Have Fun With Alexa, Working For Amazon is a Living Hell

Roxanne McMackin
Jul 6, 2018 · 8 min read

On January 28, 2013, Jeff Lockhart Jr., a temporary worker for Amazon, was found dead working during an overnight shift. On December 4, 2013 Ronald Smith was caught between equipment while working in an Amazon warehouse and was crushed to death. On June 1, 2014 warehouse Amazon worker Jody Rhoads was killed when the machinery she was operating to move pallets crashed into shelving and killed her. On September 19, 2017 Amazon worker Devan Shoemaker was run over a truck tractor while attempting to assist it on the job. September 24, 2017 Phillip Terry, another man working in an Amazon warehouse, “was fatally crushed when a forklift’s lift fell on him while he was doing maintenance work on it.” To say the least, this pattern of deaths is concerning, especially because they’re at the hands of one of the world’s biggest corporation.

In April 2018, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health put Amazon on its dirty dozen for workplace safety. They talked about how despite the fact that these are almost all preventable deaths, the Amazon CEO is still one of the richest men in the world and is requesting billions in tax breaks for a new headquarters. In the end, the “perfect,” sprawling machine that is the Amazon company is oiled by the blood of its warehouse workers.

These preventable deaths are a huge extreme, but Amazon doesn’t exactly have a great track record for most worker safety and wellbeing for dozens of other things as well.

Employees who have health problems aren’t treated with the care they need. According to an article where employees submitted stories from their times working at Amazon, an employee had asthma and suffered an attack during a night shift that put him in the hospital. He was then moved to a job with less running around, but after a day or two, he was moved back to his old job, apparently being told “[he] didn’t really have a choice of what to do” after explaining that he was moved to his new job because of his asthma. Amazon refused to comment on this claim. In the same article, a journalist working undercover there reported being penalized just for taking a sick day.

According to a survey done by workers’ rights platform Organise, 55% of the responding workers say they’ve gotten a penalty for being ill that they thought was unfair. Apparently, a worker reported that they got “…[penalty] points for being ill during pregnancy,” one said “…I had a meeting for being ill with presented sick note,” and another said “I was ill and unable to come in, and was spoken to like dirt upon return.” Also, EMS dispatch reports say people may have been trying to work while ill, with a woman working with stomach pains and vomiting that have been “going on for the last 48 hours,” and a woman reported suffering an asthma attack at a warehouse despite being diagnosed with bronchitis earlier that morning. There are more detailed stories in the survey as well, like “I had a fit at work and was taken to the hospital The next day someone rung me and asked why I was not in work I explained to them but it was still marked no call no show,” “I turned up for my shift even though I felt like shit, managed 2 hours then could just not do anymore. Told my supervisor and was signed off sick, I had a gastric bug… Got a sick note with explanation, but still got a strike.” One account from a worker and parent said “Basically of you’re leaving work or not coming in you’re Gonna be penalised and you will have a meeting with HR to give explanation about your absence. Meetings after meetings .. from their point of view we don’t have the right to be ill.”

In another case, an Amcare clinic (an Amazon clinic that apparently workers are told to call instead of 911 unless in emergencies) might’ve been understaffed. They were tending to a woman with childbirth labor pains for 20 minutes and a 911 dispatcher asked Amcare to take her to the front entrance. Amcare was unable to do this, saying “there is another patient in the clinic and [the paramedic] is the only one working.”

Along with all this, the system Amazon uses that tracks employee productivity causes nearly every employee to be stressed, with 55% of workers in the Organise Amazon worker survey reporting they have suffered from depression since working at Amazon, 57% reporting that they’d become a lot more anxious since starting there, and around 10% reporting that they’d even considered suicide. The way the Amazon productivity target system works (according to employee anecdotes I could find) is that employees will be given high targets of productivity at work, and if they don’t meet them in time a manager will check how they’re doing. If they notice that an employee is spending time off task doing things like taking too long, getting a drink, or talking to the other employees will cause them to receive penalty points, which getting enough of will cause the employee to be fired. Apparently these targets are so high that 74% of workers said they didn’t use the bathroom in fear of missing them, one even submitting the quote “[Targets] have increased dramatically. I do not drink water because I do not have time to go to the toilet.” Some have even described the targets as impossible or overworking to older workers, that you’d need to be a “super human/robot” to achieve them, or that they were literally not assigned enough things to do to meet the production targets in the first place. Other articles I’d found said that workers reported finding water bottles or trash cans filled with urine because of how often employees didn’t have time to use the bathroom (side note: the people who had peed in the trash cans in a desperate attempt to keep their job were later found on security cameras and fired) .

However, even though Amazon seems to care a lot about how profitable employees are, they don’t seem to care about the employees at all, or even respect them. There are security cameras crawling Amazon warehouses, but a worker from Germany said that for a long time there weren’t any by employee lockers and that thefts were frequent. Also, even though Amazon workers have one paid 30-minute break and two unpaid thirty-minute ones, apparently employees say that the time to get to a toilet or breakroom eats up at least five minutes or sometimes even the majority of the break. Also, there’s security scanning and pat downs by the warehouse with long lines that can eat up even more of the break time. Amazon also constantly hires temporary workers via temp agencies, sometimes with even half permanent/half temporary or more during the holidays to cut costs and so that they don’t have to give them benefits. Some temporary workers report going to work one day to find out that they no longer have access to the building and that they were laid off without notice. An undercover journalist reported that the culture at Amazon warehouses felt like a prison, and other employees have said that the dozens of security cameras, short break times, sometimes-humiliating security checks plus the increasingly impossible production targets make them feel like robots.

Workers also constantly complain about the intense heat in warehouses. Elmer Goris, a former Amazon employee who had worked other warehouse jobs for over 10 years, quit after a year because he was frustrated with heat and mandatory overtime. “I never felt like passing out in a warehouse and I never felt treated like a piece of crap in any other warehouse but this one,” He said, as well as saying he’d seen a co-worker faint out by a water fountain that and that he’d even watched as paramedics escorted employees out with wheelchairs and stretchers on really hot days. Goris also says that other warehouses have ways of dealing with extreme heat like opening the doors to let air circulate, but Amazon apparently does not do this because of theft fears. During heat waves, workers have to perform strenuous physical jobs in warehouse temperatures soaring over 100ºF. On a day when the third floor temperature was around 110 degrees fahrenheit, Goris remembers going up there to get an item but only “lasted two minutes, because I could not breathe up there.”

(SIDE NOTE: apparently, after an inspection about the heat, Amazon installed more fans in the warehouse, but workers say they still don’t cool the place off well enough. Also, more breaks were added when it got too hot, but production targets were not decreased.)

So, why can’t Amazon workers just work somewhere else? And why are they still able to constantly replace workers after they quit or get fired for things like low productivity? Well, most people don’t know about bad Amazon working conditions until they’re hired, but one of the biggest reasons about why things stay the way they are is much scarier: Amazon warehouse workers are desperate. Amazon warehouses are commonly built in places where unemployment rates are high and there aren’t many other places to work, where people would be okay with being treated like robots, not being able to pee on the job, impossible productivity targets, unbearable heat, the threat of being randomly laid off or maybe even killed in a preventable work accident all for about 11 to 12 dollars per hour. Most of them don’t have any other choice. Jonathan Evans, a friend of one of the dead Amazon warehouse workers who thought the way he died was messed up and who had to turn to alcoholism to deal with the grief he felt over it, had even gotten a job at an Amazon warehouse afterwards because of trouble finding work anywhere else.

There are so many more sickening stories like the ones I’ve found that it would take me a novel to report them all, but one thing that seems to stay consistent among all of them is that Amazon vehemently denies these claims. Despite dozens workers complaining they’re literally treated like robots, an Amazon spokeswoman said “We are committed to treating every one of our associates with dignity and respect. We don’t recognize these allegations as an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings.” When employees complained about long security wait times, an Amazon spokeswoman said that it wasn’t true and they monitored it to make sure it didn’t take longer than 30 to 60 seconds. Amazon said that they didn’t monitor toilet breaks and that restrooms were a short walk away from the workplace despite the fact that several workers and journalist reported people unable to take bathroom breaks in fear of missing their production targets. Despite the National Council of Occupational Safety saying Amazon had multiple preventable workplace deaths, spokespeople claimed that safety was one of the highest priorities and that the losses of life were huge tragedies. Sometimes they wouldn’t comment at all, though, like when they didn’t comment on a worker complaining about being switched to a more strenuous job immediately after being switched to an easier one because of asthma, or how a human resources manager never responded to an employee asking about how they still got penalized for things like moving slower when they didn’t feel well, getting logged out of the system or using the restroom. But, for stories like this, who do you want to believe: claims from people like Elmer Goris, who don’t even work at Amazon at all anymore and wouldn’t benefit whatsoever from an inspection and maybe better worker rights, or a company like Amazon who has everything to gain from treating their employees like they’re claimed to do?

After all, the abhorrent conditions at Amazon warehouses are all in the name of getting packages to customers on time‒ and also probably to keep Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon richer than entire countries (and every man in the world). If Amazon paid its workers more, gave all of them benefits and kept more onboard permanently, paid to have better safety and cooler warehouses, stopped having security, abolished its impossible productivity target system and corrected every other thing workers have complained about, I highly doubt that Amazon warehouses would be able to run with the same efficiency they do now. In the end, Amazon cares about its customers, and wants them to have the best shopping experience possible. Enjoy your quickly-delivered packages and Amazon Alexas!