BUSINESS & ECONOMY

Amazon leads e-commerce boom, but what does it mean for warehouse workers?

BY Joanna Gagis, Producer/Correspondent |

It’s been seven years since Amazon touched down in New Jersey, and its growth has been rapid. The online retail behemoth now has 10 fulfillment centers in the state, four of them robotic, and two sortation centers, or places where items are sorted by area code. And they have more than 17,000 full-time employees.

While the company is a giant in New Jersey’s economic engine, its global footprint is massive. It’s ranked among the top four tech companies, along with Google, Apple and Facebook. Part of its growth strategy has been the acquisition of thriving brands like the grocer Whole Foods, audio book producer Audible, the streaming site Twitch and online retailer Zappos. It’s made its way into your home with purchases of voice-powered Alexa and home security systems like Blink Home Security and Ring doorbells.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns a venture capital company that’s invested in Twitter, the management vendor Workday and the financial site Business Insider. Bezos himself purchased the Washington Post, turning a failing publication into a thriving online news operation. He is, simply, the richest man in the world.

Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty explained the company’s culture.

“We’re constantly innovating on behalf of our customers. So we say we start with the customer and work backward, but really our employees and their safety is our top priority. We are super focused on making our workplaces safe, innovative, introducing new efficiencies to make sure that we’re serving the customer faster but we’re also protecting our own workforce as well,” said Lighty.

Customers have grown accustomed to Amazon’s 2-day Prime delivery. The process of meeting that demand includes a combination of robotics and pickers and packers. Former Amazon employee David-Jamel Isaac Williams was a picker, meaning he stood at a station pulling items to be shipped. A computer screen displays the merchandise to pull, and he said, monitors how fast workers move each item they touch during the day.

“So seven seconds to seven and a half is pretty good. You’re doing something,” said Williams.

He said equally important is keeping your time “off task” down and that employees get two 30 minute breaks, one of which is a paid break, with just a few short bathroom breaks for each 10 hour shift. Otherwise?

“You’re standing in one spot for a 10 hour shift. You’re not allowed to walk away,” Williams said, “If you slow down, people come to you and say, ‘Hey, you’re working too slow.’ “Sometimes the pods, they’ll crash into each other, maybe a product fell on the floor. That still affects your time. You see your screen and you see a time of how fast you’re working on your screen, they still come to you and say, ‘Oh, this time is too slow.'”

But Lighty disputes Williams’ account.

“If at any time an employee needs to take a break to get water, to get a snack, to use the restroom, they certainly may,” said Lighty. “Employees, everybody has performance measurements, just like you and I, but employees are measured over a long period of time and the teams are measured on productivity throughout the day.”

Williams says the team approach didn’t make it any better.

“Even if you’re working as fast as you can, but the person across from you happens to be working a little bit faster than you, and then you end up being the last one on your team, you’re getting chewed out,” Williams said.

As Amazon grows, they’re trying to make their delivery systems even faster. Instead of two days, they’re trying to shorten it to just one day from the time you click buy until a package appears at your door.

“Our customers love that fast speed so we’re constantly trying to innovate and that’s where this one day shipping came from,” Lighty said.

But one organization, Workers United, has launched a campaign to address worker conditions. It’s called Warehouse Workers Stand Up and Megan Chambers is leading the effort.

“The boom in e-commerce, they have led it. The speed up, which has been a terrible thing for workers, caused by two-day delivery, then one-day delivery, then same day delivery, has impacted workers across this sector. So they’re leading, but they’re not leading in a good direction,” said Chambers.

Amazon has appeared on the “dirty dozen” list of companies with the National Center for Occupational Safety and Health in 2018 and 2019 for a large number of worker injuries and fatalities. Some of them occurring in New Jersey.

“In 2013 at the Amazon fulfillment center in Avenel, a worker was crushed to death. And in 2015, when the Robbinsville facility opened, they were cited by OSHA for failing to report 26 injuries in just five months,” said Chambers.

OSHA is the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. They fined the company for failing to report the injuries. Williams shared his own experience when a cleaning agent leaked and splashed on his face during a workday.

“And so immediately I’m trying to wipe my face. It’s stinging a little bit. I leave my station to tell my supervisor, hey this happened. ‘Go rinse it off, and get back to your station.’ I’m like, ‘Well can I get an incident report?’ ‘Well just go rinse it off and see how you feel after that.’ So I did just that, went to the bathroom, rinsed it off, came back and said ‘Hey, I’d really like to get this looked at.’ You know, get an incident report so that if something happens to my eye or something later on, at least it’s been documented that this happened. So reluctantly, he let me go downstairs,” Williams said.

Williams said he was seen by Amcare, the on-site medical team, but he was met resistance again when he asked for a copy of the incident report.

“‘That’s a company document, we don’t give those out.’ I said, ‘OK, well that doesn’t seem too right to me. I’m going to see if I could talk to a lawyer or somebody afterward, because this doesn’t seem right. And you’re not helping me and my manager’s not helping me.’ Once I said those words, 15 minutes later a slew of people come up to my station while I’m still working. ‘Oh, is there a problem? Somebody mentioned about a lawyer.’ I said, ‘Well there’s no problem. I just want a copy of the form I signed earlier. And these other people are trying to get me to sign this additional form saying I’m not hurt or bothered, as if what happened didn’t happen,'” he said.

But Lighty said managers are trained to take these situations very seriously.

“At no time would any employee be told not to fill out an incident report and to just go back to their station,” Said Lighty, “That would never, their safety is their top priority.”

And as for Williams’ case, despite the basic facts lining up, Lighty said his account is completely false, that the incident was reported within the hour, was treated on-site, was followed up with, and that Williams willingly closed his own case. “We strictly adhere to all safety and reporting regulations and log all safety instances. We have processes to help ensure the proper reporting of all recordable injuries,” Lighty said in an emailed statement.

But Williams says he feels workers would be better supported in these situations if they were represented by a union.

“Everything from how our breaks were handled, to how our managers were talking to us, to how we were evaluated. Even issues such as pay and other forms of compensation,” said Williams.

But, he said, colleagues were terrified to have those conversations when he raised the issue.

“I go, you know it’s illegal to fire you for trying to organize. He goes, ‘That’s true, but they could fire you for something else and you’ll never know.’ So people are afraid,” Williams said.

“Amazon respects our employees’ right to choose to join or not join a union. However, we’re incredibly proud of our industry leading pay, comprehensive benefits, and safe and innovative workplaces. And we believe we’re offering everything that unions are asking and more. Our employees have direct access to our leadership through several different channels so we can identify issues and address concerns immediately,” Lighty said.

Williams says that wasn’t his experience dealing with human resources.

“You can walk in there, open door policy they say. And when you walk in and talk to them, they say go back to your supervisor. Well if your issue is with your supervisor, you’re supposed to go to HR. And if HR’s saying go back to your supervisor, you’re stuck in a dysfunctional system,” Williams said.

Williams was ultimately fired from Amazon for a missed day of work due to what he said was car trouble. He said it was a hard decision to speak publicly about his experience, but he felt he had a responsibility to do so.

“And there are people, which is why I agreed to do this, there are people right now who have nobody speaking for them, who are scared to speak up. Because they either make too much to leave, but still not enough to live. They are working, breaking their bodies every day. It’s exhausting,” said Williams. “It’s really, it’s a toxic and breaking environment.”

“I would love for anybody to come into Amazon, take a tour, and actually get to speak to the associates who are there about their experience and see for themselves what it’s like to work at Amazon,” said Lighty.

The company launched a public tours program in 23 locations across the country so the public can see what it looks like inside of a fulfillment center.

WATCH the first part of Joanna’s series: Booming e-commerce industry is making NJ the Warehouse State