its employees.

Heather H.:

The first few weeks they would just tell people, stay away from others if you're coughing, cover your mouth. Nobody was really taking it serious.

Will Evans:

Heather says she asked for disinfectant wipes, a mask and gloves and couldn't get any. And with her job, it's sometimes impossible to keep her distance from coworkers.

Heather H.:

Sometimes people are ordering packs of Gatorades, packs of soda. So I have to have somebody come and help me. That person that comes to help me doesn't have a face mask. I don't have a face mask. Neither of us have protective gloves and neither of us have washed our hands within the last three or four hours.

Will Evans:

That's because she worried that going to the bathroom to wash up would get her in trouble for slowing down production. Heather too started getting notifications of cases of COVID-19 at her warehouse, four confirmed as of mid April. The company offers two weeks of paid sick time for those who have COVID-19 or are ordered to quarantine. People who don't meet that high bar can take off as much time as they want, but they don't get paid so many keeps showing up.

Heather H.:

People are coughing, people are sick because they cannot financially take the time off.

Will Evans:

Heather finally decided that the warehouse was too risky and she's taking unpaid time off. She's terrified of exposing her 10-year-old daughter who has medical issues that weaken her immune system. Now, Heather's running out of money and just applied for government assistance.

Heather H.:

I'm not going to be able to pay my rent next month. We're struggling really bad and Amazon doesn't care. They want you there to move boxes.

Will Evans:

I had a lot of questions for Amazon about what Heather and other workers were telling me, but they declined to answer any of them. Instead, they referred me to a shareholder letter and a company blog where we found this message.

Speaker 10:

At Amazon, challenges are what motivate us. Like flying masks around the world, we're doing everything we can to keep our people safe.

Will Evans:

Starting this month, Amazon is taking some more serious steps, checking the temperature of workers before they can come in, distributing face masks and experimenting with disinfectant fogging. And Amazon says that workers can take breaks to wash their hands whenever they want. But many workers say the company known for innovation and relentless speed hasn't moved fast enough.

Speaker 11:

Amazon workers walked out the door to protest conditions at the warehouse [inaudible 00:14:49].

Will Evans:

There have been small demonstrations at several Amazon warehouses.

Speaker 12:

[inaudible 00:14:54].

Speaker 13:

We need Jeff Bezos to take action and I invite Jeff Bezos to visit his facility and do something about this.

Will Evans:

They've signed petitions demanding Amazon temporarily closed warehouses for deep cleaning while continuing to pay workers. Amazon has fired a few outspoken employees. At Heather's warehouse, workers filed a complaint with California's workplace safety agency asking them to inspect it. Heather knows it's risky to speak out, but she wants the public to know what's going on.

Heather H.:

Until Amazon and Jeff Bezos starts realizing there's real people that are going to die in his warehouse that's not going to stop and we need support. It's not just the workers because we can't do it ourselves. We need the customers to speak up. We can't do it alone.

Will Evans:

Even before COVID-19, Amazon had a history of failing to keep its workers safe. That's what we found in our earlier investigation, which looked at that same Southern California warehouse where Heather works. Back in January of 2019, another worker there called 911.

Christina V.:

Hi, I'm calling from Amazon building. I'm one of the associates here and I believe that there is a gas leak here.

Will Evans:

That's Christina Van Voris. She's making the call from her cell phone during her overnight shift.

Speaker 15:

Is anyone sick or injured?

Christina V.:

Yes. Where I was at on my floor, pretty much everyone on that side felt sick. Two associates that I know for sure that were vomiting. One girl almost completely passed out. She had to be taken by a wheelchair.

Will Evans:

At this point, [crosstalk] Christina and her coworkers have been working with the gas smell for hours.

Speaker 15:

We are going to recommend that everyone leaves the building immediately and leave the doors open as you do evacuate.

Will Evans:

But Christina says her bosses don't want people to stop working.

Christina V.:

Everyone's sick and you're not letting people go. Like they're trying to tell us we have to use our personal time if we want to leave.

Will Evans:

They'd have to take personal time off she says to flee the gas leak. And when the fire department shows up, you can hear on the recordings we got that they have trouble getting around inside the building. That's because in addition to people, there are hundreds of robots moving products around.

Speaker 16:

The robots are working against them, so we can't just walk in and it's basically like Tron.

Will Evans:

Tron, that '80s Sci-Fi movie.

Speaker 17:

Trapped inside an electronic arena.

Will Evans:

I visited Christina at her apartment complex in Riverside where she lives with her husband and three kids. On the night of the leak, she says she felt nauseous from the gas but was scared to make that 911 call. Her coworkers were scared too.

Christina V.:

They're worried about getting fired or losing their hours or losing their pay and that's not something that they should be worried about. When there's a gas leak, you should be worried about your life.

Will Evans:

We talked to one Amazon worker who said she spent hours in the ER and was put on oxygen because of the leak. Amazon said in a statement that no one was hospitalized. The company claimed they shut down the site for about an hour and a half to fix the leak and air out the building. They said workers who used their personal time off to leave were refunded their time. In her job Christina sees a lot of the warehouse and over time she's seen her coworkers get hurt. What kinds of injuries have you seen?

Christina V.:

I've seen knee injuries. I've seen shoulder injuries. I've seen people pull things out and cut themselves.

Will Evans:

Why do you think so many people are getting hurt?

Christina V.:

Because they have to meet their quota.

Will Evans:

Amazon closely guards the records of serious injuries, but regulations say the company has to give them to workers who request them. With the help of Amazon employees, we were able to obtain injury records from 31 fulfillment centers out of 110 around the country. We found that in 2018, workers at those Amazon facilities got seriously hurt at a rate more than double the industry average. Amazon says these high numbers show their extra diligent in recording all injuries and they're careful not to send employees back to work until they're ready. When the company found out we were getting the injury records, it refused to let us record a tour of one of its warehouses, but they've let a lot of other media in.

Speaker 18:

We're so proud of our safe environment here for our associates and also just a positive work environment for them that we want our guests to come in and just see how fun Amazon can be.

Will Evans:

That's an Amazon representative talking to ABC 10 news on a tour of the company's warehouse in Tracy, California, inland from San Francisco. We found that the Tracy warehouse that they were showing off had 434 injuries in 2018 and a serious injury rate nearly three times the industry average. And a warehouse in Troutdale, Oregon had a serious injury rate more than six times the industry average, but here's how Fox 12 Oregon covered that warehouse.

Speaker 19:

It's incredible how automated it all is.

Speaker 21:

Yeah, those were like giant Roombas and you're just [inaudible] all over the place.

Speaker 19:

It's incredible.

Speaker 21:

That's technology.

Will Evans:

The company claims that all that exciting technology not only makes the warehouses faster, but also safer for workers. But I talked to several former Amazon safety managers who said the company's need for speed, compromises safety. All of them were afraid of jeopardizing their careers by speaking about Amazon publicly. I met with one though who would talk if we disguised his voice.

Speaker 22:

We looked how we can get packages to the customer in a day, but we haven't figured out how we can get packages to the customer today without hurting people.

Will Evans:

The safety manager said that within the company, warehouses with robots are known for having a lot of injuries, so much so that some safety managers don't want to work in them.

Speaker 22:

You're basically going into the loin's den because of the amount of issues and the amount of injuries.

Will Evans:

The robot's set a blistering pace and people can barely keep up except for a select group.

Speaker 22:

There's a saying that goes around the industry and especially in the Amazon, that is the industrial athlete. Here's the problem with that, not everybody's an athlete. We know that. We all went to high school, not everybody was on the football team. If you got a subsection of individuals that are athletes and maybe can perform at this high rate, great. Not everybody can do that.

Will Evans:

Had the robots pushed the humans past their limits?

Speaker 22:

Yeah, man. Humans are topping out.

Will Evans:

At Amazon's warehouses most of the injuries, however debilitating, aren't life-threatening. When you look at the injury logs, you see patterns, strains and sprains, wrist and shoulder injuries or back problems, but there have been more serious incidents.

Speaker 23:

County 911. What is the address and town of your emergency?

Speaker 24:

Hold on one sec. There's an emergency in the maintenance area. Amazon 800 Perry road, Stafford road.

Speaker 23:

800 Perry road.

Speaker 24:

[crosstalk] under a lift.

Speaker 23:

You don't know if he is conscious and breathing?

Speaker 24:

No. The man [crosstalk 00:22:19].

Will Evans:

At the Amazon warehouse in Plainfield, Indiana, a maintenance worker named Phillip Lee Terry had been killed on the job. The next day, John Stallone, who worked for Indiana occupational safety and health administration was sent to investigate. John recorded his inspection.

John Stallone:

It's 12:10 PM on September 25th, 2017 going into Amazon.

Will Evans:

John studied the scene of the accident where there was still blood on the floor mixed with hydraulic fluid. 59 year old Phillip Lee Terry, who went by Lee, had been doing maintenance on a forklift. The forks and a metal platform which weighed 1200 pounds, were above his head. An Amazon manager described the accident.

Speaker 26:

It came down on the individual, the tech that was working on it.

John Stallone:

It was he just kind of crumbled.

Speaker 26:

Yes, he's folded.

John Stallone:

Okay.

Will Evans:

John's inspection revealed that about five feet from where the accident had taken place was a safety device that should have been used to brace the forks while Lee worked on the machine.

John Stallone:

Is this something he'd been trained on?

Speaker 27:

Yes, sir.

John Stallone:

Is that something you guys documented or is that something you would have in writing?

Speaker 27:

No sir. It was a peer training.

Will Evans:

Peer training means informal training from another worker doing a similar job. Another maintenance employee, John interviewed, told him, "There's no training. There's no safety, it's get her done." The former Amazon safety manager we interviewed said Lee should have gone through a formal training program for the forklift, and he said it's standard practice for a company to have documentation of that training on hand. John, the [inaudible] inspector repeatedly pressed Amazon for those records and came up empty. He ultimately determined that Amazon failed to provide Lee with adequate training. He found that the company bore responsibility for Lee's death.

Will Evans:

Indiana OSHA hit Amazon with four serious safety citations, but even though a worker had died, a company that was then worth almost half a trillion dollars would have to pay fines of just $28,000. That was less than what John had wanted and he began to get suspicious. Employers like Amazon are entitled to a meeting to try to resolve citations they disagree with. So in his Indiana, OSHA bosses held a conference call with Amazon, John's secretly recorded it. That's legal in Indiana. Despite the fatal accident, it's a real friendly call.

Julie Alexander:

We sometimes like to consider ripping citations to lower the penalty amounts.

Will Evans:

That's Julie Alexander, a director for Indiana OSHA. She's suggesting different ways that Amazon can reduce the citations. At one point, she pitches Amazon on joining an OSHA program so it can set an example for other companies as a leader in safety.

Julie Alexander:

[crosstalk] to be a leader in safety.

Will Evans:

After the call with Amazon is over, Julie goes even further. She tells John not to get too attached to his citations.

Julie Alexander:

I hope you don't take it personally if we have to manipulate your citations [inaudible 00:25:37].

John Stallone:

I think all four of them are pretty strong on their own. But do you mean I'm just, I get paid by the hour. You do what you got to do.

Will Evans:

But one thing she said really galled John, she speculated about the worker who had died.

Julie Alexander:

I'm guessing the guy was probably on drugs or something.

Will Evans:

Just to be clear, Phillip Lee Terry wasn't on drugs when he died. We got the toxicology report from the coroner that showed that the only things in his system at the time were caffeine and nicotine. Even so, on John's tape, you hear a state official charged with keeping workers safe, suggesting that a worker might have been high at the time of his death. John Stallone doesn't work for Indiana OSHA anymore. I went to see him at his home in Anchorage, Alaska to talk about why. You can tell he's proud of his experience and safety. Right next to his front door, he keeps a collection of hard hats.

John Stallone:

It's over in the middle East, North Dakota oil and gas up here in Alaska, BP and then it's some government contract work I did down in Florida.

Will Evans:

Safety runs in this guy's family. John's dad used to be chief of enforcement for Alaska OSHA. John's also a veteran who served in the air force in Afghanistan and he's now a safety official at a different company. I asked John what happened with the case in Indiana.

John Stallone:

It seemed like as I got closer and closer to the end of this case, things were getting more and more out of my hand.

Will Evans:

He says he was getting pressure from his bosses to stop pursuing the case altogether.

John Stallone:

All of my management telling me to back off or don't push this. Investigator like myself, it leaves me to wonder what are they looking for? What's going on in the background?

Will Evans:

John says he found the answer to his questions when he was pulled into a meeting with the state labor commissioner, Rick Rubel and the governor of Indiana, Eric Holcomb. See at the time, Indianapolis was one of many cities vying to be the site of Amazon's second headquarters. The company had promised an investment of more than $5 billion and as many as 50,000 high paying jobs. John says the labor commissioner and the governor pressured him to drop the investigation.

Speaker 29:

You need to back off from this case. You don't need to push this. If you're going to, then you need to resign.

Speaker 52:

And they've specifically brought up the fact that Amazon might bring its second headquarters to Indiana.

Speaker 29:

Correct.

Will Evans:

In a statement. Governor Holcomb's office denied that this meeting ever took place. The Indiana labor department called John's account fantastical in addition to being absolutely false. The governor's reelection campaign received a $1,000 donation from Amazon just shortly after John says the meeting took place. It wasn't even an election year and Amazon hasn't given to governor Holcomb before or since. Not too long after that meeting, John says he got called into a supervisor's office. He was told he was going to be fired for poor performance. He says it was retribution and he says he quit. The governor's office later said he was terminated. John ended up moving back to Alaska and the four serious safety citations and $28,000 fine, those went away too. Amazon didn't pay a cent in fines and the company never admitted any fault in the death of Phillip Lee Terry. Lee's death was chalked up to employee misconduct. In the end, Amazon blamed Lee for his own death. The former Amazon safety manager we interviewed called that appalling.

Speaker 22:

If there's any misconduct there is putting a person that has little to no experience and working on this piece of equipment, whoever would want that to happen. That's the misconduct.

Will Evans:

Just three weeks after all the citations were deleted and the fines went away. Governor Holcomb appeared at an Amazon round table. At that point, Indianapolis was a finalist in the headquarters search. He told WTHR-TV in Indianapolis that he was still working to land the deal.

Speaker 30:

We offer a great place to grow, space to grow. Obviously our tax and regulatory climates are very not just attracted, but enticing.

Will Evans:

Despite that enticing regulatory climate, Indianapolis didn't win the second Amazon headquarters. It ended up going to Virginia. State officials in Indiana, including Julie Alexander, refused all our requests to be interviewed about Phillip Lee Terry's death. Instead in a written statement, the Indiana department of labor said Amazon provided evidence that Lee had been properly trained and the department said it couldn't prove Amazon knew Lee was performing the task incorrectly in part because he was working alone. That's one thing that everyone involved in the case can agree on. Lee was working alone. After the accident, his body wasn't discovered for nearly two hours. The evening of the accident, Lee's son, Zach was making dinner when he got a call from a police chaplain.

Zach:

I was out cooking on the grill and I immediately dropped to my knees. It didn't seem real and it didn't seem real for a long time.

Will Evans:

I went out to Southern Indiana to meet Zach last fall. He didn't want to talk about the accident or its aftermath or Amazon. With his kids playing in the background, he wanted to talk about his dad.

Zach:

I have a lot of anger built up because of everything that's happened. My big thing is honoring my dad's memory and who he was as a person. And he wasn't an accident. He was the patriarch of our family. And how do I put this? The dude lit up a room.

Will Evans:

Zach was raised by his father and they were especially close.

Zach:

He got custody of me at two years old and I lived with him all the way up until I was out on my own. He put me before anything else. He supported all of my endeavors. He's what I strive to be as a father.

Will Evans:

Zach and his wife, Lisa, are raising three kids with another baby on the way. Two of his children will never get the chance to meet their grandfather. The former Amazon safety manager we interviewed didn't work at the warehouse where Lee died, but he was inspired to speak out because of the way Amazon handled it. He hopes Amazon will change its safety practices, but until then...

Speaker 22:

When you order something from Amazon and you've worked inside Amazon, you wonder like, "Hey, is ordering my package going to be the demise of somebody?"

Al Letson:

Amazon said it provided Phillip Lee Terry's training records to Indiana officials, but the company declined to say any more about his death citing the privacy of employee information. After this story first aired, Indiana governor Eric Holcomb issued a cease and desist letter to Reveal demanding a retraction. We continue to stand by our reporting. Our story was produced by Katherine Mackowski. Coming up next, what does it mean when a company like Amazon or Tesla moves into your backyard? You're listening to Reveal. From the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

Al Letson:

Just like in Indiana, governors all over the country have tried to convince companies like Amazon to set up shop in their States. That's what Brian Sandoval did when he was the governor of Nevada. It's 2018 and Sandoval is hosting a tech summit to celebrate the opening of Tesla's giant battery factory. The Gigafactory in the Nevada desert 20 miles outside of Reno. It was a big gift for the state, which was still struggling to recover from the great recession.

Speaker 32:

Exactly eight years ago. There was a front page story in the Reno Gazette Journal above the fold that said Reno, Detroit of the West.

Al Letson:

Now, companies like Amazon and Apple have settled in the state, but none represent the new Nevada better than Tesla, which created 7,000 jobs. One of those jobs went to Isabelle West.

Isabelle West:

I am a production associate at Tesla, but I am training to become a technician.

Al Letson:

Isabelle is 20 she has pink hair and an infectious laugh. She loves to read, but in school she didn't have the best grade, so she was nervous when she first applied for a job at Tesla.

Isabelle West:

They were a big company and they were professionals and it was just like, "They won't want me. I'm a nobody. What do they want with me?"

Al Letson:

But Isabelle impressed the recruiter and landed a job making batteries for Tesla cars. She started out at around 1450 an hour twice the minimum wage in Nevada. The average of the Gigafactory is $30 an hour. Since the end of March because of the Coronavirus, the Gigafactory has doubled production way back. Before the slowdown, Isabelle said Tesla has been good for her. When she was a senior in high school, she wasn't sure what she wanted to do.

Isabelle West:

But now that I'm actually like seeing it firsthand like, "Yeah, this is me. This is what I really like and that Tesla kind of helped me figure it out myself."

Al Letson:

Just like Isabelle, Reno is figuring itself out now that it's become a hub for tech companies like Tesla. Our friends at USA, today's podcast, The City spent 18 months looking at how the city is changing. Anjeanette Damon has a story we first brought you this past fall.

Anjeanette Damo...:

When Isabelle and most other workers from the Gigafactory punch out for the day, they had home to Reno. All over town, parked outside grocery stores in gyms, you see factory workers cars with these black and white parking passes. In the past five years, the Reno area has grown by nearly 30,000 people and added 48,000 jobs. The city's changing fast and it's trying to figure out how much to keep of its old Reno character. A gritty town that years ago made its name capitalizing on gambling, drinking, and debauchery.

Speaker 35:

Reno, the biggest little city in the world.

Anjeanette Damo...:

I grew up here, built a career as an investigative reporter. I kind of like Reno's grittiness, but that edge is starting to disappear. Midtown is a part of the city that just a few years ago was one of Reno's rougher neighborhoods full of biker bars, liquor stores in a crack house or two. Now, it's a symbol of new Reno, high end wine bars and sushi burrito joints are taking over the buildings that used to sit empty and the tattoo parlors are now clean and trendy. In the middle of all this hipness is the Ponderosa hotel. It's cheap and most people live here year round. To call it a hotel might be generous, it's more of a six story motel that sits right behind a strip club and it's pretty run down. The elevator constantly breaks. Half the light bulbs are missing and the ones that still work flicker, almost like a strobe light. I'm here to visit [Velma Shalynns 00:38:20] a 64 year old grandmother who lives on the fourth floor with this sweeping view of the changing city.

Velma S.:

Come on. It's okay. Come on.

Anjeanette Damo...:

Velma invites me into the room she shares with her 16-year-old granddaughter Taylor. She's done a great job of the hotel room into a comfortable living space.

Velma S.:

Well, it's got a living area here. It's got two beds in it. I could have table and chairs if I wanted. I do have the table.

Anjeanette Damo...:

Velma spends her days darting up and down the hallways of the Ponderosa, gripping her oversized cell phone. She's a defacto leader here, checking in on her neighbors, making sure they have food.

Velma S.:

That middle man that just moved in a couple of doors over, he's lived here before, but he was homeless. And so I told him I'd fix him in a little box of stuff and bring to him. Some of us, we just kind of look out for one another.

Anjeanette Damo...:

Velma was homeless too at one time. So even though the Ponderosa is run down, she sees it as her best option.

Velma S.:

I don't have money to move, so I've got Taylor, what am I going to do with her?

Anjeanette Damo...:

Velma is one of 4,000 people in the city who rely on weekly motels for housing. But places like the Ponderosa are becoming scarce as the new Reno takes hold. With people flocking to the city for jobs, there's a serious housing shortage, about 25,000 units at last count. Weekly motel owners are cashing in and selling to developers who are building fancier apartments. No cause evictions where landlords boot tenants without a reason have spiked 300%. These are the kinds of problems that could have been planned for if government officials had taken the time to do more thorough impact studies when they approved projects like the Gigafactory. Even Elon Musk says the lack of housing is a problem that could threaten the completion of the Gigafactory. Here he is at a 2018 tech summit.

Elon Musk:

There's going to be need to be a single [inaudible] family units with a yard or it can be apartment buildings. I think we're looking at creating a sort of housing compound just onsite at the Gigafactory.

Anjeanette Damo...:

That compound was never built. And while city leaders are now starting to act, building new workforce housing and a tiny home village for instance, they sometimes just turn a blind eye to the problem. Like when I go on a tour of Midtown with executives from the economic development authority of Western Nevada, Mike Kazmeirski is taking me around like I'm a prospective business owner interested in moving to Reno.

Mike K.:

Well, we've just crossed the river and really most communities would kill to have a river run through it like this.

Anjeanette Damo...:

He brings along Brian McCardell. He's young, clean cut, used to own a hookah lounge in downtown actually. He's the guy that schmoozes tech clients.

Brian:

We're driving into Midtown, which is sort of the main street that leads into our downtown corridor. And over the last decade it's sort of transitioned to be the foodie cultural artsy section of downtown.

Anjeanette Damo...:

They love showing off the gentrifying parts of town, but then we roll up to Reno's homeless shelter. It's an overcrowded complex and a new brewery district just East of downtown. I asked them if they drive their clients past the shelter and Brian kind of Dodges my question.

Brian:

Yeah, I wouldn't say that we have a homelessness issue. I think it's more perception than reality.

Anjeanette Damo...:

Mike doesn't correct him, but we are literally staring at a block filled with homeless people waiting to get into the shelter for a meal or a shower or a bed. Perception versus reality. In many ways, that's Reno's whole fight. Back at the Ponderosa, the housing crunch came to Velma Shalynn's doorstep in January, 2018, when she found a letter tack to her door.

Velma S.:

They said to all Ponderosa hotel tenants. Unfortunately, I must realize some bad, very bad news to you.

Anjeanette Damo...:

The letter was from Cammie Kashmiri, the owner of the hotel. It goes on to say he might have to nearly double her rent to $1,300 a month.

Velma S.:

There no way in the world, $1,300, who's got that kind of money? Nobody. That's a lot of money.

Anjeanette Damo...:

Her landlord was on the front lines of the battle between old Reno and new Reno, and now Velma was being drawn into the fight. See, in addition to owning the Ponderosa, Cammie Kashmiri owns the strip club next door, the Wild Orchid. It's one of three clubs he owns in town. Cammie and his family opened the club in the late '90s and it still got that distinctly '90s feel.

Cammie K.:

Give the citizens in Reno this little Vegas, touch of Vegas.

Anjeanette Damo...:

The Wild Orchid is pretty wilted now, but Cammie is proud of it. Over the years, it's made them a lot of money. Enough, he says to keep rents at the Ponderosa low, but a lot of city leaders want the strip clubs to disappear. They want to move past old Reno's reputation as a home to aging casinos and dingy clubs. Here's Mike Kazmeirski again.

Mike K.:

I think it's an embarrassment to our community and it's something that I believe we should have done something about a long time ago. They should not be defining us.

Anjeanette Damo...:

The clubs have become an issue at the Reno city council too, which approved drying up ordinances to get rid of flashy strip club signs and alcohol sales and move the clubs to industrial areas away from downtown. If the clubs go so would the Ponderosa, which is why Cammie ended his letter to Velma and her neighbors with an appeal.

Velma S.:

Perhaps you could stop the city from gentrification and the Wild Orchid at the expense of your homes. You have my sincere apologies for this bad news.

Speaker 44:

24th meeting of the Reno City Council. Our first order of business is the pledge of allegiance.

Anjeanette Damo...:

It's the day after Velma got Cammie's letter. I'm at City Hall for routine council meeting.

Neoma Jardon:

Thank you very much madam clerk. This time we will have again the public comment period. I will remind everybody [crosstalk 00:44:50].

Anjeanette Damo...:

Just as the meeting is getting underway, about two dozen people file into the room. Some are young and look to be blue collar workers. A couple of others are in wheelchairs. There's an elderly man with a frayed sports coat, his hair palmated into place. And Velma, after getting that letter, she's rounded up her neighbors at the Ponderosa and they've marched to City Hall to fight for their homes.

Velma S.:

Yes. My name is Velma Shalynns and I've been at Ponderosa for almost five years, six years with my grand daughter.

Anjeanette Damo...:

Velma is barely taller than the lectern, but her chin is set as she faces the council members.

Velma S.:

We need this hotel more than anything in the world right now. Not just me but other families. I'm not the only family raising kids there.

Anjeanette Damo...:

This confrontation is exactly what Cammie wanted.

Velma S.:

I mean, please don't take that from us. Just do the best you can to help us save that. I would appreciate that and thank you very much.

Anjeanette Damo...:

It's clear that Velma and the other hotel residents don't blame Cammie for any of this. They blame the Reno City Council, but council woman Neoma Jardon tries to turn their attention back to the guy threatening to double their rent.

Neoma Jardon:

It's a disgusting tactic. And they're using you as their mechanism and pawn.

Anjeanette Damo...:

Whether what she's saying about Cammie is true or not, it's clear the city hasn't kept up with the growing housing crisis. I talk about it with Mike Kazmeirski, the economic development guy.

Speaker 46:

All right, so test test.

Anjeanette Damo...:

I want to know why city leaders haven't done a better job of planning.

Mike K.:

So the growth we've been able to attract with it come growing pains. We could have been more aggressive at affordable housing, we have not been, but it's time to play catch up.

Anjeanette Damo...:

So I come back to this question of Tesla's here now as a huge member of the community, it's adding stress to a lot of these safety nets and not just safety nets, but just our infrastructure in general. Should we be asking more of the company?

Mike K.:

So you got to be careful about calling out one business and then expecting them to pay for things that businesses are not there for. They're there to create a product that ultimately if they're successful here will allow us to have many well paid employees able to do things in our community. When you do the numbers, we come out way ahead.

Anjeanette Damo...:

It's April, 2019 and I'm back at City Hall. Today, the city council is going to make a final decision about restricting the strip clubs or possibly moving them altogether.

Female:

Let the record reflect that the city council opening the public hearing at this time.

Anjeanette Damo...:

The arguments go back and forth, why the club should go, the rights they have as established businesses.

Female:

All those in favor say aye.

Speaker 48:

Aye.

Female:

All those [crosstalk 00:47:44].

Speaker 49:

I'm opposed.

Anjeanette Damo...:

And in the end they back down. They decide not to move the clubs. They do put in a bunch of restrictions but Cammie gets to keep his clubs downtown. So I go back to the Ponderosa to visit Velma. Cammie is no longer threatening to double her rent, but I wonder if she thinks her troubles are over. Reno's still changing around you and rents are going up everywhere and...

Velma S.:

Everywhere.

Anjeanette Damo...:

Do you think about that very much?

Velma S.:

Yes, I do. And I know if I leave here, I ain't got nowhere to go. I know that and I know in another year I could go apply for a senior housing because I'll be 65 but there again it's still going to be hard because there's such a waiting list.

Anjeanette Damo...:

The city around her is still changing. Developers are circling with an eye on Cammie's property, gentrifying Midtown is creeping closer and closer as the city continues to fill with tech workers. The City Council's vote didn't change any of that.

Al Letson:

That was reporter Anjeanette Damon with The City. An investigative podcast from USA today. Check it out, whatever you get podcasts. Our lead producer for this week's show is Katherine Mackowski. She had help this week from Christopher Harlan Dunaway, Najib Aminy and Rachel Deleon. Taki Telonidis edited the show. Thanks to Melissa Lewis, Hannah Young, David Rodriguez, Fire Dunkin and Andy Donahue. Special thanks to Jessica Brewter, author of the book nomad land. The City Podcast was reported and produced by Phil Corbett, Camille Stanley, Taylor Macon and Robin Amer. The editors are Amy Pyle and Matt Doy. Ben Austin was a story consultant. Original music by Hannis Brown. Victoria Bear Netsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Melinda Hinojosa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda that helped this week from Amy Mostafa and Claire C-Note-Mullen.

Al Letson:

Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, The John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, The Jonathan Logan family Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation, The Democracy Fund, The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.

Speaker 49:

From PRX.