Jeff Bezos just can’t get away from labor issues. The beleaguered billionaire, who has faced repeated and persistent criticism over working conditions at the company he formerly led, Amazon, is now facing allegations of a hostile work environment at his space company Blue Origin.
An essay jointly composed by 21 current and former employees paints a vivid picture of Blue Origin’s work culture as one marred by sexual harassment, in which professional disagreement is stifled, environmental concerns are left unaddressed and speed of execution takes precedence over human safety.
The sole named author of the essay is Alexandra Abrams, who worked at Blue Origin for two years and six months, according to her LinkedIn profile. Abrams eventually became the head of employee communications during her tenure at the company. “I would say to Jeff that I really wished he was the person we all thought he was, and that Blue Origin was the company we all thought it was going to be,” she said in an interview to CBS Morning on Thursday.
Alexandra Abrams, a former head of employee communications for Blue Origin, is speaking out against the company to @LaurieSegall.
“You cannot create a culture of safety and a culture of fear at the same time. They are incompatible.” pic.twitter.com/JHuFY3cjcs
— CBS Mornings (@CBSMornings) September 30, 2021
In a statement to TechCrunch, a Blue Origin spokesperson said that Abrams “was dismissed for cause two years ago after repeated warnings for issues involving federal export control regulations.”
“Blue Origin has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind,” the spokesperson added. “We provide numerous avenues for employees, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline, and will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct.”
Federal export control regulations restrict the exportation of certain goods and technology outside the U.S. At the time of publication, Blue Origin did not specify any further details related to Abrams’ departure from the company.
The essay couldn’t have been published at a worse time for Blue Origin, which is currently mired in a lawsuit against NASA over the agency’s awarding of a sole lunar lander contract to SpaceX. Blue Origin, which submitted its own bid, has been on the offensive ever since, disputing the contract on social media and to a major government accountability office. That office dismissed Blue’s complaint.
The essay alleges that safety took a backseat to the so-called billionaire space race, marked this summer by two trips to orbit by Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Bezos himself in July. The essay further claims that company leaders expressed a goal of hitting more than 40 launches of BO’s New Shepard spacecraft per year — a breakneck pace that the essay writers say did not match available staffing and resources.
“In the opinion of an engineer who has signed on to this essay, ‘Blue Origin has been lucky that nothing has happened so far,’ ” the essay says. “Many of this essay’s authors say they would not fly on a Blue Origin vehicle.”
A series of accusations detailed in the letter also allege a culture of sexism amongst numerous senior executives, including one in CEO Bob Smith’s “loyal inner circle” whom the essay claims was reported to Human Resources numerous times for sexual harassment.
The essay says that women at the company would warn new female hires regarding another senior executive’s inappropriate behavior, which included making inquiries into female employees’ dating lives and referring to them using diminutives like “sweetheart” or “baby girl.”
“It appeared to many of us that he was protected by his close personal relationship with Bezos—it took him physically groping a female subordinate for him to finally be let go,” the essay says.
It’s hard to imagine this essay not affecting Blue Origin’s bottom line. After the successful launch of New Shepard in August, in which Bezos and three others went to space during an 11-minute flight, the company intends to start welcoming more paying customers on flights.
That the majority of the letter writers chose to stay anonymous could be explained, at least in part, by the stifling new contracts employees were requested to sign in 2019, which included non-disparagement clauses, according to the essay.
The letter appears to have caught the attention of the Federal Aviation Administration, who told TechCrunch, “The FAA takes every safety allegation seriously, and the agency is reviewing the information.”
TechCrunch has reached out to Blue Origin regarding the other allegations in the letter and will update the story if they respond.