Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley (LV) is a distribution hub, and many fellow Amazon associates and Integrity Staffing Solutions temps had previously worked in other local warehouses.
I have and I can say that they’re typically rough workplaces.
At first glance, Amazon’s LV fulfillment center appears benign.
Primary red, yellow, green and blue splashes of color brighten the place, and motivational posters and friendly educational signs that feature cute characters provide guidance. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of workers populate the warehouse at once, diligently taking direction from hand-held scanners or computers, and the place is enormous so it doesn’t appear cramped. Seriously, the place could house a small city.
Physical strength is not a necessary qualification to perform any of their warehouse job functions, and management is ostensibly concerned with worker safety. Just about anyone could staff Amazon’s FC, especially since it only takes a couple of hours to train workers to perform any specific job function. It’s safe to say that anyone laboring in an Amazon FC has fallen into hard times, and many of my former coworkers’ resumes featured distinguished past titles, impressive demonstrations of manual skill and ability, and/or lofty educational attainment.
Many never thought they’d wind up in a warehouse and so, yes, this was all foreign for many. Other workers who staffed other warehouses in the past didn’t know what to make of the place because there is something different about Amazon, something alien.
“Chairman” Bezos once said that Amazon workers don’t need a union because we own the company. “Chairman” Bezos has zero tolerance for union activity and several Amazon unionization attempts were summarily squashed.
After two years on the job an Amazon FC associate is entitled to eight shares of stock. If Amazon is trading at, say, $250 a share, that’s $2,000. Ownership? $250 per share is a generous projection. Seasoned investors are baffled by AMZN’s current overvaluation because of its unhealthy 188:1 (fluctuates, yet always unhealthy) price to earnings ratio, and they’re waiting for the bubble to burst.
I imagined reaching the two-year mark, receiving my payout, and some smiling patriarch saying, “There’s some shopping money sweetheart, have fun.”
Forget about those riff-raff temps, they work for nothing more than an hourly wage, and Amazon relies heavily upon temp labor.
Amazon relies heavily upon labor—period. Yet, we were routinely led to believe that our existence was owed to them, that it was they who paid our bills. Oh yes, and Amazon provides its employees with health benefits, a rare and precious commodity these days. I accepted the best plan, $59 was deducted from my pay every month, and I couldn’t even afford to use my benefits. I visited an in-network clinic for a cold and lost an entire shift’s pay after I forked over the $30 copay and the seemingly arbitrary additional prescription costs.
After taxes and other deductions, $12.75 per hour doesn’t go far. Amazon’s FC associates EARN greater compensation than they currently take home. Problem is, corporate Amazon deliberately keeps its FCs in a constant state of flux and it is practically impossible for Amazon associates to organize from within.
Could a union deliver dignity and quality of life to Amazon’s FC associates? Employment with Amazon is so thoroughly all-consuming and work/life balance is an ideal that this workaholic corporation deems unimportant. Amazon demands unquestioning loyalty and sacrifice from its workers and everything is non-negotiable. Workers’ schedules can be changed with little or no notice to suit management’s needs. Single mothers struggled with this most. Badges are deactivated without notice and a worker could suddenly be out of a job. The only incentive workers are offered to exceed expectations is the diminished risk that they may be let go at any time.
We worked, 10, sometimes 11 hour shifts and received a thirty-minute break for lunch and two, fifteen-minute paid breaks. Managers enforced break times to the minute and we were chained to the floor until the minute break started and expected to be back on the floor the minute break ended. Factor in walking time and getting hung up at security and we were able to sit and eat maybe forty minutes total during a 10 1/2 or 11 1/2 hour span of time.
In training they suggested we eat oats, fruits and vegetables (No, you’re not horses the poster said, but oats are a great way….). Meat, bread, cheese and energy drinks provided sustenance; not my typical fare, but it went the distance and I could stuff it down quickly enough. If we returned from break a minute late, we were “stealing company time.”
Yes, we’re criminals, and Amazon owns time. At any time, an ISS “coach” or Amazon manager could accuse a picker of a “false pick short.” If a picker couldn’t find an item in a bin, reported it missing, and someone checked the bin afterward and found the item there, a write-up was issued.
One write-up and a temp can’t be hired by Amazon, despite stellar performance, and the accusation could not be verified or disputed. If management sees that an employee didn’t scan a product’s bar-code for more than a couple minutes or so, the worker was often called down, scolded for “time-off-task” (even if they were exceeding rate) and possibly written up.
Managers watch numbers on a computer screen like it’s a horse race and workers’ every move is tracked. We were often paranoid, and it is wise for anyone to never feel too secure in Amazon’s most neurotic workplace. This was all too reminiscent of the East German Stasi for my tastes.
I never spoke to family or friends while I worked there and, for all they knew, I could have run off and joined some cult. My sister phoned after a local news station reported that an Amazon employee set fire to a shelving unit while we were working. The building was evacuated and, if we wanted to keep our jobs, we were forced to stand in sub-freezing temperatures for more than two hours wearing only t-shirts and shorts.
My sister was concerned. “What kind of place are you working at?” she asked. “Don’t worry,” I answered. “Call you tomorrow, need sleep, I work another 11-hour shift tonight.”
Our managers told us that we were like Santa’s elves, delivering happiness to children and families. If that’s the case, Santa is a hard driver and his elves must sport super-immunity because I never thought them to be as sick and rundown as the crew staffing Amazon during peak season. I suffered a chronic, dry, hacking cough and my spirits were never so low.
The shoppers want lower prices. The shareholders want greater profitability. Amazon strives to be “the most customer-centric company in the universe” and we must forever give thanks to anyone with money!
As a follow-up, Paul Haeder asked Nichole Gracely a few additional questions since her fine essay precipitated a lot of leaping-off points and questions.
PKH: How long did you do this job?
What was the feeling when you were let go?
What do you think Amazon would even think about reading this account? Bezos reading it? Average college grad coming to Amazon reading it?
Do Americans think life is dog-eat-dog existence, since this Amazon model is replicated in so many work places, abroad, and here?
NG: I worked there August 2010-February 2011 and August 2011-February 2012. I was ISS my first run, wanted to get hired by Amazon and was let go after I accumulated too many demerit points for missing work during snowstorms. My contribution to the Morning Call story talks about how they dangled the possibility for FT employment with Amazon in our faces, false promises. I returned in August 2011 as an ISS temp and I, surprisingly, was included in a group of ISS temps who were hired directly by Amazon in October 2011, shortly after the Morning Call expose was published.
Both Peak seasons were different experiences although I am certain that Peak 2011 would have been the same nightmare I encountered Peak 2010 if they would have never been challenged by the bad publicity. Although, again, more FCs were built in the interim so that may be why conditions in our warehouse eased up a bit.
For the sake of simplicity, I talked about conditions, workplace abuses that are still happening today, basic workplace rights and quality of life issues that a union could address. 10-hour shifts are too long and that’s what we were working, their surveillance tactics were in place, time-off task, false pick shorts, etc. Amazon directly hired more people and while I was there the second time around they relied less upon temp labor (I think they may have been scolded by their friends in govt. after the story ran) though nobody ever really felt secure there. In his message to me, Morning Call‘s Soper’s other informant who is still there said they were bringing in more temps. The turnover rate is insane, and Soper could never get concrete employment figures from management. We talked about it and I know he tried. Amazon tried to keep me there this last time around because I’m incredibly productive and I trained people well as an “ambassador” (no incentive, pay increase, etc). This time, they made it difficult for me to point out. I wanted out, though, so I could speak about my experience. All Amazon employees sign a vaguely-worded confidentiality agreement and we’re not allowed to talk to the press. I spoke to Soper before I went back and while I was ISS, temps don’t have to sign anything.
I would hope that Amazon (Bezos) now recognizes its workers’ humanity. It often felt like bad sci-fi, like I was part of some brutalized underclass and that we were being mastered by Tech types who don’t really give a shit for anyone or anything—just numbers, that’s it, numbers.
Yes, I’m a failure as a capitalist, I get it, and myself and my Amazon co-workers are clearly not faring well in this game. Bezos is winning, I get it, he’s smart, he may even be a genius, sheessh! I became really disgusted with him when I read all the Bezos worship headlines while I worked there (Forbes has a serious hard-on for the guy).
CEO worship is sickening. He takes all the credit for Amazon’s success in everything I read about Amazon, he’s like some sort of quasi-spiritual leader, and it was really tacky the way he was being promoted in the wake of Jobs’ death. “Is he the next Steve Jobs?” people were asking. Give me a break. He’s not a self-made man like media lead us to believe. He has gotten to where he’s at because tens of thousands of workers have made tremendous life sacrifices. I try to remember his humanity—it’s hard, though.
Bezos once said that the workweek minimum should be sixty hours and I could not disagree more. We should be working less, not more, and for greater compensation; that is, if we wish to restore any kind of economic equilibrium. I’m not an economist so don’t quote me on that.
The Amazon model seems counter-intuitive to me and they could destroy capitalism as we know it; problem is, we’re going to be longing for the good old days of capitalism if it’s somehow replaced by everything that Amazon embodies. Tech is supposed to liberate, not enslave. I do not place much faith in Tech, especially after working at Amazon and reading about Apple products and how they’re made. My apartment was broken into and my Macbook was stolen while revelations of Apple’s labor abuse were surfacing and I was actually glad to be rid of the thing.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon hired 28,000 additional workers last year and it terrifies me to think that more and more individuals are submitting to corporat(ist) Amazon’s command. I know how they operate and I will never remove them from my sight. And, it became clear to me that the federal government has their hands all over Amazon and I’d like to further investigate my hunch that Amazon has been designated as some social shopping service/government works program.
PKH: As a sort of pun, can you credit all that hard work at the warehouse as something gained by the Amazon way and whip cracking?
NG: I arrived at Amazon with a work ethic that would make Bezos smile. I consistently exceeded rate requirements and there were nights I could have napped a couple of hours or gone home after lunch and I still would have made rate for the night. I wasn’t provided any incentive to exceed rate. It didn’t take long for me to think that Bezos was running some kind of boot camp. I later read that Amazon actively recruits ex-military personnel to manage their warehouses, and that may explain why it was common for our managers to bark and holler and carry on in ways that I’ve never witnessed in any other workplace. I always empathized with management, no matter how badly they behaved, because they’re under tremendous pressure, subjected to endless hostility, and they’re overworked and under-compensated.
PKH: What is Lehigh, Pennsylvania, like, in a nutshell?
NG: Also, the Lehigh Valley is predominantly Pennsylvania German and Hispanic and the two groups don’t mix well. I prefer my Hispanic neighbors and don’t venture far from Bethlehem’s depressed Southside because I’m in conservative country as soon as I step out.
PKH: You mentioned that “alien-like” feeling working at the Amazon Fulfillment Center.
NG: I attempted a subtle segue here, Bezos is alien and at the same time he seemed ever-present in the warehouse once I learned more about him. I said “Chairman Bezos” because there’s something oddly Mao-like about him. Check this Economist link.
What do you make of the photo? My next piece will be about alienation and Amazon. So, everything is alien there, it’s very strange. Most workers never worked for a mega-corporation, a Tech company nonetheless, and so that definitely contributes to the alien quality of the place, the discomforting reality that most warehouse workers could never understand and articulate.
PKH: Okay, what do you think of the title, “Where Santa’s Helpers Work 24/7, 365 Days a Year … ”?
NG: During Peak 2010 they did operate 365 days a year, not Peak 2011. New Fulfillment centers were built in the interim and I think that was why Peak 2011 was slower at the LV FC. And/or maybe the boycott achieved something. And/or maybe disposable incomes are drying up. I handled millions of consumer products there, and I can say that their customers must have disposable income to be making these purchases. Amazon’s 1st quarter earnings report is questionable.
PKH: Then, what about the sub-title to your piece? “Come High Water, Come Fire, Come Exhaustion – The Amazon Way is America’s Way”
NG: Yes, definitely … I’m talking to and overhearing more people, regardless of their job or industry, who complain that their employers are demanding more and more and compensating less. Workers are being squeezed everywhere.