Amazon’s working conditions, which have been described as anywhere between “strict” and “harsh” by various news media outlets, are under scrutiny once again thanks to a tragic tornado incident occurring in late 2021 as well as the general pressure placed on the e-commerce hotspot by the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated Great Resignation. Although Amazon claims to maintain a high-quality working environment for its employees, statements from workers, politicians, and health officials alike paint a different, far more grim picture.
Between July and October of 2020, Amazon broke records by hiring 350,000 new workers in just four short months - more than the population of many mid-sized American cities. Despite this, however, Amazon is reported to lose approximately 3% of their hourly associates every single week. This adds up to a yearly turnover of 150%. Every single hourly employee working for Amazon at this very moment will, on average, be replaced one and a half times by year’s end. This data dates from before the pandemic, so one can only assume that the numbers nowadays, in the midst of the Great Resignation, are even higher. It begs the question: why is it so hard for Amazon to keep their hourly employees, who they claim to be the backbone of their operation?
When we take a closer look at the situation, the answer becomes clear: the job and environment exhausts and overloads employees. The warehouse working conditions, to put it frankly, leave something to be desired.
Workers are required to inspect and scan 1,800 packages per hour - that’s approximately 30 a minute or one every two seconds - and any deviation from this rate can be used as a cause for write ups or termination. Employees are entitled to two fifteen-minute breaks per shift, although it often takes them that long to simply walk to and from the break room. A petition signed by over 600 employees to consolidate their breaks into one longer 30 minute pause has so far gone unresponded to by Amazon.
Even in the midst of this breakneck pace, there’s precious little communication between workers and managers. Amazon employees report that most of the expectations in their day-to-day life, e.g. when they’re permitted to take breaks, how quickly they should be working, and where they’re assigned for the day, are all managed through an app and Amazon’s own in-house employee management algorithm. Amazon’s workers are, in essence, being commanded by robots.
Far from being the techno-utopian dream many would hope for when thinking about a workplace run by algorithms and artificial intelligence, Amazon’s technology is frequently glitchy and overloaded. Employees are reprimanded for slowdowns, accidents, or malfunctions that are outside of their control, mounting the pressure felt in the workplace to unbearable levels. Many employees consider it worker abuse on Amazon’s part.
As one might expect, a single-minded focus on speed in a dangerous warehouse environment is going to produce consequences. Injuries are a concern in any industrial environment, as machinery and heavy vehicles are commonplace. Amazon sets a record here, although it’s likely they’re not pleased about holding this particular gold medal. Based on violation reports and worker complaints, Amazon sported between 5.9 and 6.5 injuries for every 100 workers in the year 2020. This is a figure 80% higher than the next non-Amazon warehouse. Walmart, in contrast, had only 3 injuries per 100 workers. Naturally even one workplace injury is too many, but when all other warehouses pale in comparison to Amazon’s bad working conditions, it’s clear that something must be done.
Former CEO Jeff Bezos has gone on record as admitting that Amazon needs to do a better job for their employees, expressing a desire for the e-commerce juggernaut to become the world’s best employer. This lofty goal, however, means little in the shadow of Amazon’s labor issues and (often literally) toxic work environment.
Speaking of toxicity, the pandemic has only worsened these unethical working conditions. In the fall of 2020, Amazon reported 19,000 positive cases in their warehouses. These are the last numbers received from the company itself before they simply stopped tracking new cases, which presumably have only become more prevalent since the emergence of Delta and Omicron. At the time, conditions were dire enough to spark a commission of over 200 public health experts, from institutions as prestigious as Harvard and the Minnesota Department of Health, to write a letter urging Amazon to improve worker conditions and pandemic measures prior to the holiday season.
Rather than improving, however, things only grew more precarious in regards to workers rights as the pandemic raged on. Technological backups and malfunctions reached a fever pitch as workers who had previously been approved for Coronavirus leave found themselves repeatedly written up and even terminated for absences - without a single human being overseeing the chaos. Workers on disability leave received automated messages informing them of the days they should come back to work, despite being in no condition to do so. Complaints from employees, unfortunately, fell on deaf ears. Managers were often too busy wrangling the sputtering algorithm to put things right.
Then, in the midst of a public health crisis and crumbling infrastructure, tragedy struck. On December 10, 2021, tornadoes ripped through the Appalachian South and Midwest. Explicitly acting against public advisories to evacuate, Amazon refused to allow its workers to leave its fulfillment center in Edwardsville, Illinois in order to seek shelter. As a result, six people lost their lives. A nearby driver, meanwhile, was ordered to continue his delivery route a mere hour and a half before the tornadoes struck. His dispatcher told him that the storm sirens were only a warning and nothing more.
It’s difficult to quantify the depth of anger and grief felt by Amazon’s hourly employees, who already felt overlooked and overworked at the end of the second calendar year of a global pandemic. Activists are referring to this as no less than a human rights violation on the part of Amazon. Some have publicly drawn comparisons between this incident and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, another deadly incident in 1911 where employees were killed due to industrial negligence. Legislators on both sides of the aisle are demanding answers from Amazon, calling for an investigation to determine whether their workers are being mistreated. OSHA, a subsidiary of the Department of Labor, has similarly launched its own investigation into the incident.
Lawmakers are concerned with reports regarding Amazon’s lack of preparedness, foresight, and worker safety training, especially in the midst of rumours that the company may reinstate its unpopular and dangerous mobile phone ban. The ban, which was halted in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, barred workers from having their cell phones on their person, preventing them from calling for outside help if needed.
Given these damning reports from news outlets, employees, and even Amazon itself, it’s plain to see that some solution must be found in order to repair these blatant violations of worker rights and safety. As legislators have already had their eye on these problems for quite some time, and their scrutiny has only increased in the aftermath of the destruction of the fulfillment center in Edwardsville, the question is only when, rather than if, the United States government will involve themselves. The struggling supply chain due to Covid is no excuse for the mistreatment of workers who are simply looking to provide for themselves and their families.
We live in the age of technology. A world where you can press a button and have anything you want, from a book to a coffee table to a barrel of fruit, be delivered to you within two business days. We undeniably have Amazon to thank for this. However, no amount of convenience should ever come at the cost of someone’s dignity, wellbeing, or life. Amazon must step up, acknowledge employee issues, and put people over profits. Through reforms and an employee-centered approach, perhaps they can one day meet former CEO Jeff Bezos’ dream of becoming “the best employer in the world”.