FALL RIVER — After a bed frame crashed into Dawn Fricker’s back at the Amazon warehouse in Fall River, she fought for two years to get the company to pay her medical bills while out of work with debilitating pain. Only after appealing to the state workplace accidents board did she win a modest settlement.
Errol South twice injured his shoulder working in the same vast warehouse and is still struggling to get workers’ compensation to cover the cost of physical therapy. Tevin Silva was initially approved to receive physical therapy for his shoulder that he injured on the loading dock, only to have the hospital cancel most of the sessions because Amazon failed to pay for them.
These are three of a score of employees at the Fall River warehouse interviewed by the Globe who told of a brief moment at work — a falling bike, a collapsing pallet of microwaves, a mispackaged car battery — that caused a serious injury and set off a frustrating process of getting the company to provide pay while they heal and get the treatment needed to return to work. Some employees were unable to get workers’ compensation they believed was owed to them, while others lost or gave up their jobs due to injury and were left without some health care benefits.
Four of the injured workers interviewed by the Globe, including Fricker, appealed their denial before a state judge, who determined Amazon was liable for the injury and approved a settlement to the worker.
The Fall River warehouse has one of the highest rates of worker injuries in Amazon’s sprawling national network of distribution centers, data show. It so stands out that for several years members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation have peppered Amazon with questions about its safety efforts in Fall River.
Many of these injured workers, such as Kristin Provencal, who was knocked over by the falling bike, said the Amazon warehouse job was a good, if grueling, position that paid above minimum wage — unless you get hurt. For her that risk overrides the welcome pay.
“I tell everybody it’s just not worth it,” Provencal said. “When we get hurt, we are no good to them.”
The injured workers aim much of their frustration at Amazon as well as the firm it uses to handle such cases, Sedgwick Claims Management Services. Silva injured his shoulder in May 2017 when a car battery slid unexpectedly in its packaging, jolting his arm in its socket. He recalls that day at work as a frenzy, with a shortage of staff triggering a pile-up of hundreds of packages on the loading dock. He worked through pain for three weeks before finally demanding to see a doctor, who prescribed Silva physical therapy.
Sedgwick, handling the claim for Amazon, reviewed it and approved eight sessions of physical therapy. But after just one session with the physical therapist, Silva said, the hospital told him that he couldn’t schedule additional sessions until Sedgwick had paid. When he reached out to Amazon and Sedgwick, he said, he never heard back. A spokesperson for Sedgwick initially said it would review Silva’s delayed claim but later declined to comment.
Living on the $272.36 weekly incapacity payments, and still locked out of his treatments, Silva decided to return to Amazon with an authorization from his doctor to not lift anything heavier than 10 pounds. But because the Fall River facility specializes in oversized items, Silva said, he had to move boxes much heavier than 10 pounds.
“The floor managers didn’t seem to care about the limitations,” Silva said, adding he had no choice but to pack boxes with just his right arm, despite repeatedly telling his managers he was still hurt. Months later, still in pain, Silva quit. He has yet to receive physical therapy for his shoulder, which is still injured more than three years later.
Under state law, companies such as Amazon are required to pay workers’ payments and cover the treatment costs for employees injured at work. Instead, employees alleged that the trillion-dollar behemoth and the company it uses to handle the cases made accessing the payments and health care due to them under state law confusing and difficult, leaving many languishing for weeks or months with only minimal benefits.
Workers’ compensation attorneys and experts say these problems afflict injured workers at many companies in Massachusetts, not just Amazon, and are especially common among large employers. The missed payments and long bureaucratic tussles that workers described “are just part of the pattern of denying injuries, denying claims, and making workers jump through enormous hoops,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.
Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty declined to comment on the specific injured workers’ cases. The company also declined to answer multiple questions about its relationship with Sedgwick.
Lighty told the Globe in an e-mail, “Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our teams,” and detailed investments in safety protocols for Amazon warehouses, such as “guided wellness exercises” and “ergonomic tools and technology.”
Inside the warehouse — which is a third of a mile long and sprawls over 1.3 million square feet — items are stored on row after row of towering shelves. Throughout their 10-hour shifts, as products are ordered, workers ride semi-automated machines along the aisles, putting items into a cage to be packaged, labeled, and loaded onto the outgoing trucks.
Amazon has 20 warehouses in Massachusetts and another 14 underway, according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Alone among them, the Fall River warehouse specializes in heavy and bulky objects, such as rugs, mattresses, bags of cat litter, even basketball hoops, that must be manually lifted from shelves before being forklifted to the floor and transported around the warehouse.
Warehouse jobs, in general, tend to be dangerous, but Amazon’s warehouses have exceptionally high injury rates, according to data from the Department of Labor and injury logs filed by the company. In 2018, the serious injury rate at the Fall River warehouse —11.8 per 100 workers — was more than three times the industry average, according to data from Amazon’s injury logs that the Center for Investigative Reporting obtained.
In 2019, the rate of serious injuries the Fall River warehouse reported to OSHA was 17 percent higher than in 2018, even when accounting for the increased staffing, a Globe analysis of Amazon injury logs found.
The situation at the Fall River facility fits a pattern of injuries increasing at Amazon warehouses around the country — a record that the Center for Investigative Reporting alleged in a September 2020 report “Amazon has gone to great lengths to conceal.”
Workplace specialists say Amazon’s intense focus on delivery speeds exerts extraordinary pressure on employees to move as many products as fast as possible — with the company using quotas to hold them accountable. That work tempo, particularly when handling heavy items, as in Fall River, increases injury risk, they said. The week before Silva injured his shoulder on the dock, he said, just he and one other worker were responsible for loading tens of thousands of boxes in a 10-hour shift.
“One of the major trends that is happening right now is e-commerce, which introduces a different set of processes into a warehouse, and increases the speed at which those processes have to be completed,” said Beth Gutelius, research director of the Center for Urban Economic Development and an expert on automation in warehouses. “Workers are pushed to their physical and psychological limits.”
For injured workers, here’s how the system of compensation and care is supposed to work: If the employee misses more than five days on the job because of a workplace illness or injury, the employer is required by law to notify the Department of Industrial Accidents, or DIA, within seven days to initiate the workers’ compensation process.
If a worker is unable to work at all for more than five days because of a workplace injury, state law requires the employer to pay them 60 percent of the worker’s average weekly wage and cover the costs of medical treatment for the injury. (Workers who are able to work, but for fewer hours or for a lower wage, are entitled to up to 45 percent of their wage.)
Employers can pay these benefits for up to 180 days without admitting liability for the injury. They can also reject the claim immediately or suspend the payments at any time if they believe the claim is not justified.
Amazon often rejected claims citing a lack of medical evidence for the injury or disputed the injury was due to work at its warehouse, according to DIA records obtained by the Globe. If the worker is still unable to return to work, and still believes they qualify for workers’ compensation benefits, they can file a claim for benefits, which often requires hiring a workers’ compensation attorney.
This starts a process before the DIA and, if necessary, an administrative judge who can direct the employer’s insurer to pay the workers’ compensation benefits or rule it is not liable for the injury. (The department can also issue penalties for failing to commence or delaying payments, as well as for fighting claims without reasonable grounds, a DIA spokesperson said.)
When it opened in 2017, Amazon became one of Fall River’s largest employers, and the recipient of a 15-year tax exemption valued at an estimated $100 million approved by the Fall River City Council in a meeting that lasted less than three minutes. In return, Amazon guaranteed 500 jobs by 2019, a number it quickly exceeded, and the demands of home delivery during the pandemic have swelled the ranks there even further. It currently has about 1,200 full-time employees, according to Amazon spokesperson Maria Boschetti.
As Amazon continues to expand in Massachusetts, including building a warehouse in North Andover twice the size of the Fall River one (and receiving $27 million in tax subsidies to do so), a coalition of labor groups in the state is demanding better working conditions at the new warehouses. Amazon has fought attempts by its employees to unionize, the Globe reported last fall. In the highest profile unionization effort to date, workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., voted more than 2 to 1 against forming a union. (Union organizers are contesting the results and alleging Amazon illegally interfered with the election, a charge that Amazon denies.)
The number of injuries in Fall River and at its other warehouses prompted Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and then-Representative Joseph P. Kennedy to write to Amazon, in 2019 and again in 2020, demanding answers about the warehouse’s high injury rate.
“Your misleading responses and public misrepresentations about Amazon’s safety record raise concerns about your commitment to the safety of Amazon workers, and to creating a workplace that prioritizes and values worker safety,” they wrote on Oct. 14, 2020.
On Nov. 1, Brian Huseman, vice president of public policy, responded that at Amazon, “we strongly refute claims that we have misled anyone about injury risks” at the Fall River fulfillment center.
The Globe obtained eight complaints filed by workers with OSHA against the Amazon Fall River warehouse since it opened, none of which led to full investigations by the agency.
One employee, whose name was redacted, filed a complaint in November 2019, detailing safety concerns such as “boxes of merchandise are not stacked/ stored in a stable manner,” among others.
OSHA sent an official notice of the complaint to the Fall River fulfillment center, but noted, “we have not determined whether the hazards, as alleged, exist at your workplace and we do not intend to conduct an inspection at this time.”
Instead, as in the seven other complaints from Fall River workers, OSHA allowed Amazon to investigate itself. “We request that you immediately investigate the alleged conditions and make any necessary corrections or modifications,” OSHA said in its letter about the November 2019 complaint.
The site manager of the Fall River warehouse, Sean Frost, responded one week later, stating that in each of the three allegations, “facility management” had conducted an inspection and did not find any of the allegations to be true. OSHA didn’t pursue the matter –– or any of the other seven complaints, according to the case files obtained by the Globe. Over the same time period, OSHA conducted investigations of 3,780 other workplaces in Massachusetts, according to a spokesperson at the Department of Labor.
Asked why OSHA closed each of these files without investigating any of these complaints filed against Amazon, the spokesperson wrote that “a case file remains open throughout the inspection process and is not closed until the agency is satisfied that abatement has occurred.”
While OSHA is tasked with overseeing workplace safety issues, the state Department of Industrial Accidents oversees the administration of workers’ compensation, and acts as a type of court system to resolve disputes. Amazon outsources the handling of these cases to Sedgwick, which evaluates the requests for workers’ compensation and authorization of payment and treatment.
Some Amazon workers did navigate this process easily, promptly receiving the temporary incapacity payments and eventually returning to work. But others described how Amazon, through Sedgwick, prevented or delayed them from getting the compensation and treatment they sought.
A Sedgwick spokesperson, Judy Molnar, declined to comment.
For any injured worker, not just Amazon employees, navigating the workers’ compensation process can be daunting, lawyers familiar with the process told the Globe.
“It’s an incredibly complicated, unique, archaic, complex system,” said Audrey Richardson, acting managing attorney of the employment law unit at Greater Boston Legal Services, which represents many injured workers before the DIA. “Claims can be incredibly difficult and time-consuming to resolve, if not insurmountable,” she said.
Several Amazon workers said getting approval was relatively smooth, but actually receiving the money was another matter. Four Fall River workers whose claims were approved said checks didn’t arrive for some weeks, forcing them to wait on hold with Sedgwick to speak with a case manager, or even return to work injured.
Other workers who received their lost wages found it difficult to get Amazon to cover medical treatments –– even after Sedgwick had issued a notice saying it would cover the cost of treatment.
Errol South was lifting a bed frame last September when he felt an acute pain in his shoulder. It was so severe that South drove himself to a nearby emergency room, where he was diagnosed with a strain by the doctor, he told the Globe. South has four children and couldn’t afford to be out of work for long. So he returned just over a week later with a doctor’s note stating his restrictions. Two months later, in November 2019, South injured his shoulder again, lifting another oversized box.
This time, the pain was too much and South had to stop working. He made an appointment at a chiropractor’s office for his shoulder, and he said Sedgwick paid for the appointment. But 10 sessions later, South’s doctor informed him that workers’ compensation, administered by Sedgwick, had stopped paying after the first session — even though the claims adjuster acknowledged the injury had occurred at work. And South was still in too much pain to work.
He didn’t know what to do next. He found the process to get workers’ compensation “tricky and confusing.” Claims adjusters at Sedgwick were hard to get on the phone. “If you are trying to get into contact with them, you can forget about it,” South said.
South’s experience with Sedgwick is not unusual, said Stacie Sobosik, a workers’ compensation attorney who has represented many clients who faced difficulties obtaining compensation from Sedgwick. “It’s like reaching into a void,” she said. “They are one of the more difficult third-party administrators in Massachusetts.”
South is now unemployed and cannot lift with his right arm. He has retained a personal injury lawyer to help him negotiate with Sedgwick to cover his medical bills.
Other injured workers said they, too, had to hire lawyers after their workers’ compensation benefits were terminated, in order to bring a case to the Department of Industrial Accidents.
Four said they eventually ended up with a settlement from Amazon of lump sums of more than $20,000. For each, public records from the cases show Sedgwick terminated so-called temporary incapacity payments, arguing there was “insufficient credible medical evidence to determine liability,” among other reasons.
After bringing their cases to the DIA, however, records indicate Sedgwick and Amazon agreed to additional compensation. Sobosik, the workers’ compensation attorney, said it is common for companies to fight workers’ compensation claims, only to give in or lose after a long-drawn out process.
“The fact that it was in litigation for two years doesn’t surprise me,” Sobosik said, “That’s completely par for the course.”
Fricker, for example, the packer who was hit by a falling bed frame in August 2017, had her incapacity payments discontinued in May 2017. Sedgwick said its medical examiner had determined Fricker could return to full time work “with some restrictions.”
But Fricker said the doctor, paid by Amazon, barely evaluated her before approving her return to work. Eventually, after numerous conferences before administrative judges, she received a settlement of $40,000 in May 2019 — almost two years after her injury. Case records indicate the industrial accidents board found Amazon was liable for her injury.
But Fricker said the settlement is less of a victory than what it might seem. Today, she remains largely incapacitated by her injury and continues to fight Amazon and Sedgwick over outstanding medical bills. The settlement money has long been used up, so Fricker had to find a new job she could manage despite constant nerve pain; she started working at McDonald’s during the night shift, when the pace is comparatively slow.
“It’s left me nowhere,” Fricker said, “I’m worse off than when I started.”
This story was completed with information from Reveal’s Reporting Networks. revealnews.org/network. Harry August can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Julia Rock can be reached at email@example.com.