Amazon.com has become the Wal-Mart of Internet shopping. You can buy everything from 50 Shades of Grey Ben Wa Balls to a stainless steal coffee enema set. Their success lies in the free shipping that undercuts competition. Allowing Amazon to be a virtual shipping monopoly. What people don’t realize is that meager wages and slave like conditions of warehouse workers offsets the cost of free shipping. This past holiday (Fall 2013) season I worked in an Amazon Fulfillment Center (1901 Meadowville Technology Park Chester, Va) as one of 15,000 or so temporary employees to earn some money and experience a modern working class job.
I applied for a warehouse job at Integrity Staffing Solutions, a temp agency that does hiring for all Amazon warehouses in the United States. ISS (9827 Chester Rd Chester, VA), started around 1997 by Todd Bavol and Sean Montgomery and staff over 55 warehouses across the United States primarily for temporary labor in Amazon warehouses. Todd’s multiple blogs, hrninjablog.com and integritystaffing.com/blog, is a personal account of how to deal with a constant rotation of hiring and firing. Downsizing your staff after holidays tells us “They (sic) key to ensuring seasonal staff are not taken by surprise at the end of the holiday rush is to be transparent through the whole hiring and employment process.” Any Amazon warehouse employee would refute this statement by telling you about the impromptu mass firings of 300-1000 people. The “ramp down” of seasonal employees happens in stages unannounced to workers. Management does highlight your temporary position from day one alongside constant threats of termination. Eventually a downsize period occurs and employees are fired same day without given prior notice.
Frustration drives a fair amount of workers to stop showing up before being terminated. Amazon managers run the warehouses like labor camps regulating your break times down to the minute. They routinely yell at you to return to your station on time or else face a write up (2 write ups=termination). If the daily verbal abuse doesn’t push you towards going postal the quota system probably will. As a packer my required daily units per hour was 160 meaning I was required to keep a 160 packed boxes per hour pace for 10 hours. Most packers, including myself, never reached the quota (average was around 100) and after lunch we are given a break down on progress. We had meet daily expectation of 90% and hits records for outgoing shipments but were told we needed to work harder to fulfill optimum output. This rat race towards 100% output is a game management plays by encouraging competition amongst workers. The “power hours” are a strategy of divide and conquer that puts friends, family, and co-workers at odds literally fighting for economic survival. At the end of each workday during the last hour the highest quota wins a $5 Kroger gift card further adding insult to misery.
Mass firing is the most common ramp down procedure. One day in mid December a group of us were transferred to the outgoing shipping department. There was a shortage of workers throughout the building because 300 people had been terminated at the start of the day. We never received training about working in the docks but were immediately sent to sort six foot+ tall piles of boxes falling off the conveyor belt for outgoing trucks. Amazon doesn’t inform its temporary workers when they will be fired because like Todd said “you know that a job is temporary and has no chance to become permanent”. For the next month groups of people are fired at the beginning, or sometimes middle, of their shift without having any prior warning. I heard a story of a group of 30 workers who meet up in the parking lot after a mass firing. An older woman was crying out saying she doesn’t know what to do now. Virginia is a “right to work state” that prohibits making union agreements with employers. No protections are offered to workers making it nearly impossible to redress their employer. And since no one is qualified for unemployment benefits or given skill training the cycle of temp work repeats.
If you refuse to quit or dodge mass firings your termination becomes more personal. Some people come to work and their security badge stops working. When you ask the security guard they will tell you that you have been terminated. Again without notice or warning. A few unfortunate ones are terminated for medical reasons. If you miss too many days due to medical issues occurring at the warehouse, or off, you will be terminated.
Most (guessing 90%) of ISS hired employees for Amazon will be fired within 90 days. For those 90 days you are under a points system of punishment. Starting with 6 points each violation subtracts until you reach zero resulting in termination. For being late less than 30 minutes is half a point but over is one point. A call out of work is one and half points. And if you no show up without calling is 3 points.
I wanted to begin with the termination process to inform anyone who works at a Fulfillment Center to understand and prepare for the inevitable firing. The system is designed to limit hours in order to prevent having to legally offer benefits. In doing so a business model is created that hires temporary labor at specific times of year to coincide with factory demands. Hence the absurd hiring rates during fall consumption holidays. Amazon Fulfillment Centers are always hiring thanks to this model just don’t expect it to last very long.
Accidents and Safety Myth
New employees are required to attend an onsite safety school and training specific to their department positions. When I trained to become a packer safety was the main priority. I had to rehearse pushing a cart, packing boxes, and traversing stairs and blind corners. Management reassures you that the work is tolerable for all ages but to realize it is “hard work”. In preparing you for the 40-60 hour work week management emphasizes pace work that is “safe” yet efficient. Factory work is full of what Occupational Safety and Health Administration calls ergonomic labor. “Ergonomics — fitting a job to a person — helps lessen muscle fatigue, increases productivity and reduces the number and severity of work-related MSDs (Musculoskeletal disorders).” OSHA claims that it is management’s role to clearly explain the “assign responsibilities” workers will endure through proper training and evaluation. Considering Amazon’s track record of employees suffering heat exhaustion OHSA should reconsider the idea of a self-reporting labor violator.
In the month of November 2012, 185 injuries occurred at the Chester, VA Fulfillment Center. At least one person was carried out on a stretcher. Peak Season starts thanksgiving and ends three days after Christmas. It is the time of year when Amazon trains thousands of employees to act like Jeff Bezos consumer elves. The quick trainings and demand for fast pace to meet quota demands results in physical and mental damage. Last peak season, the first peak season at the Chester warehouse, a picker died while working in the pick isle. I checked OSHA incident report (https://www.osha.gov/pls/imis/establishment.inspection_detail?id=316611573) but was unable to verify this death. What OSHA did find was violations for fire and electrical safety. At the front of the building are two entrances with 12 electric metal turnstiles that require a swipe of your badge to enter and one to exit. At the rear of the warehouse are the bay doors where semi-truck trailers are sealed to the building. Any bay door without trucks are locked shut. The warehouse spans 3-4 football fields and during peak season the building has over 4,000 people in it at one time. Now imagine all of them rushing towards the metal gates at the only two exits. I was told about a fire drill in early fall where everyone was required to swipe out and it took at least 45 minutes to clear the building.
If you do get hurt on the job it is unlikely Amazon or ISS will help you. One worker was hit by a car in the parking lot then denied admittance into the Amazon Clinic (AMCARE) because he was off the clock. Another fell off a step stool hitting her head. She went to AMCARE feeling dizzy and nodding off. AMCARE told her she was fine but she opted to leave and take a half-day penalty of one point. The next day she went to a doctor who confirmed she had a concussion. The lack of qualified nurses is exampled in the over-the-counter vending machine that is mostly empty expect for Pepto-Bismol and anti-diarrhea meds. AMCARE’s objective is to keep the employee’s at their workstation, which means giving false uninformed medical evaluations.
The modern business model for managing corporate warehouses is called lean management. It is a business philosophy created in Japan after World War II in the Toyota car plants. The goal is to put customer value first which means lowering the production cost to reach the absolute cheapest and quickest way to sell goods. To achieve lower prices “waste” is eliminated at every level of manufacturing. Amazon calls this killing the “zombies”. Phrases and acronyms are plastered around the warehouse to remind management that a corporate-philosophy is in control and must be abided by. Assembly line workers are given no information or introduction to this philosophy yet everywhere in the building are slogans of Amazon tenets. Listed on the walls of the break room is this string of phrases: Are right, A lot. Ownership. Bias for Action. Think Big. Frugality. Hire and Develop the Best. Insist on Highest Standards. Have a Backbone, Disagree and Commit. Customer, Obsession. Earn Trust of Others. Deliver Results. Dive Deep. Invent and Simplify. Management reminds you during the morning and afternoon productivity reports that we are working for the customer and their satisfaction is priority. The major walkway in the front of the building is called the “Green Mile” and if you are caught on it during break time you get written up. Referencing an execution walk is one of many disturbed subtle reminders of your expendability.
Every participant in the company from CEO to assembly line in lean theory is practicing “Kaizen”. The word is Japanese for good change but in the corporate business philosophy is means continuous improvement. None of the assembly workers were taught this yet again is was displayed on boards discussing kaizen champions of the warehouse. By implementing a philosophy of infinite growth the productivity levels are simultaneously record breaking and never reaching 100%. During Cyber Monday we hit records in the first half of our shift but the productivity rate did not exceed 90%. The warehouse processed 66,639 units (items) in five hours or 13,328 per hour or 222 per min. It is mind boggling to think that managers will yell at everyone to be more productive knowing that the 100% productivity will never be achieved. Management for this reason must also suffer from mental fatigue from supporting a system that never has an end goal or satisfaction.
To check production quality the management performs daily “Genba Walks”. Armed with laptops and charts they walk around the facility viewing the entire process from arrival to departure looking for “safety hazards” and those “zombies”. Certain ISS employees are promoted to “Line Coach” positions similar to the concept of the kapo in Nazi concentration camps. They are given a $1 bump in pay to supervisor and “coach” new employees. Their major role is documenting production rates by giving verbal twice-daily pass/fail quizzes to each worker on the line and recording labor quota rates. In the result of failing the “one piece flow” quiz, (Lean practice of quality control. Each box is pack in the same routine to ensure high-speed consistency. Someone in the break room said it best “your only as good as your last box”.) Or not making quota, it is the role of line coaches to report the write up and a final warning threat of termination.
These tactics of dividing employees based on privileges is why unionizing American warehouse labor is difficult. Companies are pitting co-workers, friends, and family members against each other to fight for a $1 raise. Amazon conquers their employee’s spirit in the name of money by offering false promises of long term employment. Most employees are seeking stable income for their families. The typically Amazon employee is a person of color working another job in fast food service. As a fellow packer said” The system is built for you to lose.”
Day in the Life
“But look at it from their perspective. They need you to work as fast as possible to push out as much as they can as fast as they can. So they’re gonna give you goals, and then you know what? If you make those goals, they’re gonna increase the goals. But they’ll be yelling at you all the time. It’s like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. So they’re going to tell you, ‘You’re not good enough, you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough,’ to make you work harder.
Though it’s inconvenient for most employees, the rural location of the Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc. warehouse isn’t an accident. The town is bisected by a primary interstate, close to a busy airport, serviced by several major highways. There’s a lot of rail out here. The town became a station stop on the way to more important places a hundred years ago, and it now feeds part of the massive transit networks used to get consumers anywhere goods from everywhere. Every now and then, a long line of railcars rolls past my hotel and gives my room a good shake. I don’t ever get a good look at them, because it’s dark outside when I go to work, and dark again when I get back.”
– I was a warehouse wage slave by Mac McClelland
Once you arrive in the parking lot known for lunch breaks, smoking, and sexual intercourse, a traffic cop directs you into a parking zone that always a quarter mile from the front door. Inside you swipe you ID card pushing through the 8-foot metal turnstile. You walk briskly to the wall to clock in by waving your badge over a tablet. Next to the tablet was a white board of employee complaints with the parking situation and security lines (bloomberg.com/news/2014-10-06/amazon-workers-take-security-line-woes-to-supreme-court.html) being the biggest contention. Break times are unpaid meaning 1000 plus workers have to clock out and back in within 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and 15 minute breaks. Workers time spent clocking and walking (2-5 minutes) back to you station is a part of your break. Meaning if it takes you 5 minutes to walk each way to the break room you have only 5 minutes to get a drink of water/coffee, use the toilet, eat a snack, and watch fox news on the TV (because only fox news or sports was on the TV).
I’m assigned to the packing stations where I receive bookshelf carts full of items sorted by the pickers downstairs. Each cubbyhole has a slip of paper denoting what type of box to grab, fold, tape, fill with dunnage (bags of air) and items then fold and tape shut. B4, C5, no C7, B9, E2 its goes on like this for 10 hours. My Unit Per Hour required rate was 160 or 3 boxes per minute. Pickers probably have the toughest job. They walk at least 12 miles a day pulling items off the miles of shelving. Work fatigue is common resulting in emotional breakdowns with people sobbing over not making rate, defecating in totes to avoid bathroom breaks, and one incident of a man defecating his pants because he didn’t want to leave the packing line. In 2011 a picker was found dead on the floor of a pick isle in the MODS, the endless rows of stored items, which can probably be attributed to neglect in health and the exhaustive work conditions.
I take my lunch breaks in the car to have a chance to see the sunlight and over the rumor of people stealing food. It takes 5-8 minutes to get to the car giving me 14-20 minutes to eat, smoke, drink, use toilet and return to my station. Those who do not choose to go outside during lunch will not see the sun that day. After Lunch is the mid-day production breakdown pep talk. Floor managers rattle off percentages demanding we reach the 100% simultaneously congratulating our record packing yesterday of 156,000 units. On the wall near him a list is posted of every name and UPH productivity of the day. Fostering competition amongst packers to secure a “career” at Amazon. As the floor manager said “At Amazon everyday is day one…”.
Working Class Dreams
When I mentioned to a friend over the phone how I was applying to work at an Amazon warehouse to make what I believed quick seasonal cash. He extolled the horrible working conditions about people passing out and dying. I hadn’t read the “Mother Jones” article as a way to start the job without preconceived ideas of warehouse labor. I had heard about the employees suffer heat exhaustion in warehouses up north and mid-west. Workers subjected to 100+degrees F without access to water (http://www.mcall.com/news/local/amazon/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917-story.html#page=1). Buildings had to be shutdown until proper AC units, ventilation, and water coolers were installed. What I did find was targeted manipulation of lower-income and elderly people to work until exhaustion. Management bullied us with threats of write-ups if we didn’t perform a higher UPH. They picked on the most vulnerable to set an example of what happens if you’re too slow. Some consider this financial or wage slavery meaning any low paid unskilled job that relies on temporary agencies never short of desperate workers. What we do know is the cycle of temporary labor has become the life of a 21st century working class person.