After years of growth, Amazon is now laying off thousands of employees. But with the holiday season underway, the company’s warehouse workers still have to race to fill gift orders. This week, Reveal revisits Amazon’s safety record.
Host Al Letson speaks with Reveal’s Will Evans, who’s been reporting on injuries at Amazon for years. By gathering injury data and speaking with workers and whistleblowers, he has shown that Amazon warehouse employees are injured on the job at a higher rate than at other companies. Evans’ reporting has focused national attention on the company’s safety record, prompting regulators, lawmakers and the company itself to address the issue more closely. Members of Congress have scrutinized Amazon’s working conditions – and at the state level, lawmakers and safety regulators are taking action against Amazon in ways they never have before.
Then, we bring back a story by Jennifer Gollan that looks at the most common type of injury at Amazon and other workplaces: repetitive motion injuries. Gollan reports that decades ago, the federal government decided to impose safety regulations to try to prevent these injuries, then abruptly changed its mind.
We end with a reprise of a story from reporter Laura Sydell about online reviews of products and businesses and how many of them are not what they seem.
This is an update of an episode that originally aired in May 2022.
- Read: All of Reveal’s reporting on Amazon
- Listen: Amazon Leaks
- Watch: The truth about injuries at Amazon
- Interactive: What are injury rates like at Amazon warehouses?
Reporters: Will Evans, Jennifer Gollan and Laura Sydell | Producers: Katharine Mieszkowski and Chris Harland-Dunaway | Lead producer: Katharine Mieszkowski | Editors: Taki Telonidis and Michael Montgomery | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Sound design and original music: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson
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, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
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.
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
A lot of us still haven’t finished our Thanksgiving leftovers and we’re already in the frenzy of the holiday shopping season. This year, online retailers are fighting hard for your gift giving dollar, but this year’s holiday season is not so cheery for Amazon. The tech giant grew wildly during the pandemic when so many of us were staying at home and ordering online. But now the wave of layoffs in the tech industry are coming for Amazon too.
Speaker 2: These are deep cuts. Tech giant Amazon planning to cut 10,000 employees starting this week according to The New York Times, and this is the largest layoff in the company’s nearly 30 year history.
Al Letson: The thousands of layoffs at Amazon are in corporate and technology jobs, but the company is also dialing back its warehouses, which in recent years, Amazon couldn’t seem to open fast enough.
Speaker 2: Amazon closing or delaying four warehouse and delivery stations in North Carolina, it’s all part of a national cutback in operations.
Al Letson: With high inflation, shoppers dollars aren’t going as far this holiday season and people are worried about a possible recession. Even Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and executive chairman struck a note of economic caution in a recent interview on CNN.
Jeff Bezos: If you’re individual and you’re thinking about buying a new large screen TV, maybe slow that down, keep that cash, see what happens.
Al Letson: Yes, that’s the king of online retail himself, advising people to reel back their spending. But even if holiday spending is slowing down, that doesn’t mean the pace of work at Amazon warehouses will be any less intense. This November, Congress examined working conditions in warehouses at a hearing of a house subcommittee on workforce protections, and Amazon got a lot of scrutiny.
Alma Adams: During a three week period in the summer of 2022, four Amazon workers died at four separate warehouses.
Al Letson: That subcommittee chairwoman Alma Adams of North Carolina.
Alma Adams: Clearly something is wrong.
Al Letson: Safety officials have been investigating those deaths and at the state level, lawmakers and safety regulators are taking action against Amazon in ways they haven’t ever done before. And a lot of that scrutiny grew out of the investigative sleuthing done by Reveal’s Will Evans, who we’re bringing back today to break it all down. Hey Will.
Will Evans: Hey Al.
Al Letson: We’ve been talking about problems at Amazon warehouses for a while now. How did you get into this story?
Will Evans: Yeah, I mean I’d been covering worker safety for a while and a couple of people suggested looking at Amazon, so I started reaching out to former Amazon safety managers figuring they’d know if there was a problem. And I talked to this one person who was really hesitant to talk to me, but thankfully did and eventually told me that the injury rates at Amazon were really high and that really piqued my interest and that’s when I decided I needed to see if that was true.
Al Letson: So how do you do that?
Will Evans: Well, it was actually pretty difficult. I asked the company for the injury numbers and they of course wouldn’t give them to me. The federal government collected the data, but they kept it secret too. But the law says that companies have to give their own workers information about injuries at their own work site. So I started contacting warehouse workers at Amazon, current and former around the country to see if they would request the records and share them with me. I reached out to hundreds of people and we even took out some Facebook ads to help me find workers. And a lot of them were scared to ask for the records and Amazon didn’t make it easy. They would often ignore the requests, they would tell the workers not to share the records. So it was pretty slow going.
Al Letson: How many did you ultimately get?
Will Evans: Well, we were doing this one by one warehouse by warehouse, and we eventually got 23 of them and we were looking at the injury rates and one of the ones with the highest injury rates was in southern California. So I went to talk to workers there, people like Candice Dixon, who hurt her back really badly trying to keep up with the grueling pace in the warehouse.
Candice Dixon: I had hurt so bad, I can’t even tell you. I would have these sharp pains in the middle of my back. Excruciating pain, I was crying. I’m the type of person that just likes to continue working. I don’t like to give up and I like to do my job well. So I just kept going.
Will Evans: Now she’s facing a lifetime of pain and her injury was just one of many. We actually got the injury records for that warehouse that you worked at. Your injury was one of 422 injuries last year.
Candice Dixon: Oh, wow.
Will Evans: We calculated the injury rate and that rate was one of the highest injury rates we’ve seen, and it’s more than three and a half times the rate for general warehousing as an industry.
Candice Dixon: That’s crazy. For Amazon, alls they care about is getting the job done and getting it out fast and not realizing how it’s affecting us and our own bodies.
Al Letson: Okay, so why are so many people getting hurt?
Will Evans: As we were reporting this, we realized it really boiled down to speed. The workers have to move too many things too quickly. Their bodies are wearing down, they’re breaking down, and they end up taking shortcuts, which lead to accidents. And that’s what I was hearing even from former Amazon Safety Managers. But they were all afraid to talk on the record, but we kept trying. Finally, one of them talked to me on the condition that we disguised his voice.
Speaker 8: 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: So that story came out in 2019 and what happened after that?
Will Evans: Sometimes after you publish a story, people start to come out of the woodwork, new sources and new tips, and that’s what happened here. Someone who was inspired by our reporting actually leaked us a treasure trove of data. Amazon’s own injury data for about 150 fulfillment centers going back 4 years.
Al Letson: That’s huge. I mean, it must have been pretty risky for that person.
Will Evans: Yeah, thank you to that person, whoever you are out there. I can’t even talk about it very much because I don’t want to put them at more risk.
Al Letson: So you spent months trying to get those records warehouse by warehouse and suddenly you got it all. What was it like for you to be staring at all those numbers?
Will Evans: It’s kind of nerdy, but it was very exciting. It was thrilling. I mean what they showed was awful, but what was exciting was that I could finally compare what Amazon was telling me and telling the public to what their own data showed.
Al Letson: And what did the new data show?
Will Evans: Well, it showed that Amazon had an injury crisis. It wasn’t getting better, it was getting worse. The rate of serious injuries was double the industry average. And it also showed that Amazon wasn’t telling the truth about its safety record.
Al Letson: What do you mean?
Will Evans: Well, for example, in that first story Amazon told me that injury rates don’t go up during peak shopping times like the holidays. They said that they stay flat or even go down, but the record showed it was the exact opposite. They spike. So what they were saying was just false. And then there’s the robots.
Al Letson: The robots? Tell me about the robots.
Will Evans: Amazon uses robots to make the warehouses as efficient as possible. They help things speed up, and the humans have to work side by side with them and they have to keep up. So the safety manager I talked to said humans were actually losing that battle. Have the robots pushed humans past their limits?
Speaker 8: Yeah. Man, humans are tapping out.
Will Evans: But Amazon kept saying that robots were good for safety, they were good for the workers.
Al Letson: And what did the data show?
Will Evans: Well, it showed that what Amazon was saying was wrong. I mean, injury rates were higher at warehouses with robots. They were worse, because remember, Amazon uses the robots to ratchet up the pace and speed leads to injuries. So we totaled up all the numbers for all the Amazon fulfillment centers and the one at the top with the highest injury rate at the time was a robotic one. And it turned out it wasn’t far from Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. So we wanted to know what was going on there, so I talked to Austin Wendt.
Austin Wendt: They said safety is the priority, but it was very prevalent that safety was second to productivity.
Will Evans: He used to have a job monitoring injuries and giving first aid at that warehouse in DuPont Washington, and he said he saw them try some interesting things in the name of safety like pizza parties for groups of workers if there weren’t any injuries for a while.
Austin Wendt: Pretty much how I saw it is they were offering rewards for not reporting injuries, because you’re cornering people. You’re going to off 49 other people if they were two hours away from getting pizza and you got injured. Now they don’t get pizza.
Al Letson: I mean, no one wants to stand in the way of their colleagues getting pizza.
Will Evans: Exactly. I want some pizza. But beyond pizza parties, Amazon wouldn’t do the one thing Austin said could really make a difference.
Austin Wendt: In the end, I don’t think it’s that hard of an issue. It’s lower the rate.
Will Evans: In other words, slow it down.
Al Letson: Does Amazon just get away with all of this?
Will Evans: Well, it seemed like it for a while, but things are changing.
Speaker 9: Please put your hands together for assembly woman Lorena Gonzalez
Will Evans: In California. Lorena Gonzalez introduced a bill last year to regulate the work quotas in warehouses. It was aimed at Amazon and it was prompted in part by our reporting.
Lorena Gonzalez: It’s time that we value workers enough to say you don’t deserve to lose your livelihood or to lose your body on a job and to be continually pushed to go faster and faster and faster.
Will Evans: And last fall her bill passed. It was the first law of its kind.
Al Letson: So what does the law do?
Will Evans: Well, it says companies can’t force workers to hit quotas that prevent them from doing stuff like going to the bathroom or doing their job safely. Workers can even sue to overturn unsafe quotas, and there are similar bills that have been proposed in other states.
Al Letson: And what does Amazon have to say about all this?
Will Evans: Well, Amazon said no to an interview with us as usual, but in general, the company says they don’t have quotas. They have what they call performance expectations and they say those don’t conflict with safety.
Al Letson: Performance expectations. That sounds like corporate speak for quotas.
Will Evans: Yeah.
Al Letson: Aren’t there government safety agencies that are supposed to deal with this?
Will Evans: Well, yeah, there are, but for a long time they didn’t do much about this, but that’s also starting to change. So remember that warehouse in Washington with the highest injury rates, the one with the pizza parties? Well, after our report, the state safety agency inspected it and they issued a groundbreaking safety citation.
Al Letson: Why was that a big deal?
Will Evans: Regulators said that Amazon was violating the law by pressuring workers to work so fast they get hurt. They found a direct connection between the pace of work and the injuries and they said the company has to change. As obvious as that sounds, given our reporting, it’s the first time that happened and it didn’t stop there. Amazon didn’t fix the problem. So those safety regulators, they kept coming back. So far they find them $81,000, which doesn’t sound like much to accompany the size of Amazon, but what they’re saying is really important. Amazon disputes all that and is appealing the citations and we don’t really know how it’ll all end up.
Al Letson: So what about the injury numbers that you worked so hard to track down? Is that data still secret?
Will Evans: No, that’s another big development. Reveal’s badass legal team, led by the one and only Vickie Baranetsky, actually sued the federal government arguing that the injury numbers that companies report to the government should be public. The government fought back saying, “No, these records are confidential,” but a federal judge agreed with us and ordered the government to cough it up, so we won.
Al Letson: That’s amazing. But not totally surprising because Vickie Baranetsky is a force of nature, but a huge win.
Will Evans: Exactly. Yeah. It’s exciting because it’s a big win for holding companies accountable and hopefully eventually improving working conditions.
Al Letson: So does that mean anyone can get this data?
Will Evans: Yeah. Now the government releases the injury numbers for hundreds of thousands of workplaces around the country and we’ve actually been training reporters on how to find stories in all the data.
Byard Duncan: Thank you guys so much for coming today. This is the kickoff of Reveal’s Worker Injuries Reporting Network.
Al Letson: I know that voice that sounds like Byard.
Will Evans: Yep. That’s our former colleague, Byard Duncan, leading off a webinar we did for local reporters.
Byard Duncan: What you all are after is what Will can talk in depth about, which is this big trove of workplace injury data that is now public record and that is quite interesting.
Will Evans: It’s already led to some local reporting using that data, and Reveal will soon release a searchable database that will allow anybody to easily look up the injury rates of major companies.
Al Letson: Okay, so what does this data that’s now public say about Amazon today?
Will Evans: A coalition of labor unions crunched the most recent numbers and they found that Amazon’s injury rates, which had gone down in 2020, went up again last year, so they got worse. And that the rate of serious injuries was more than double the rate for non-Amazon warehouses.
Al Letson: And has Amazon talked about this?
Will Evans: Well, yeah, actually. The issue has really gained traction since we first started reporting on it and Amazon has had to deal with it. They’ve had to address it. The CEO, Andy Jassy got asked about that union analysis of the injury numbers on CNBC this spring.
Andy Jassy: Well, look, there’s a lot of ways you can spin this safety data.
Will Evans: So this is his spin. He says Amazon’s injuries are a little bit higher than average for warehousing and a little lower than average for other job categories, so one kind of cancels out the other.
Andy Jassy: So we’re about average, which frankly I take no solace in. We don’t aspire to be average. We are trying to be the best in the industry and it’s why we’re spending … we spent about $300 million on safety last year alone. We have about 8,000 people who just work in safety and we’re trying all sorts of things, and we’re-
Will Evans: Like sophisticated algorithms to predict when workers should rotate jobs and wearables that send signals when they detect workers making a dangerous movement. Oh, and new shoes to protect those toes.
Al Letson: But nothing about actually slowing down the pace of work?
Will Evans: No, which is not that surprising because it really cuts to the heart of Amazon’s model. Amazon has succeeded by getting things to people faster and faster and by pushing workers to go faster and faster to make that happen.
Al Letson: So where does that leave us?
Will Evans: Well, there’s this building pressure for Amazon to deal with its workplace practices. It’s coming from regulators and lawmakers and from the workers themselves, and even federal prosecutors are homing in. The US Attorney’s office in New York launched a nationwide investigation into workplace safety problems at Amazon warehouses and they’re looking at the same kinds of things we’ve been reporting on, like the dangers of Amazon’s pace of work. They’ve asked workers to come forward with information, so it really remains to be seen whether all that pressure will keep growing and whether Amazon ends up being forced to make some serious changes.
Al Letson: Thanks for all your reporting on this, Will.
Will Evans: Thank you, Al.
Al Letson: That was Reveal’s Will Evans. Our story was produced by Katherine Makowski. The safety regulators are now paying closer attention to injuries at Amazon warehouses, but it made us wonder why they weren’t paying close attention all along. In a moment, the story of how the federal government decided to regulate the most common type of workplace injury then changed it’s mind. You’re listening to Reveal.
From The Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. At Amazon Fulfillment Centers most of the on-the-job injuries come from bad ergonomics. They’re caused by repetition, working in awkward positions or putting strain on the body, and they’re a huge problem in other industries too. Hotel MAs whose backs are blown out from decades of lifting mattresses to change sheets. Poultry workers with chronic nerve damage from hanging 10,000 chickens headed for slaughter each day. OSHA requires companies to protect workers from common injuries in all kinds of industries, from construction to logging, but there’s no federal rule to protect workers from ergonomic injuries. To understand why we’re bringing back a story from one of our former colleagues at Reveal, reporter Jennifer Gollan, who takes us back in time.
Jennifer Gollan: Actually, you have to go way back to the year 2000. The movie Gladiator is huge. Everyone is watching the TV show Survivor and there’s this famous Budweiser commercial.
Speaker 12: Budweiser. Budweiser. Bud.
Jennifer Gollan: That’s around the time when DeVonda Rogers started working at Budweiser, running quality control tests on the beer.
DeVonda Rogers: We’re testing it for iron, we’re testing it for ammonia, we’re testing it for different bacteria to ensure that it’s safe for the public all around.
Jennifer Gollan: 7 days a week for 13 years, DeVonda did small controlled hand motions, swirling flasks, holding, shaking centrifuges. Budweiser’s testing instructions always ended with-
DeVonda Rogers: Repeat it again, repeat it again to ensure that we’re getting the same results.
Jennifer Gollan: DeVonda started to notice something about her hands, her fingertips started going numb, then came intense pain from her neck down to her wrists. One day she walked onto the factory floor and grabbed a case of beer for testing-
DeVonda Rogers: And I dropped the case. At that point I thought I was going to pass out. I went down on one knee and I just thought a bolt of lightning hit me.
Jennifer Gollan: DeVonda saw doctors who told her she had carpal tunnel that was work related. Physical therapy helped relieve the pressure on the nerve in her hand, but when DeVonda returned to work, the pain always rushed back. It got to the point where she couldn’t unscrew a water bottle cap. She filed a worker’s compensation claim against Anheuser Busch, the company that owns Budweiser. The next year she says they fired her for being unable to keep up with her job. Then when her daughter was an infant, this happened.
DeVonda Rogers: I picked her up and she hit the floor and I will never forget that scream and that look that she gave me, it was a look of, “I can’t believe you just dropped me,” and she was screaming.
Jennifer Gollan: She kept fighting Anheuser Busch for workers’ comp, but DeVonda says company managers refused to accept that her injury was work related. We asked Anheuser Bush for an interview and sent them specific questions about DeVonda’s case, but they never responded. There were no government regulations to protect DeVonda, but what she didn’t know was right around the time she started working, there almost were.
Eric Frumin: Most American workers had no ability to stop bosses from abusing them with dangerous workloads. The unions were fed up, workers in other industries were fed up, and we finally had the ability to set those limits.
Jennifer Gollan: That’s Eric Frumin. He’s a health and safety director for unions. He represented garment and warehouse workers and he was a voice pushing for ergonomics protections. In President Clinton’s labor department, they’re listening.
Speaker 13: We are compelled to act. Employees are getting hurt, workers are being sent home, people are suffering. It’s time for OSHA to move on.
Jennifer Gollan: There was a lot of momentum behind the rule, which would’ve forced companies to limit how much workers could lift, bend or twist, and how many times they did the same task. It was a decade in the making and one of the last steps in the process was a series of hearings for public comment. That’s when a team of lawyers representing Anheuser Busch, hundreds of other companies and the US Chamber of Commerce descended on the capital.
Speaker 14: I would think that it would be a very good idea if no one sits in those first couple of seats in the first row. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting run over by an attorney rushing to get to the podium.
Jennifer Gollan: This is a hearing room in Washington DC in 2000. It looks like an auditorium for a school play except with a judge and a bunch of OSHA bureaucrats sitting on the stage behind a long draped table.
Speaker 14: See the gentleman, I think here in the third or fourth row had his hand up.
Jennifer Gollan: The gentleman in the third or fourth row was one of the lawyers representing Anheuser Busch and the others.
Eugene Scalia: Just one minute I have an audio visual item.
Jennifer Gollan: He awkwardly carries a whiteboard out of the darkness and onto the stage. He tries making a joke about back entries.
Eugene Scalia: I’m not going to ask you about my lifting technique.
Speaker 14: Okay.
Jennifer Gollan: He returns to the podium at the foot of the stage and gathers his papers.
Eugene Scalia: I’m Eugene Scalia. I’m representing several clients in this rule making, including the-
Jennifer Gollan: He’s a slender 30-something guy with dark, intense eyes.
Eugene Scalia: If I could begin, and I’ll direct my questions, Ms. Kent.
Jennifer Gollan: Oh yeah. And he happened to be the son of a sitting Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia. He launches into a cross examination like you’d see in Law & Order.
Eugene Scalia: If a physician said that that employee needs to sharply curtail her activity for a period of time, would you regard that view as wacky?
Jennifer Gollan: Even though there was a lot of science to support ergonomic protections from things like repetitive motions or assembly lines that move too fast, Scalia attacked it. He called it junk science. Baruch Fellner with Scalia’s teammate at these hearings.
Baruch Fellner: The one thing that this country and that no workplace can afford is for some scientists to stick a finger up in the ear with a wet part and say, “Oh, this is where science is going.”
Jennifer Gollan: For the scientists, it was rattling. What’s the emotion that comes to mind when you think of that experience?
Bob Harrison: Intimidating. This was tough cross examination.
Jennifer Gollan: Bob Harrison was a researcher and doctor who treated injured workers. He remembers Scalia grilling the scientists at the hearings, interrupting them as soon as they got into any detail, saying things like, “I don’t think I’ll permit you to waste my time in that way,” and, “Evidently you think that’s a silly exercise.”
Bob Harrison: It’s a well practiced attempt that I now understand to doubt myself and doubt my own credibility and research as a doctor and a scientist.
Jennifer Gollan: Scalia had another tactic he used to cast doubt on the connection between repetitive motion and ergonomic injuries.
Bob Harrison: So if you have 95 papers that show there’s a link and 5 papers that show that does not a link, it’s pretty easy to make hay out of the 5 papers that show there’s not a link.
Jennifer Gollan: Not only did Scalia tear into the science, he went after regulators, drilling OSHA’s experts with hypotheticals. At a House subcommittee hearing Scalia says a worker could hurt himself playing football on the weekend. Eric Frumin was sitting right next to Scalia when he said that.
Eric Frumin: You would think that a lobbyist of that stature working for one of the largest law firms in the country with extraordinary access to corporate resources would’ve been able to find an example of that if it existed, and run it up the flag pole and bring in the papers from the contested workers’ comp hearing where the employer had the photographs of Johnny Jones playing football on Sunday and then coming into work on Monday, reporting an injury, signing it, and the employer fighting that all the way to the court of appeals in the state of God knows where. And the judge is saying to the employer, “You’re wrong. This guy’s entitled to comp.” Except he didn’t and he never tried to bring the facts to the bear. He was just good at pedaling fear.
Jennifer Gollan: As good as Scalia and his team were in doing that, late in 2000.
Speaker 18: Government guidelines aimed at making the workplace ergonomically correct.
Jennifer Gollan: The Clinton administration enacted the ergonomic rules.
Speaker 19: Which would affect all workers, except those who are self-employed or in the agricultural-
Jennifer Gollan: Unions were thrilled.
Eric Frumin: Well, it was great that we won. This was the set of rules that were going to free American workers from abusive workloads, give people the feeling, blue collar workers, manual workers, low wage workers that the government actually could do something for them.
Jennifer Gollan: Or could it?
Doris Kearns Go…: Yes, it’s possible for the country to have such a division as we do-
Speaker 21: Doris, Doris, Doris, Doris.
Doris Kearns Go…: Uh oh, something’s happened.
Speaker 21: George Bush is the President elect of the United States. He has won the state of Florida, according to our projections.
Jennifer Gollan: After one of the closest presidential races in US history, George W. Bush and not Al Gore moved into the White House and Republicans took Congress. Within months, ergonomics were being debated again.
Speaker 22: The clerk will read the joint resolution for the third time.
Senator John Ed…: Senate joint resolution six providing for-
Jennifer Gollan: And this time they dusted off a little known law called the Congressional Review Act. It lets Congress take a second look at any rule made by a federal agency, and vote on it.
Speaker 24: Mr. Jones, no. Mr. Bond, aye. Mr. Lieberman.
Jennifer Gollan: Everyone in labor and industry was watching.
Eric Frumin: Yeah, I was in my office both days in New York. I guess I was watching it on CSPAN.
Speaker 22: The Yays are 56, the Nays are 44 and Senate Joint Resolution Six is passed.
Jennifer Gollan: The ergonomics rule was repealed. How were you feeling at that moment? Did you have-
Eric Frumin: Heartbroken. Absolutely heartbroken.
Jennifer Gollan: Do you remember what you did in those moments after it failed?
Eric Frumin: I don’t know. I probably went out and got a drink or something. I was pretty miserable.
Jennifer Gollan: It was the first time a regulation had been repealed this way. And here’s the other thing about the Congressional Review Act. Once a regulation is overturned, agencies are forbidden from writing another one like it. In the end, Scalia won and he quickly vaulted into government. Not long after he was nominated Labor Solicitor, which is the Labor Department’s chief lawyer. They play a major role in enforcing many federal labor laws and developing rules. At his confirmation hearing, Senator John Edwards had a simple question for Scalia.
Senator John Ed…: Would you agree that one of your responsibilities for this position that you’ve been nominated for would be to represent the laborers, the working people around America?
Eugene Scalia: My responsibility would be to represent the government of the United States and enforce the laws.
Jennifer Gollan: I show a video of that moment to Eric Frumin.
Eric Frumin: It took him seven seconds to figure out that was his answer. And never once did he mention lifting up America’s workers.
Jennifer Gollan: Then in 2019, Scalia became Secretary of Labor during the Trump administration.
Speaker 25: Place your left hand on the Bible. Raise your right hand. Repeat after me. I, Eugene Scalia, do solemnly swear.
Eugene Scalia: I Eugene Scalia do solemnly swear.
Speaker 25: I, Eugene Scalia-
Jennifer Gollan: Under Scalia, the number of workplace safety inspectors dropped significantly. And despite the dangers of COVID 19, the Labor Department didn’t issue any federal rules to limit the virus’s spread among workers. Soon after, Scalia left his job as labor Secretary in 2021, OSHA issued stronger COVID 19 guidance for workers. When we first reported this story back in 2020, I had wanted to talk to Scalia about COVID in the workplace and his work fighting the ergonomics rule, but his office never got back to me. The Biden administration has pledged to make worker safety a priority. But when it comes to a comprehensive national ergonomic standard, its hands are tied because of the Congressional Review Act.
As for DeVonda Rogers, the Anheuser Busch worker, she has crippling pain from her neck to her hands. These days she’s on disability and can’t work. She takes eight different pills a day for pain and depression. When I tell her the story of the ergonomics battle, her reaction is-
DeVonda Rogers: Wow.
Jennifer Gollan: What do you think that says about our nation, that there are no rules around ergonomics?
DeVonda Rogers: It puts profit above people. Just plain and simple. Just work you to death until there’s nothing left.
Jennifer Gollan: And when workers have nothing left, she says, families struggle too.
DeVonda Rogers: When you don’t address that issue and tackle it head on, you cut the life expectancy of that person being at that particular company very short, and it causes a strong impact financially. It causes stress. The family doesn’t function as well as it could because now they’re worried about, oh my goodness, what’s going to happen if mommy or daddy loses this job? They’ve got to do something to get ahead of this now.
Al Letson: That story from reporter Jennifer Gollan. The death of the ergonomic rule 20 years ago had a domino effect. Some states tried passing similar regulations, but failed. Only California has ergonomic rules on the books. Back when Budweiser was fighting ergonomic regulations, it was selling beer using ads and commercials. These days, online reviews have become important to sales, but should we believe them?
Kay Dean: Their reviews read like advertisements to me. There was common language through many of their reviews.
Al Letson: That’s next on Reveal. From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Whether you’re shopping on Amazon or looking for a good restaurant, chances are you’re going to check what the online reviews say. Consumers like them and so do businesses. One marketing firm found the companies with a 3.5 to 4.5 star rating on Yelp saw their revenue jump by almost a third.
Kay Dean lives in the San Francisco Bay area. She turned to Yelp when she was looking for a doctor. She was struggling with anxiety and depression and came across Savantcare, a group of clinics based in California. It accepted her insurance and had fantastic reviews on Yelp. Kay was sold, but her first appointment didn’t go so well. She says the support staff in India lost her paperwork and she felt the psychiatrist was distracted during their session. So Kay left a less than glowing review on Yelp. That’s when the trouble started. She says Savant threatened her with legal action if she didn’t take her review down.
Kay Dean: And then when they started to call me to harass me over my review, I developed worse anxiety, but also insomnia, which I hadn’t had before.
Al Letson: Kay fought back, took Savantcare to court and won. End of story, right? Well, not quite. The whole experience left Kay suspicious about the world of online reviews. She started digging and eventually reached out to a reporter Laura Sydell, who covers the tech world. Today we’re revisiting a story Laura first brought us in 2020.
Laura Sydell: Kay?
Kay Dean: Yes. Hi.
Laura Sydell: I’m at Kay’s Home, a large ranch house in a suburb of San Jose where she lives with her husband, a retired Coast Guard officer. Inside, documents and folders are piled high on the dining room table. Oh good. You have stacks of papers here.
Kay Dean: Oh, that’s just some of it.
Laura Sydell: No, I’m looking at that. [inaudible 00:34:55] Kay spent years as a federal investigator, and you can hear it in her voice, dispassionate, sort of, “Just the facts, ma’am,” kind of style.
Kay Dean: I worked as a special agent for the US Department of Education Inspector General’s office on fraud cases.
Laura Sydell: Kay left that job to raise her children. After her terrible experience with the psychiatrist at Savantcare, she couldn’t understand how the company could have so many positive reviews, so she took a closer look.
Kay Dean: The reviews read like advertisements to me. There was common language through many of the reviews.
Laura Sydell: Kay noticed that some of the reviewers had used full names. So she Googled them.
Kay Dean: And I landed in Facebook groups, and I was just astonished at what I was seeing.
Laura Sydell: Kay showed me what she was seeing. Tens of thousands of people buying, selling, and exchanging reviews. There were the people who write the reviews, businesses that post the reviews, and another layer of brokers and middlemen. It was an entire marketplace for fake reviews all on Facebook with posts like this.
Kay Dean: “Who needs strong Yelp reviews? I have 20 plus elite friends in California and 300 real Yelpers ready.
Laura Sydell: To Kay, it appeared like pieces of a puzzle she couldn’t quite figure out how to put together. Kay reached out to Yelp, Facebook, and to law enforcement, but no one seemed interested in following up. So she drew on her skills as a fraud investigator. She joined 37 of these Facebook groups, and that’s just a fraction of the total number. Once inside, Kay says she found all kinds of businesses trying to barter for or buy reviews, real estate agents, childcare workers, lawyers, dentists, burger joints, and more medical doctors.
Kay Dean: Here she is. “Hi, I’m Janet. PM me.”
Laura Sydell: This is Kay reading from a post she found on a Facebook group called the California Yelp Google Facebook Review Exchange. It’s from an LA dermatologist named Dr. Janet Vafaie. Case says she found Dr. Vafaie had solicited dozens of fake reviews through Facebook and had high ratings on Yelp and Google, but I find some negative reviews. A woman named Megan O’Neill says she didn’t feel her health was a priority throughout her appointment with Dr. Vafaie. I decide to contact Megan on Yelp and she agrees to talk. It turns out Megan has a history of skin cancer. She tells me that after moving to LA in 2020, she started looking for a doctor. She went online to look at reviews on Yelp and Google.
Megan O’Neill: I wanted to see a female dermatologist, and Dr. Vafaie had probably two to three times more recommendations or reviews than any other doctor in the area. So that was a really big reason why I chose her and why I was excited for that initial appointment.
Laura Sydell: But when she showed Dr. Vafaie the spots on her scalp-
Megan O’Neill: She called it pre, pre, precancerous, which I felt was really condescending because I’ve never had a doctor treat something precancerous so trivially before.
Laura Sydell: On top of that, Megan says Dr. Vafaie tried to sell her $2,000 of skin creams largely from her personal product line. Megan was furious and she didn’t trust Vafaie’s opinion. It took her months to see another specialist because her insurance wouldn’t pay. Finally, she learned from another doctor that the spots were precancerous. After all that, Megan says she’ll never trust online reviews again.
Megan O’Neill: It’s one thing if you’re a restaurant trying to claim you have the best cheesecake in town, but when it has to do with someone in the medical field that could have serious consequences on someone’s health, that’s really quite scary and it’s something I probably wouldn’t trust again.
Laura Sydell: I call and even visit Dr. Vafaie’s office, but you won’t agree to talk to me about what happened with Megan. I decide to tackle this from a different angle. With Kay Dean’s help, I find a person who wrote a fake review for Dr. Vafaie and who we could trace back to the Facebook groups. She’s reluctant to talk because posting fake reviews is illegal, but she finally agrees so long as I only use her first name, Tiffany. We needed a Starbucks in downtown Santa Cruz where she’s a college student. Tiffany tells me she started out writing real reviews on Yelp. In fact, she wrote so many she earned Yelp’s Elite status for its most trusted reviewers. She was living on an especially tight budget.
Tiffany: It was summer and I didn’t really get an internship like I wanted to, and I needed extra money.
Laura Sydell: And Tiffany soon discovered her Yelp Elite status was the key to making some cash. She was on Facebook hoping to meet other Elites.
Tiffany: That’s what I was thinking at first. And then I found Yelp Exchange and that’s when I was interested because I saw someone posted $50 to $100 per review and then I was instantly interested.
Laura Sydell: Tiffany says someone recruited her to write a fake review for Dr. Vafaie. She figured that’s easy.
Tiffany: I go to med spas and that’s something I’m familiar with. So the one I reviewed it, I just thought, “Oh, this is something I would do. I would get a facial here. I would get my skin laser treatments here.”
Laura Sydell: Tiffany was paid $47.50 cents for the fake review. When I tell her about Megan O’Neill’s experience with Dr. Vafaie, the $2,000 skin cream she recommended, her failure to see precancerous spots on Megan’s scalp, Tiffany seems remorseful.
Tiffany: I hope this all ends, yeah.
Laura Sydell: You feel a little guilty about it?
Tiffany: Yeah, I didn’t think it would harm anyone until you told me like someone got harmed by it.
Laura Sydell: Yelp finally caught Tiffany and closed her account, but only after she’d made hundreds of dollars writing fake reviews, not bad for a few hours of work. Before we part Tiffany shows me records of the payment for the Dr. Vafaie review. The money was wired by someone in Auckland, New Zealand. It turns out a lot of the companies that pay for fake reviews are outside the US.
The secret marketplace that Kay Dean discovered involved business owners exchanging reviews among themselves and also buying them from brokers who pay people like Tiffany. I want to speak with one of these brokers and I find one. He agrees to talk as long as I don’t use his real name because brokering fake reviews is also against the law. So I’ll call him N. I meet N at a coffee shop in a strip mall about 45 minutes from LA. He tells me he fell into buying, selling and trading reviews a few years ago while he was getting his MBA. Initially, he says he just wanted to start a legal marketing business,
N: First, it started out with just doing like Facebook advertisement, Google advertisement. However, as you get to meet more local businesses and trying to get clients, you realize that they need a system with Yelp.
Laura Sydell: What was it that they were saying when you said they need a system with Yelp? What were they saying?
N: They needed to get more exposure. They wanted more traffic. They wanted to be a winner on Yelp.
Laura Sydell: So it’s a numbers came, and N says many businesses feel they have no choice but to play along. There’s even a term for this industry of fake reviews, black hat marketing. N found workers to write the reviews really easily, college students like Tiffany.
N: This is the norm. This is the norm of the information age. If a college student is broke enough, like where we are in today with America being … student loan debt and all that, I think college student will find a way to make extra cash on the side and this is an easy way to make cash on the side.
Laura Sydell: Before he had a lot of his own reviewers, N says he would write fake reviews himself. There’s one of his reviews I want to discuss. N posted a review on Savantcare’s website, the psychiatric practice that harassed Kay Dean. I show in the review. So this review, I just want to confirm just because this is a fake review. You never went to Savantcare.
N: Uh-uh. It was probably an exchange I’ve done a while back.
Laura Sydell: N says he doesn’t have a record of who contacted him from Savantcare, but he says it’s common practice for businesses to help out with the review. Restaurants might provide a picture of the food, dermatologists might offer up before and after skin pictures. These details are more likely to fool consumers and also Yelp and Google’s algorithms. These algorithms screen for common signs of fake reviews.
No one is certain about the scale of all the fakery. Companies like Yelp, Google and Facebook say they spend vast amounts of money on those algorithms designed to weed out fraud. But with millions of new reviews posted each day, even if they miss a small fraction of fakes, that could still mean a lot of fraudulent reviews make it through. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission or FTC enforces federal laws against online review fraud, but it’s faced criticism for its lax penalties. In one case, it found a skincare company guilty of ordering its own employees to write fake reviews, but the only penalty was a promise not to do it again. FTC commissioner Rebecca Slaughter criticized her own agency for being too soft.
Rebecca Slaught…: I think we really need to push for remedies that will send a meaningful message that the behavior we’re looking at is against the law and violating the law is going to come with costs that outweigh the benefits to the business of engaging in the violation.
Laura Sydell: Unfortunately, platforms like Google, Yelp and Facebook don’t have to take down fake reviews. That’s because they don’t bear legal responsibility for most of what gets posted on their sites. I mentioned earlier that Kay Dean had notified Facebook, Yelp and Google about the evidence she compiled of rampant fraud going back as far as 2017, nothing happened. It was only after I contacted Yelp that they posted alerts on Savantcare, Vafaie dermatology websites through a program they claimed had already been in the works. Soon after, I went to the offices of Yelp in downtown San Francisco to meet with Vince Sollitto, he’s their top PR guy. I ask him why Yelp didn’t respond to Kay’s initial evidence against Savantcare. So how does she end up not feeling, and how do users who have an experience like hers end up not feeling like when they reach out to you, they’re just sending information into a black hole?
Vince Sollitto: Well, that’s certainly not the case. For the vast majority of users, and in this case, I’ll have to investigate further. But when consumers contact us with information, we act upon it.
Laura Sydell: I show him the Facebook groups and other materials Kay assembled indicating a massive marketplace for fake reviews. She has figured out literally hundreds of businesses right now engaged in fake reviews. She’s one woman. You have teams of people. She tried to alert you, given that this one woman did this, and you have all this software and all these people. I have to ask you, seriously, why should people trust Yelp as a source for honest reviews?
Vince Sollitto: Because the vast majority of reviews that are being submitted by consumers are honest to goodness, firsthand experiences. And of the 20 million businesses or so that are on the platform, the vast majority are good actors. And we use every means at our disposal to protect the integrity of our content. It’s not perfect, and we certainly investigate and do the best we can, but we do believe it’s the best out there.
Laura Sydell: Sollitto repeats this answer over and over. We’re not perfect, but we’re the best. It’s like a cul-de-sac he can’t get out of, so he keeps going round and round. I literally counted probably about 30,000 members to groups on Facebook right now buying, selling, exchanging, reviews. What’s going on here? Why so many of these groups on Facebook have continued to exist for years?
Vince Sollitto: Well, you’ll have to ask Facebook that. We’ve certainly tried to work with them in the past to remove groups that are engaging this behavior. And to be fair, in years past when we’ve alerted them to these groups, they’ve taken them down, but obviously it’s not nearly as much of a priority for them as is for us.
Laura Sydell: A few weeks after meeting with Yelp, another spokesperson followed up with me about Kay’s complaint with Savantcare. She said that the team did the best they could with the evidence they had at the time. I also contacted Facebook and Google and they removed several accounts for violating their terms of service. But neither company would agree to a recorded interview to explain all the fraud they missed. Kay Dean says she has no faith in any of these companies and doesn’t think anyone should.
Kay Dean: We can’t count on Big Tech to be policing themselves. Yelp and Facebook and Google, they’re all profiting from this activity on the sites, and they don’t have really any incentive to take serious action. Prosecutors and regulators, they’re not policing these sites either. And so I just want to get the word out.
Laura Sydell: In the days before the internet made it possible for anyone to leave a review, we relied on the words of someone we knew or we looked at ads knowing that’s what they were. In the current climate, it may be wiser to view online reviews as just another kind of ad.
Al Letson: That story was from Laura Sydell. Our lead producer for this week’s show is Catherine Makowski. She had help from Chris Harlan Dunaway, Taki Telonidis, and Michael Montgomery edited the show. Thanks to editors, Kate Howard, Andy Donahue, and Sue O. Also Rachel Delion, Melissa Lewis and Esther Kaplan. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our fact checker is Nicki Frick. Our production manager’s Amy, the Great Mustafa.
Score and sound designed by the dynamic duo J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. Our post production team is the Justice League, and this week it includes Jess Alvarenga, Stephen Rascon, and Katherine Styer Martinez. Our digital producer is Sarah Merk. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Our theme music is by [inaudible 00:49:59]. Support for Reveal’s provided by The Reva & David Logan Foundation, The John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation, The Hellman Foundation, The Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.