Online retail giant Amazon prides itself on convenience shopping and rapid order fulfillment. From the customer’s perspective, this is a great arrangement. But for the warehouse workers who are under pressure from production quotas, life isn’t a cakewalk.
Amazon’s revenue for the twelve months ending September 30, 2019, was $265.468 billion, a 20.14% increase year-over-year. In 1994, founder Jeff Bezos established the corporation’s mission – to serve the clientele:
“Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
Amazon won first place in corporate reputation for the third year in a row in the 2018 Harris Poll Reputation Quotient Rankings. Will the company be able to keep its golden ranking in light of recent stories of warehouse workers injured from the grueling pace?
Candice Dixon, 54, was employed as a stower at a four-story Amazon warehouse in Eastvale, California. Her job was to stand in one place and wait for another worker (called a “water spider”) to bring boxes of inventory items that Dixon removed, one by one. She scanned each item, lifted it onto a rack, and scanned its new location.
The top rack was high enough to require a stepladder. The stower had to squat down to pick up heavy objects, such as pet food, repeating the motion over and over to empty the load. Once a tall yellow merchandise rack was filled, Dixon pressed a button to summon one of the hundreds of fast-moving squat orange robots rigged to whisk it away. Another robot would wheel over another rack to fill.
Order fulfillment was performed by a picker who selected order items from a rack brought by a robot, put the merchandise on a conveyor system for delivery to a packer who filled cardboard mailing boxes.
Dixon was held to a strict production quota. She had to scan 300 items each hour which worked out to one item every 11 seconds. Amazon’s computer system (called ADAPT) tracked everything in realtime. Staffers monitoring the data knew whenever any employee missed the performance mark and wrote up the incident.
Amazon’s employee policy includes firing those who get written up too often. The Eastvale crew humped so hard they shipped a million packages in 24 hours. For this stupifying achievement, the hard workers got, not a gold watch or a bonus check, but a T-shirt labeled “Million Unit Club.”
Dixon never got her congratulatory T-shirt. Having begun employment in April 2018, the Californian had to quit after two months – almost 100,000 items – due to back problems:
“An Amazon-approved doctor said she had bulging discs and diagnosed her with a back sprain, joint inflammation, and chronic pain, determining that her injuries were 100 percent due to her job.”
Dixon has trouble climbing stairs and is in constant pain. Her current medical condition is not expected to improve. She received a settlement from Worker’s Compensation insurance but, as of November 2019, those funds are running dry. The Corona resident is fearful that she will lose her house and demoralized by her poor health:
“I’m still too young to feel like I’m 90 years old. I don’t even know how I’m going to make it in a couple of months.”
On the other side of the country, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, package about four online orders every minute. Stopping, even for a few seconds, counts against their performance metrics.
Fearing for their jobs, these employees bend, twist, run, and lift boxes throughout a 10-12 hour shift. The Amazon Workers Report, published October 16, 2019, found that “the majority of workers (80%) were pressured to work harder or faster at their facility; 66% expressed experiencing physical pain while performing work duties, and 42% continued to experience pain even when they weren’t at work. Ergonomic issues were among the most common for workers surveyed.”
The report said Amazon workers claimed they were “forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.”
In 2018, Amazon’s warehouse conditions got negative attention from the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH). The workplace advocacy group identified Amazon as one of the most dangerous places to work in the United States, in part due to higher-than-average injury rates, unnecessary risks, and an unwillingness to address workers’ concerns.
The Amazon Workers Report indicated that seven workers were killed on the job since 2013, most from accidents involving heavy machinery.
Amazon’s cutting-edge order fulfillment technology has vaulted the global corporation’s value to over $800 billion. Bloomberg estimated that CEO Bezos has a net worth of $111 billion, making him one of the richest men on earth.
The online retailer owes its success to the sacrifices made by hard-working warehouse employees who are literally crippling themselves to keep up the demanding pace. But don’t expect worker conditions to get better any time soon. In a corporate press release dated October 24, Bezos said:
“We are ramping up to make our 25th holiday season the best ever for Prime customers — with millions of products available for free one-day delivery. Customers love the transition of Prime from two days to one day—they’ve already ordered billions of items with free one-day delivery this year.”