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An Amazon employee moves merchandise through a fulfillment center in New York on Dec. 5, 2018. (AP/Altaffer) An Amazon employee moves merchandise through a fulfillment center in New York on Dec. 5, 2018. (AP/Altaffer)

An Amazon employee moves merchandise through a fulfillment center in New York on Dec. 5, 2018. (AP/Altaffer)

Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy June 21, 2019

Fact-checking Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's comments on Amazon, “starvation wages” and food stamps

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bashed Amazon during a June 16 interview with ABC’s "This Week," accusing the company of paying warehouse workers "starvation wages."

Asked for her thoughts on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the New York Democrat said she cares more about the ability of Amazon warehouse workers to make "a living wage" than she does about the billionaire’s fortune.

"But if his being a billionaire is predicated on paying people starvation wages and stripping them of their ability to access healthcare, and also if his ability to be a billionaire is predicated on the fact that his workers take food stamps," she said, then that’s a problem.

Amazon said Ocasio-Cortez was "just wrong" in a response on Twitter. "Amazon is a leader on pay at $15 min wage + full benefits from day one," the company wrote.

Ocasio-Cortez fired back, this time with a definition for "starvation wages."

"Paying full-time employees so little that they require gov food assistance is what paying starvation wages means," she said the next day on Twitter.

So, who’s right? In this case, both sides have a point.

How Amazon pays workers

Amazon, an e-commerce giant, employs 647,500 full-time and part-time workers worldwide, in addition to contractors and temporary employees, according to company filings.

That includes about 125,000 full-time employees working across 75 warehouses in North America, per the company’s website.

In November 2018, Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 per hour and began lobbying to replicate those changes on the federal level. The initiative brought median pay for its full-time U.S. employees to $35,096 for 2018, according to a company statement.

That means about half of Amazon’s U.S. workers made less than $35,096 in 2018, in part because the $15 minimum wage was only in effect for the last two months of the year. (The federal poverty level for 2019 is $25,750 for a family of four, up from $25,100 last year.)

Amazon spokeswoman Ashley Robinson said this figure for median pay "does not include the monetary value of the several benefits we offer to our employees," such as health care.

"Starvation wages": What’s been reported

Corbin Trent, spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez, cited reports in The Washington Post, Vox, The Intercept, NBC News, CNN and Newsweek as evidence supporting Ocasio-Cortez’s statement. Ocasio-Cortez also cited The Daily Beast on Twitter.

In addition to detailing poor working conditions, several of these articles said some Amazon workers depend on the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, known as SNAP, to put food on the table.

That finding originated with The Intercept and New Food Economy, a nonprofit news outlet focused on food, which submitted SNAP-related public records requests to 30 states where Amazon warehouses are located.

The requests returned data from Arizona, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington that showed thousands of Amazon workers get food stamps through SNAP, including as many as 1 in 3 in Arizona and about 1 in 10 in both Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Stacking Ocasio-Cortez’s definition of "starvation wages" against these findings, it seems she’s partially correct; some warehouse workers did require government food assistance. But there are some caveats.

For starters, Robinson said some Amazon workers listed as SNAP enrollees in the reports might be eligible because they choose to work part-time.

Robinson also said some workers could have been receiving SNAP benefits at the time Amazon hired them.

The new minimum wage could change things

The biggest caveat, however, is the fact that The Intercept and New Food Economy based their reporting on data from 2014 to 2017, before Amazon raised its minimum wage.

"(Ocasio-Cortez’s) claims and the articles she points to are from before the wage increase," Robinson said. "The 2018 annual total median compensation of U.S. employees was $35,096 and because the minimum wage went into effect for only two months of 2018, we expect that monetary figure will increase for 2019."

Will that increase be enough? Experts said there’s a lot of uncertainty when it comes to assessing whether a $15 hourly wage can keep people off SNAP.

In part, that’s because incomes for Amazon’s workers depend on how many hours they work. It’s also because SNAP eligibility and benefits are determined not only by income relative to the poverty line, but also by factors such as household size.

For example, a full-time Amazon employee making $15 per hour, working 40-hour weeks and taking two weeks of vacation would earn $30,000 yearly. If that employee had a non-working spouse and two kids, then she’d be above the poverty line, which is $25,750 for a family of four.

But several circumstances could change that.

"If the dependents were all small children, the poverty line would be a bit lower," said Christopher Jencks, professor of social policy at Harvard University. "If the worker in question had a working spouse and two children, the picture would look a lot better."

"The picture would also vary depending on state and local taxes, housing costs, the health status of family members, how far those who work have to spend to get to their job, and so on," Jencks added. "It all depends."

Plus, SNAP benefits are determined monthly, so a worker earning an hourly wage could be eligible one month and not another, said Timothy Smeeding, professor of public affairs and economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Other government programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, could also come into play for minimum-wage workers with multiple children, Smeeding said.

"For families of, say, four, $30,000 per year is liable to mean possibly some SNAP, but definitely still receiving tax help from the EITC," he said, adding that larger families could get both.

Our ruling

Ocasio-Cortez said Amazon is "paying full-time employees so little that they require gov food assistance."

Multiple reports said thousands of Amazon’s warehouse workers relied on food stamps to make ends meet in 2017. But some of those workers may have been part-time.

Importantly, the company has also moved to a $15 minimum wage since those reports came out. That might not change things for all employees — experts said certain workers will still be eligible for food stamps and other forms of government assistance — but it could help more of them get by on their own.

Overall, this claim is partially accurate but leaves out important details. Based on the best information available, we rate it Half True.

Our Sources

ABC News on YouTube, "AOC signals she'd support Biden if he was Dem nominee: 'Absolutely' must beat Trump," June 16, 2019

Amazon News on Twitter, June 17, 2019

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter, June 17, 2019

CNBC, "Amazon responds to Ocasio-Cortez’s claim that it pays workers ‘starvation wages,’" June 17, 2019

Business Insider, "‘AOC is just wrong’: Amazon publicly condemns Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after she slams Jeff Bezos' wealth," June 17, 2019

United States Securities and Exchange Commission, 2018 Annual Report for Amazon.com, Inc., accessed June 18, 2019

Amazon, "Notice of 2019 Annual Meeting of Shareholders To Be Held on Wednesday, May 22, 2019," April 11, 2019

The Federal Register, "Annual Update of the HHS Poverty Guidelines," Feb. 1, 2019

The Daily Beast, "Amazon Is Worth $1 Trillion. Its Workers Are on Food Stamps." Sept. 10, 2018

The Washington Post, "Thousands of Amazon workers receive food stamps. Now Bernie Sanders wants the company to pay up," Aug. 23, 2018

Vox, "Suicide attempts and mental breakdowns: 911 calls from Amazon warehouses reveal that some workers are struggling," March 11, 2019

The Intercept, "Amazon Gets Tax Breaks While Its Employees Rely on Food Stamps, New Data Shows," April 19, 2018

NBC News on YouTube, "Amazon Employees Speak Out About Workplace Conditions | NBC Nightly News," Sept. 2, 2018

CNN, "Employees protest Amazon working conditions," accessed June 17, 2019

Newsweek, "Amazon Working Conditions: Urinating in Trash Cans, Shamed to Work Injured, List of Employee Complains," Sept. 12, 2018

Snopes, "Do Amazon Employees Qualify for Food Stamps?" Feb. 1, 2018

The New York Times, "Amazon to Raise Minimum Wage to $15 for All U.S. Workers," Oct. 2, 2018

The New York Times, "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace," Aug. 15, 2015

Email interview with Corbin Trent, spokesman for the office of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, June 17, 2019

Email Interview with Christopher Jencks, professor of social policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, June 18, 2019

Email interview with Ashley Robinson, spokeswoman for Amazon, June 18, 2019

Email interview with Timothy Smeeding, professor of public affairs and economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, June 18, 2019

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