Back in 2000 when Amazon.com customer representatives in Seattle were trying to form a union, the company conducted what the New York Times described as an aggressive anti-union campaign.
A recent investigative report by the Morning Call, the daily newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania, may explain why Amazon was so fearful of its workers organizing. According to the Morning Call, which interviewed 20 former and current workers at the Amazon warehouse located in the Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania, the workers “offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it’s like to work in the Amazon warehouse, where temperatures soar on hot summer days, production rates are difficult to achieve, and the permanent jobs sought by many temporary workers hired by an outside agency are tough to get.”
The Call reported that in mid-June an emergency room doctor contacted the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration to report an “unsafe environment” after treating several Amazon workers at the Pennsylvania warehouse for heat related conditions.
After inspecting the warehouse, where temperatures and the heat index soared well over 100 degrees during the summer heat wave, OSHA recommended that Amazon lower the warehouse temperature and humidity and provide hourly breaks. Amazon installed some fans, passed out cooling bandanas, stuck to its two 15 minute-a-day break schedule, and stationed ambulances in the parking lot to treat workers felled by the heat.
Amazon could have made conditions more bearable by opening loading dock doors to let fresh air circulate, a common practice at most warehouses, but citing theft prevention, chose not to do so.
It also could have reduced the unreasonably high productivity rates, difficult to achieve in the best of circumstance. One worker said that before the summer started, his productivity rate was doubled overnight from 250 units per hour to 500 units per hour. Another worker told the Call that she was written up for being “unproductive during several minutes of her shift.” She was fired several days after she fell ill and was taken by wheelchair to an air-conditioned office to cool off.
Workers also told the Call that Amazon relies heavily on temporary workers, supplied by Integrity Staffing Solutions. The temps are led to believe that if they work hard, there is a good chance that they could be hired as permanent workers, but according to the Call, very few temps ever become full-time workers.
One former temporary warehouse employee said he worked seven months before he was terminated for not working fast enough. In his 50s, he worked 10 hours a day, four days a week as a picker, plucking items from bins and delivering them to packers who put them in boxes for shipment. He would walk 13 to 15 miles daily, he estimated, and was among the oldest pickers.
As it turns out, Amazon’s warehouse in Pennsylvania isn’t the only place where Amazon workers face challenging conditions. In 2008, the Sunday Times in the United Kingdom reported that at Amazon’s Bedfordshire warehouse, workers were refused sick leave during the Christmas rush, forced to work overtime, assigned productivity quotas that even a manager described as “ridiculous,” and “set against each other with a bonus scheme that penalizes staff if any member of a group fails to hit a quota.”
When Amazon’s customer service workers tried to organize a union back in 2000, CEO Jeff Bezos told them that they didn’t need a union because “everyone in the company is an owner.” Apparently some of the owners have a little more authority than others.