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Worker-safety expert faced pressure to withdraw from conference panel after releasing report critical of a sponsor: Amazon

(Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images)

A workers advocate faced pressure to withdraw from an American Bar Association conference panel on worker safety in the weeks after she helped author a report critical of Amazon, a sponsor of the conference, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post.

Debbie Berkowitz, a former federal regulator who now works for the National Employment Law Project, received an email in early December from Jonathan D. Karmel, a labor lawyer who is co-chair of the ABA’s Occupational Safety and Health Law Committee, asking whether she would serve on the panel to balance the views of another speaker, Heather MacDougall, who is Amazon’s vice president of worldwide employee health and safety. Berkowitz was listed on a draft of panelists, and she was told the ABA could pay for her hotel.

Within a few weeks, she learned her appearance was drawing opposition from others involved in the conference. In an interview, Berkowitz said Karmel told her that one of his co-chairs was concerned her appearance could upset Amazon. The emails obtained by The Post identify the objecting co-chair as Steven R. McCown, a corporate lawyer. The emails show that organizers were discussing whether they should run concerns about Berkowitz by MacDougall.

Facing McCown’s opposition, Berkowitz was asked whether she wanted to switch panels, and she declined. Feeling she was under pressure, Berkowitz withdrew altogether, she said. (The person who gave the emails to The Post did so on the condition the messages would not be quoted verbatim.)

Amazon — whose chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post — says it was not involved in the decision, and ABA officials say MacDougall was never consulted on the decision. But Berkowitz said she felt silenced by the ABA and prevented from speaking because of her research and advocacy.

“It’s shocking,” Berkowitz said.

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The ABA said that despite the outreach to Berkowitz, she was never formally invited, something that would require the approval of the association’s Occupational Safety and Health Law Committee, the 350-person group putting on the event this week in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The ABA did not specify what portion of the committee decides whether someone appears on a panel. Karmel and McCown declined to be interviewed but released a statement via the ABA defending the decisions.

“None of our speaker selection decisions were based on whether any corporate sponsor, Amazon or otherwise, would be upset about which speakers were selected for the meeting,” they said in the statement.

The latest agenda for the panel discussion includes four people: Amazon’s MacDougall; moderator Ronald W. Taylor, a lawyer who represents companies on labor issues; Juan Lopez, a lawyer with the Labor Department; and Chrysoula Komis, an occupational health, safety and environmental consultant.

Amazon’s sponsorship of the conference includes a “diversity reception” on Thursday, and company executives are slated to participate on two panels over its four days this week.

The yearly Midwinter Meeting brings together a who’s who of experts on workplace safety rules, laws and regulations, including top lawyers that represent companies, workers, unions, judges and federal regulators from the Labor Department who are often sponsored to attend.

It is supposed to be a place for often-adversarial parties to meet on friendlier turf than a court or conference room, attendees said.

“This is a setting where I’ll have a drink or catch up with a union attorney or someone I disagree with vigorously — it’s kind of neutral ground,” said Howard Mavity, an Atlanta lawyer who represents companies and attends regularly.

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The conference was planned primarily by three committee co-chairs, each one meant to represent a constituency involved in labor law: Karmel, an attorney from the union and employee side; McCown, a lawyer who represents employers and companies, known as management side; and Madeleine T. Le, a lawyer at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The report Berkowitz had worked on, which came out several days after Karmel’s invitation, said that 78 percent of Amazon warehouses have not received a recent visit from federal safety inspectors. She said she hoped to talk about her report on the panel.

Organizers had tapped Chris Williams, a lawyer in Chicago and co-director of the National Legal Advocacy Network, to speak instead of Berkowitz, but he withdrew after finding out what happened to her.

“I didn’t know that the preeminent expert on our side, Debbie Berkowitz, had been the original person for that panel,” he said. “It’s just outrageous to me that the management side of the bar is going to tell worker advocates who they get to put up to provide voice for these workers and the dangerous working conditions they face.”

Berkowitz, who spoke at the conference in 2016 and 2018, has earned a reputation as an expert on ergonomic issues over more than three decades of work that has taken her from positions at unions, including the United Food and Commercial Workers, to OSHA.

She developed an early expertise in warehousing by looking at grocery warehouse workers, long before Amazon was the industry giant it is today.

The report Berkowitz helped write, “Packaging Pain,” found that the injury rate at Amazon warehouses was more than twice the average for the already-hazardous warehousing industry and well above rates in dangerous industries such as coal mining and logging. Amazon has increasingly found itself the focus of criticism, over its size and dominance as well as the conditions in its warehouses, as its workforce has grown.

In response to inquiries about claims about its injury rate, Amazon pointed to statements from federal regulators about how work-related injuries are often underreported, suggesting the injury rate is a result of more accurate reporting.

“Amazon does the opposite — we take an aggressive stance on recording injuries no matter how big or small which makes comparisons difficult,” spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman said in a statement. “The invitation remains open for anyone to come take a tour of our sites to see our safety culture firsthand.”

Jack Rives, the executive director of the ABA, said in a statement that the group “absolutely prohibits corporate interference in the selection of speakers at meetings.”

“That prohibition extends to preventing sponsors from in any way influencing information presented during conference panels or otherwise,” he said.

Berkowitz said she felt that what transpired at the conference this year reflects increasing corporate influence in government more generally.

President Trump has appointed former lobbyists to his Cabinet at a much higher rate than his recent predecessors, and the Labor Department is no different. Eugene Scalia, who was appointed the department’s secretary last year, spent most of his legal career defending giant companies such as Walmart, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Delta Air Lines and Ford, often in cases against workers and government regulations.

“I don’t think this would have been done in the last 20 years,” Berkowitz said. “We live in a world now where the guardrails are off from these powerful people that represent rich corporations. It’s their day. They can do whatever they want. It’s very scary."

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