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Sep 26, 2020

Catching Amazon in a lie

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Amazon’s motto is: “Work hard. Have fun. Make history.” But the company’s own numbers show that rather than having fun, its warehouse workers are getting hurt on the job far more often than the industry average. And we’ve obtained documents that show that company officials have profoundly misled the public and lawmakers about its record on worker safety. 

Host Al Letson speaks with Reveal’s Will Evans, who’s been able to gather a trove of injury data from Amazon warehouses that paints a very different picture from what the company tells lawmakers and the public. 

Then, Reveal’s Jennifer Gollan reports on the most common type of injury at Amazon and other workplaces, and why the government chose not to try to prevent it. 

We end with a story from Laura Sydell about online reviews of products and businesses and how many of them are not what they seem.

Dig Deeper

Learn more about Kay Dean’s research into online reviews by going to the Fake Review Watch YouTube channel or website.

Credits

Reported by: Will Evans, Jennifer Gollan, Laura Sydell

Produced by: Katharine Mieszkowski and Chris Harland-Dunaway

Lead producer: Katharine Mieszkowski

Edited by: Taki Telonidis and Michael Montgomery

Production manager: Najib Aminy

Production assistance: Amy Mostafa

Sound design, mix, and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Special thanks: Andrew Donohue, Esther Kaplan, Soo Oh, Rachel de Leon and Melissa Lewis

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Illustration by Anthony Zinonos 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:

Support for PRX comes from Xfinity. With school back in session, Xfinity is committed to helping kids continue to learn no matter where they are. They're providing affordable internet access to low income families through their internet essentials program. It's why they're working 24/7 to keep your network fast, reliable, and secure and helping college students study and stay connected through their university program. Xfinity is committed to helping your family stay connected and learn this school year. Learn more at xfinity.com/education.

Speaker 1:

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Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. COVID-19 throw the world into its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, but for some giant companies, the corona virus has been good for business. Amazon became an even bigger player as sheltering in place drove a surge in internet sales.

Speaker 3:

The unstoppable Amazon hitting fresh records on Thursday adding to its 57% gain for the year.

Al Letson:

Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, is now far and away the world's richest person.

Speaker 4:

He is wealthier than he's ever been. The Amazon CEO crossed a major milestone of his own. His net worth ...

Al Letson:

In one day in July, Bezos added $13 billion to his personal fortune, $13 billion. Since the pandemic began, the company has faced criticism for being slow to protect its employees from the corona virus. But at a recent shareholder meeting, Bezos said ...

Jeff Bezos:

Nothing is more important than the health and wellbeing of our employees.

Al Letson:

He also said the company is using its immense size for good.

Jeff Bezos:

We want people to know the truth about Amazon and how we use our scale for good. We welcome the scrutiny. It's good for us.

Al Letson:

Bezos welcomes the scrutiny. He says, "It's good for Amazon." Well, all right then. Reveal has been investigating worker's safety at Amazon for over a year. Before the holidays, we told you about dangerous warehouses.

Speaker 6:

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

Al Letson:

At one of them in Southern California, workers said the company refused to evacuate after a gas leak.

Speaker 7:

Is anyone sick or injured?

Speaker 8:

Yeah.

Al Letson:

At another warehouse in Indiana, a worker was killed on the job.

Speaker 9:

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

Speaker 10:

Was he just crumpled?

Speaker 9:

Yes, he was folded.

Speaker 10:

Okay.

Al Letson:

Amazon denies that its warehouses are unsafe, but it hasn't been willing to make public its injury data, even though they have to report it to the government. For our first story, we talked to dozens of current and former warehouse workers and pieced together injury records for 23 fulfillment centers. That told just a part of the story, because Amazon has many more warehouses. Now we have a much more complete picture. Our reporting inspired an anonymous source. They shared with us Amazon's worker injury data for its nationwide network of fulfillment centers, around 150 of them. The records go back to 2016. Reveal's Will Evans is here now to break it all down for us. Hey, Will.

Will Evans:

Hey, Al.

Al Letson:

Okay, so big picture. What does this data show us?

Will Evans:

Well, bottom line, there are a lot of injuries at Amazon. The warehouses had a serious injury rate nearly twice the industry average. Those are injuries that required time off work or being given another job to do. Last year. Amazon had more than 14,000 serious injuries at its warehouses.

Al Letson:

What did you learn that you didn't know before?

Will Evans:

Well, there's a big difference between what Amazon says is happening at its warehouses and what its own records show, and what they say about worker safety often just isn't true.

Al Letson:

Okay. I'm ready. What do you got for me?

Will Evans:

Well, executives at Amazon often talk about how safety is the most important thing. It's top priority. Here's Jeff Wilke on PBS's frontline earlier this year.

Jeff Wilke:

From the moment that I arrived 20 years ago, I made it very clear to our operations teams that we will not compromise the safety of our employees to do anything else.

Will Evans:

But our data shows they have been compromising. Between 2016 and 2019, as demands on workers were going up, so were injuries. They didn't even meet their own internal safety goals. They've spent tens of millions of dollars on safety initiatives. They say they're going to spend a billion this year, but instead of getting better, the injury numbers have been getting worse over the last four years.

Al Letson:

It's been getting more likely you'll get hurt if you work at Amazon.

Will Evans:

Yeah, and some of these injuries can have really lasting consequences. Last fall, we met Candice Dickson in Southern California. Her job was to scan and load items in racks over and over and quickly.

Candice Dickson:

11 seconds was the goal.

Will Evans:

Is that hard to meet?

Candice Dickson:

Yeah.

Will Evans:

If she didn't hit that rate, one item every 11 seconds, she could be written up and eventually even fired. One shift Candice handled so many heavy items in a row, she threw out her back.

Candice Dickson:

I had hurt so bad. I can't even tell you like, just, 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. I like to do my job well. I just kept going.

Al Letson:

Yeah, I remember Candice from our last story. How's she doing?

Will Evans:

Not so great. I talked to her recently. It's been more than two years since her injury, and she's still in a lot of pain. She still has a hard time doing basic things. She had to leave her job at Amazon. Her worker's comp settlement ran out a while ago. She's barely scraping by as she keeps looking for a new job that she can do with her back problems. It makes her feel sick every time she drives by that Amazon warehouse where she used to work.

Candice Dickson:

I don't know. It just makes my stomach go. It makes me mad too, because here I have this injury that shouldn't have ever happened, and it's not getting better. It's a lifetime thing for me.

Al Letson:

That's terrible. Do we know what's happening these days at our warehouse?

Will Evans:

Yeah, there were more than 600 serious injuries there last year. It was four times worse than the industry average.

Al Letson:

Okay, so what's Amazon doing wrong? What's the problem.

Will Evans:

A lot of people say it boils down to speed. The workers have to move too many things too quickly. Their bodies wear down. They end up taking shortcuts, like not taking the time to grab a ladder and standing on your tip toes. That's how accidents happen. Now, Amazon claims workers can just speak up if there's an issue with speed. Here's Amazon executive Jeff Wilke again on Frontline.

Jeff Wilke:

We have a culture that if we are asking people to do something that they have to do to fast to be safe, they can raise their hand and say, "This isn't right," and we'll fix it.

Will Evans:

But that wasn't Austin Whent's experience.

Austin Whent:

They said safety is the priority, but it was very prevalent that safety was second to productivity.

Will Evans:

His job was to monitor injuries and give first aid at the Amazon warehouse in DuPont, Washington. Ironically, in 2019, that Amazon fulfillment center, not far from Amazon's headquarters in Seattle, had the highest injury rate out of all of them. He was there about two years. 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 Whent:

Pretty much how I saw it is they were offering rewards for not reporting injuries, because you're cornering people like, "You're going to piss 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:

No one wants to stand in the way of their colleagues getting pizza.

Will Evans:

Seriously, but beyond pizza parties, Amazon wouldn't do the one thing Austin said could really make a difference.

Austin Whent:

In the end, I don't think it's that hard of an issue. It's lower the rate.

Will Evans:

In other words, reduce the rate of items an employee has to process every hour.

Austin Whent:

I don't think that was ever an option in their head.

Will Evans:

One thing that helps set the fast pace at the warehouse where Austin worked are the robots. People work side by side with robots at about 50 of Amazon's warehouses. These robots, everyone says they look like giant Roombas. They zip around the warehouse floor, bringing tall racks of products to workers. Amazon uses them to make the warehouse as efficient as possible, and the humans have to keep up. Jeff Wilke told frontline that robots are good for safety.

Jeff Wilke:

What happens is the robots change the work, so they allow us, people don't have to walk as far, which is a complaint that we've heard in the past. They make the job safer. They make them ...

Al Letson:

Let me get this straight. Amazon is claiming that robots make humans jobs safer.

Will Evans:

Yeah, that's what they say, but the data doesn't back it up. We looked at the most common type of Amazon fulfillment center where most of your packages come from. Some have robots and some don't. We found that the ones with robots had a serious injury rate more than 50% higher than those without.

Al Letson:

This sounds like something out of science fiction. I mean, are the robots and humans at war?

Will Evans:

Not exactly. It gets back to speed. Amazon is using the robots to ratchet up the pace. I showed our data to Mark Wulfraat, an industry expert. He compares what's happening to raising the speed limit on a highway.

Mark Wilfraat:

The safety speed on the highway is 60 miles an hour, but we've got to get everybody faster to where they're going, so we're going to just put that up to 70. We know when we do that, there's going to be more accidents on the road, right? If you tell people to work faster in a highly repetitive environment, yeah, you're going to have injuries. No question about it.

Will Evans:

This is the direction Amazon's heading, towards more warehouses with robots.

Al Letson:

I almost hate to ask this. What happens during crunch time when they're getting more orders than usual, like during the holiday season?

Will Evans:

Good question, so the holiday season at Amazon is called peak. It's really intense. Long shifts, mandatory over time, and a lot of new inexperienced workers cramming into the warehouses. Another busy time for them is around Prime Day.

Speaker 16:

Prime Day, two days of epic deals you don't want to miss, July 15th through the 16th.

Will Evans:

Amazon has repeatedly said to us and other media that injury rates do not spike during these busy times.

Al Letson:

What did you find?

Will Evans:

That it's just not true. Amazon's own data shows that their injury rates do spike around Prime Day and during the holidays like Cyber Monday. Amazon knew this when they told us the exact opposite. We saw it in their internal reports.

Al Letson:

I mean, let's just call it what it is. Sometimes they lie. How else do they spin what's really happening?

Will Evans:

Well, last year when we first came to them about their numbers, they told us that their injury rates look high, because they're so conscientious about recording all their injuries. They claim that they have an aggressive stance on recording injuries, no matter how big or small. That's now one of their standard lines. Here's Jay Carney, the company's senior vice president of global corporate affairs on CNBC earlier this year.

Jay Carney:

Across the country injuries are woefully under reported. That was true at Amazon a number of years ago. Then we changed the way we report injuries. That spiked the numbers for us. We report well above what's required by OSHA, but we did it because we wanted the data. We wanted to know exactly what was happening, so we could invest accordingly to improve the working conditions for our workers.

Al Letson:

Now you're going to tell me that's not true?

Will Evans:

Correct. He's saying the company over counts the number of injuries, but we found that sometimes they're under counting them.

Al Letson:

How do they do that?

Will Evans:

Okay, so companies like Amazon have to report work injuries to the federal government, but they only have to tell them about ones that need some kind of special attention, like time off or medical care beyond first aid. These are called recordable injuries. We found evidence that Amazon has made injuries like this just disappear.

Al Letson:

How does that work?

Will Evans:

Well, we found a really clear example of this at a warehouse near Denver. It was having a problem with high injury rates. We got these internal reports. They show Amazon felt the medical providers treating their workers were handing out too many job restrictions, things like avoid heavy lifting or don't walk upstairs. Doctor's order those kinds of restrictions, so injuries can heal, but it means Amazon has to count those injuries on their OSHA logs. They fired one clinic and hired another medical clinic, Advanced Urgent Care and Occupational Medicine that advertises it will help companies by keeping injuries not recordable. After that, the injury numbers at the same warehouse started to go down.

Al Letson:

Good news for Amazon.

Will Evans:

Yeah, it wasn't pretty though. I talked to a few medical providers who worked at that new clinic. They all wanted to be anonymous because they worried about retaliation. A nurse practitioner told me the playbook was simple.

Speaker 6:

Don't make it recordable.

Will Evans:

Don't make it recordable. That was the instruction. Injured Amazon workers would come in and after examining them, she knew that what some of them needed was lighter duty work to recover, but she said her bosses wouldn't let her do that, because it would make Amazon have to count the injury. I told her about Amazon's claim that they go above and beyond to count injuries.

Speaker 6:

It's not even close to being accurate.

Will Evans:

For her keeping injuries off the books meant under-treating the workers. She says, "Instead of doing what was best for the patient, she had to do what was best for Amazon."

Speaker 6:

Nobody liked doing it, because we always felt like we had a watchdog over us that we couldn't treat the patients how we thought they needed to be treated.

Will Evans:

I heard that from other medical providers there too.

Al Letson:

What did the clinic say about all of this?

Will Evans:

Well, I talked to the owner of the company, Dr. Tony Euser. He told me there's no policy to deny job restrictions, but there is pressure from companies like Amazon.

Dr. Tony Euser:

We have actually determined that this whole juggling process with companies isn't worth it. As of January 1st, we're closing our work comp division.

Al Letson:

Oh wow.

Dr. Tony Euser:

Because it's just too much. It's just too much hassle factor of trying to balance between the employees and employers, and it's not worth it.

Will Evans:

That means as of next year, Amazon's going to need a new clinic.

Al Letson:

Will, we heard at the beginning of this story, that Amazon welcomed scrutiny. Over the summer, they got some.

Pramila Jayapal:

Mr. Bezos, in July 2019, your employee, Nate Sutton told me under oath in this committee, that Amazon [crosstalk 00:15:57].

Will Evans:

That's Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. She represents Seattle where Amazon is headquartered. This was an antitrust hearing. Some members of Congress are alarmed by how big and powerful the company is getting. Congresswoman Jayapal also worries about worker safety. She told Reveal in an interview that she has doubts about what Amazon execs are telling her.

Pramila Jayapal:

I don't know that the information I'm getting from Amazon is accurate, because mostly Amazon denies that anything is happening and says that there's a vast network of people who are simply reporting on things to make them look bad. I just don't believe that.

Al Letson:

How is it possible that they are getting away with all this? I mean, they're lying, aren't they?

Will Evans:

Yeah, some of it's lies and some of it's spin and some of it's that the government doesn't do much even when they find problems. In New Jersey, OSHA repeatedly criticized the care that Amazon was giving injured workers, but didn't issue any citations. Amazon got caught under counting injuries, but it was fined just $7,000.

Al Letson:

A $7,000 fine for one of the world's biggest companies. Okay, now I really want to hear what these executives have to say for themselves. Could you get any of them to talk?

Will Evans:

Well, we asked for interviews with key Amazon executives, Jeff Wilke, Dave Clark, Jay Carney, and Heather MacDougall, but none of them would talk to us. The company refused to answer detailed questions we sent them. Instead, they sent a general statement. It says nothing is more important than the health and safety of our teams. It goes on to talk about all the money they're spending on safety, things like protecting workers from forklifts and improving workstations. They're even creating wellness programs to encourage workers to stretch and meditate at their workstations. They said these programs are working and repeated the claim that robotics are making jobs safer.

Al Letson:

But wait, we just heard that the data contradicts that.

Will Evans:

Yeah. We asked them specifically about what their own data shows. They completely ignored those questions. They didn't give us any new numbers to back up their safety claims.

Al Letson:

That was Reveal's Will Evans. Our story was produced by Katherine Mieszkowski. Even though Amazon's not counting all of its injuries, its numbers are high enough that you think regulators would do something about it. When we get back, the story of how the federal government decided to regulate the most common type of workplace injury then changed its mind. You're listening to Reveal.

Speaker 3:

Support comes from MSNBC. In an election year like no other, there are now less than six weeks until November 3rd, election day, Tuesday. Donald Trump and Joe Biden go head to head in the first presidential debate. Join Rachel Maddow, Nicole Wallace, Joy Reed, Brian Williams, and MSNBC's team of political experts for the analysis you need on how this debate will inform the final weeks of the election. Steve Koernke will break down the latest data for you at the big board. The first presidential debate, watch Tuesday at 8:00 PM. Eastern on MSNBC.

Speaker 1:

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Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and 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. They're a huge problem in other industries too, hotel maids, 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, you have to go back in time. Reveal's Jen Gollan takes us there.

Jen 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. 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.

Jen Gollan:

Seven 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.

Jen Gollan:

DeVonda started to notice something about her hands. Her fingertips started going numb then came intense pain from her neck down to her wrist. 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 about a lightning hit me.

Jen Gollan:

DeVonda saw doctors who told her she had carpal tunnel that was work-related. Physical therapy help 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 workers' 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. 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," as she was screaming.

Jen Gollan:

She kept fighting Anheuser-Busch for worker's comp, but DeVonda says company managers refuse to accept that our injury was work-related. We asked Anheuser-Busch 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. We finally had the ability to set those limits.

Jen Gollan:

That's Eric Frumin. He's a health and safety director for unions. He represented garment and warehouse workers. He was a voice pushing for ergonomics protections. President Clinton's labor department, they were listening.

Speaker 24:

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.

Jen Gollan:

There was a lot of momentum behind the rule, which would have force 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. One of the last steps in the process was this 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 Capitol.

Speaker 25:

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.

Jen 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, drape table.

Speaker 25:

See the gentlemen, I think here in the third or fourth row, had his hand up.

Jen 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 audio-visual item.

Jen Gollan:

He awkwardly carries a whiteboard out of the darkness and onto the stage. He tries making a joke about back injuries.

Eugene Scalia:

I'm not going to ask you about my lifting technique, I just wanted to [inaudible 00:25:18].

Jen 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 rulemaking, including the rubber ...

Jen Gollan:

He's a slender, 30-something guy with dark intense eyes.

Eugene Scalia:

If I could begin, and I'll direct my questions Mrs. Kent.

Jen 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 on Law and Order.

Eugene Scalia:

If a physician said that that employee needs to sharply curtail activity for a period of time, would you regard that view as wacky?

Jen 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 was 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 air with a wet part and say, "Oh, this is where science is going."

Jen Gollan:

For those 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.

Jen Gollan:

Bob Harrison was a researcher and a doctor who treated injured workers. He remembers Scalia grilling the scientist 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 sill 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.

Jen Gollan:

Scalia had another tactic he used to cast doubt on the connection between repetitive motion and ergonomic injuries.

Eugene Scalia:

If you have 95 papers that show there's a link and five papers that show that there's not a link, it's pretty easy to make hay out of the five papers that show there's not a link.

Jen 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 have 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. He never tried to bring the facts to the bear. He was just good at peddling fear.

Jen Gollan:

As good as Scalia and his team were in doing that, late in 2000 ...

Speaker 29:

Government guidelines aimed at making the workplace ergonomically correct.

Jen Gollan:

The Clinton administration enacted the Ergonomic Rules.

Speaker 3:

Which would affect all workers except those who are self employed or in the agricultural [crosstalk 00:28:59].

Jen 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.

Jen Gollan:

Or could it?

Doris:

Yes, it's possible ...

Speaker 31:

Stop.

Doris:

... for the country to have such a ...

Speaker 31:

Stop. Doris, Doris, Doris.

Doris:

[crosstalk] they do.

Speaker 31:

Doris.

Doris:

Uh-oh, something's happened.

Speaker 31:

George Bush is the president elect of the United States. He has won the state of Florida according to our projections.

Jen Gollan:

After one of the closest presidential races in US history, George W. Bush and not Al Gore moved into the White House. Republicans took Congress. Within months ergonomics were being debated again.

Speaker 32:

The clerk will read the joint resolution for the third time.

Speaker 33:

Senate joint resolution 6, providing for ...

Jen Gollan:

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 34:

Mr. Bond. Mr. Bond, awe. Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Lieberman ...

Jen 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 33:

The yays are 56. The nays are 44. Senate joint resolution six is passed.

Jen Gollan:

The Ergonomics Rule was repealed. How are you feeling at that moment? Did you have ...

Eric Frumin:

Heartbroken, absolutely heartbroken.

Jen Gollan:

Do you remember what you did in those moments after it failed?

Eric Frumin:

I probably went out and got a drink or something. I was pretty miserable.

Jen Gollan:

It was the first time a regulation had been repealed this way. 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. 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.

John Edwards:

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 in the United States and enforce the laws.

Jen 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.

Jen Gollan:

Then last year, President Trump nominated Scalia for Secretary of Labor.

Speaker 36:

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.

Jen Gollan:

Under Scalia, the number of workplace safety inspectors dropped to a 45 year low at the start of the year. Despite the dangers of COVID-19, the Labor Department hasn't issued any rules to limit the viruses spread among workers. I wanted to talk to Scalia about this and his work fighting the Ergonomics Rule, but his office never got back to me, so I asked his former partner Baruch Fellner how Scalia's done.

Baruch Fellner:

I think his performance as Labor Secretary has been extraordinary and exemplary. This country is blessed to have individuals of his intellect and talent willing to sacrifice for the public. I would hope that that would be a quote.

Jen Gollan:

This made me wonder about DeVonda Rogers, the Anheuser-Busch worker, who has crippling pain from her neck to her hands. These days she's on disability and can't work. She takes seven different pills a day for pain and depression. When I tell her the history of their ergonomics battle, her reaction is ...

DeVonda Rogers:

Wow.

Jen Gollan:

What would you like to see Scalia do that would make you feel better about the state of ergonomics in this country?

DeVonda Rogers:

I'd like him to do what he supposed to do for the American people. I'd like him to say, "Okay, look, I know the people that put me here, but I need to hold those people accountable."

Jen 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.

Al Letson:

That story from Reveal's 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 an ergonomic rule on the books. How many citations have they handed out in five years? Just a few. 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:

The reviews read like advertisements, to me. There was common language through many of the 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 that 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. Her first appointment didn't go so well. She says the support staff in India lost her paperwork. She felt the psychiatrist was distracted during their session. 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:

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 reporter Laura Sydell who covers the tech world. Laura picks up the story.

Laura Sydell:

Kay?

Kay Dean:

Yes.

Laura Sydell:

Hi, 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. Good, you have stacks of paper here.

Kay Dean:

Oh, that's just some of it.

Laura Sydell:

I know I'm looking at ... Kay spent years as a federal investigator. You could hear it in her voice, dispassionate, just the facts ma'am, 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. 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 notice that some of the reviewers had used full names, so she Googled them.

Kay Dean:

I landed in Facebook groups. 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. She drew on her skills as a fraud investigator. She joined 37 of these Facebook groups. That's just a fraction of the total number. Once inside, Kay said 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. Kay 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'Neil says she didn't feel her health was a priority throughout her appointment with Dr. Vafaie. I decided to contact Megan on Yelp. She agrees to talk. It turns out Megan has a history of skin cancer. Last year, after moving to LA, she started looking for a doctor. She went online to look at reviews on Yelp and Google.

Megan O'Neil:

I wanted to see a female dermatologist. Dr. Vafaie ad probably two to three times more recommendations or reviews than any other doctor in the area. That was a really big reason why I chose her and why I was excited for that initial appointment.

Laura Sydell:

When she showed Dr. Vafaie the spots on her scalp ...

Megan O'Neil:

She called it pre-, pre-, pre-cancerous, which I felt was really condescending because I've never had a doctor treat something pre-cancerous 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. 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 pre-cancerous. After all that, Megan says she'll never trust online reviews again.

Megan O'Neil:

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. It's something I probably wouldn't trust again.

Laura Sydell:

I call and even visit Dr. Vafaie's office, but she won't agree to talk to me about what happened with Megan. I decided 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 can 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 meet at 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. Then last year she was living on an especially tight budget.

Tiffany:

It was summer. I didn't really get an internship like I wanted to. I just needed some, I needed extra money.

Laura Sydell:

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. That's when I was interested. I saw that 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 when 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 pre-cancerous spots on Megan's scalp, Tiffany seems remorseful.

Tiffany:

I hope this all ends, because yeah, I do. Yeah, I do admit it's, yeah, it's not a good thing.

Laura Sydell:

You feel a little guilty about it?

Tiffany:

Yeah, I didn't think it would harm anyone until you told me 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.

Laura Sydell:

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. 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 Facebook advertisement, Google advertisement. However, as you get to meet more local businesses and try to get clients, you realize that they need assistance with Yelp.

Laura Sydell:

What was it that they were saying when you said they need assistance with Yelp? What were they saying?

N:

They need to get more exposure. They wanted more traffic. They wanted to be a winner on Yelp.

Laura Sydell:

So it's a numbers game. 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. College students are broke enough. We are in today with America being student loan debt and all that. I think, college students will find a way to make extra cash on the side. 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 N the review. This review, I just want to confirm, just because this is a fake review. You never went to SavantCare.

N:

Uh-uh (negative). It was probably an exchange I'd 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.

Laura Sydell:

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.

Laura Sydell:

In one recent 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.

N:

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 bare legal responsibility for most of what gets posted on their sites. It's a legal loophole that Congress and the Trump administration are eyeing for possible change.

Laura Sydell:

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 earlier this year that they posted alerts on SavantCare and 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 asked him why Yelp didn't respond to Kay's initial evidence against SavantCare. 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:

That's certainly not the case for the vast majority of users. 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. Of the 20 million businesses or so that are on the platform, the vast majority are good actors. We use every means at our disposal to protect the integrity of our content. It's not perfect. 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. To be fair, in years past when we've alerted them to these groups, they've taken them down. Obviously, it's not nearly as much of a priority for them as it 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. They removed several accounts for violating their of service, but neither company would agree to a recorded interview to explain all the fraud they miss. 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 their sites. They don't have really any incentive to take serious action. Prosecutors and regulators, they're not policing these sites either. I just want to get the word out.

Laura Sydell:

In case you're wondering, some countries have taken more aggressive action. In the UK regulators forced Facebook to take down 188 groups trafficking in fake reviews. Back in the US, similar action is unlikely, so consumers are even more on their own sorting out what's true and what's false online. In the midst of a pandemic, we need information we can trust about healthcare providers, clinics, suppliers, more than ever before. In the days before the internet made it possible for every consumer to leave a review, we relied on the words of someone we knew, or we looked at advertisements knowing that is 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 Katherine Mieszkowski. She had help from Chris Harland-Dunaway. Taki Telonidis and Michael Montgomery edited the show. Thanks to editors, Andrew Donohue, Esther Kaplan, Soo Oh, also, Rachel de Leon and Melissa Lewis. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager's Najib Aminy. Score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Amy Mostafa. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comarado 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, and 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 1:

From PRX.