The Unseen Plight of Amazon Warehouse Workers
By Manya Goldstein and Kira Herzog
As Featured on Democracy Now!
Published in Kairos Magazine – Fall 2018
One day in late 2013, a temporary worker at one of Amazon’s 258 fulfillment centers travelled to his job in Avenel, N.J., and did not come home. It was just a few weeks before Christmas, and 57-year-old Ronald Smith was sorting packages in the facility when he noticed an object blocking a conveyor belt. He attempted to clear the jam when the machine caught his arm, dragging him through a six-inch wide gap and down at least 17 feet onto a concrete floor. Rushed by medics to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital with injuries to his head and hip, Smith was dead within the hour.
His fate was no isolated mishap. Since 2013, seven workers have lost their lives at Amazon fulfillment centers to forklifts, pallet loaders and ambiguous cardiac events — among other causes – and hundreds more have suffered injuries.
On Jan. 18, 2013, for instance, Jeff Lockhart Jr., a burly 28-year-old father of three, collapsed and died near the end of his shift at an Amazon center in Chester, Va.
On June 1, 2014, Jody Rhodes, a 52-year-old cancer survivor, died of blunt force injuries after she crashed a pallet truck at an Amazon fulfillment center in Carlisle, Pa.
On Sept. 24, 2017, Phillip Terry, 59, was crushed to death at an Amazon fulfillment center in Plainfield, Ind., when a forklift truck fell on him.
Data obtained by a Rutgers University student I-Team show the patten of fatalities has been accelerating as the company expands. In one five-week period between September and October of 2017, two other Amazon workers in addition to Terry died at company sites.
And those seven “official” deaths may not tell the entire story. According to one former Amazon employee at the company’s Robbinsville, N.J. warehouse, a 21-year-old temporary employee died on his way home from work after falling asleep at the wheel. It was peak season — the period when production spikes to accommodate holiday shopping — and the long hours and relentless work left employees “perpetually exhausted,” the dead man’s co-worker said.
In February 2014, a female worker died in the parking lot of a Delaware warehouse after finishing her shift. She lay sprawled between two cars for at least seven hours before her body was discovered. Her daughter said she suffered a heart attack.
These incidents, along with a long history of injuries and complaints, led the non-profit National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) to single out Amazon on this year’s list of the twelve most dangerous companies to work at. COSH uses a wide range of criteria to compile the ranking, including “severity of injuries” and “everyday exposure to unnecessary and preventable risk.”
“Amazon workers suffer injuries — and sometimes lose their lives — in a work environment with a relentless demand to fill orders and close monitoring of employee actions,” the report states. “Even as Amazon workers are injured and die on the job, the company is playing locality against locality to see which taxpayers will pay the most for the privilege of hosting H2Q, Amazon’s proposed second headquarters.”
The deaths of Ronald Smith and Phillip Terry have prompted the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue fines against Amazon subcontractors, not the company itself.
All of this has happened while Amazon transforms itself into a retail powerhouse. The company has become the undisputed leader in U.S. online sales, with over 100 million Prime members worldwide – more than the population of Germany. Company founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, currently ranked as the richest person in the world, built his e-commerce empire by aspiring to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company.”
Yet despite the company’s startling growth and expansive reach, its operations – and especially its employees – remain largely invisible to the public eye, hidden behind the walls of giant fulfillment centers that are rapidly multiplying across the United States. In New Jersey, four new facilities opened in 2017 alone. Amazon now employs 15,000 workers at a total of 10 warehouses across the Garden State.
Amazon opened a new fulfillment center in Edison, N.J., at the end of 2017. Each Amazon warehouse is about 1-million-square-feet — that’s more than 17 football fields.
Photo by Manya Goldstein
If it weren’t for the buildings’ sheer magnitude, their unassuming architecture lends the impression that whatever is going on inside is simple, clean, perhaps even boring.
However, appearances can be misleading. Inside, Amazon’s fulfillment centers operate like fast-paced machines as thousands of employees rush to unload, sort and pack millions of products each day. The underlying goal is to satisfy consumers, who desire cheaper, faster, more convenient service. But does the company’s relentless push for productivity come at a cost?
The Life of a Fulfillment Associate
There is no question that customers come first for Amazon. But interviews with workers and labor experts indicate Amazon’s fulfillment associates — frequently subjected to harsh, often unsafe working conditions — come last.
Associates must stay on their feet for their whole shifts, most of which are 10 hours. They spend the entire time either unloading, storing, counting, picking or packing products. The tasks vary depending on each department, but all employees are under intense pressure to meet Amazon’s exceptionally high productivity standards.
The “pickers,” for example, must read items off of a computer screen, find them on a shelf and put them into bins that will travel to the “packers” on conveyor belts. They are required to maintain a pick rate of 300 items per hour, which amounts to one item every 12 seconds. Workers must perform the same repetitive motions for 10 hours — or longer when Amazon demands mandatory overtime.
“It is very physically grueling,” said Amanda Winckelman, a former picker at the 1.2-million-square-foot warehouse in Robbinsville, NJ. “You do the same thing over and over and over again.”
Winckelman joined Amazon in September 2015. At first, she enjoyed the work. She had Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays off and could use her 40 leave hours without needing to ask permission. But the allure soon wore off, replaced by a number of grievances that are shared by many other associates.
Employees are given two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute lunch. The catch? Breaks begin at the worker’s station. Depending on where workers are located in the expansive buildings, it can take several minutes to simply get to the break room.
“A lot of us didn't even bother to leave our stations because by the time you walk to the break room, your 15 is basically over,” Winckelman said. “So we would just kind of stay put and twiddle our thumbs.”
At their stations, workers must spend their breaks standing up or sitting on the floor because there are no chairs in the warehouses outside of the break rooms and offices, Winckelman said.
“The building is so huge, you have to sprint to your locker if you want to check your phone or get anything during break,” another Robbinsville worker said. “I was appalled when I went in — it’s like a sweatshop.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sent the Robbinsville facility a hazard letter in December 2015 outlining many of the “ergonomic stressors” that our sources describe. The government office recommended that the company rotate workers throughout the day to reduce concentrated repetitive movements, consider providing an extra break and place chairs at workstations so workers can rest during their allotted 15 minutes instead of walking to the break room.
Nearly two years later in August 2017, Regional EHS Manager Dan Shaw sent a response letter to OSHA stating that Amazon is “committed to workplace safety” and outlining the company’s various safety protocols.
The document, obtained by the Rutgers I-Team, also includes notes from OSHA and logs of injuries that occured at the Robbinsville warehouse between 2015 to 2017. Yet 70 percent of the file is blacked out as “Amazon confidential file pages.”
In the available pages, Shaw said workers have access to “several break areas within the facility to allow for quick access” and that they are trained to always work within their limits.
Yet workers tell a different story.
Winckelman said if you had to go to the bathroom during your shift, it would cut into your rate of 300 items per hour. When your rate drops, you get written up. If you are written up enough times, well, you’re fired.
“It was hard on women or if you just weren’t feeling well and had to get a drink of water,” she said. “There is no excuse why you should ever drop below your rate.”
This reality forces some workers to take extreme measures, according to journalist James Bloodworth, who spent a month undercover at a fulfillment center in central England.
“People just peed in bottles because they lived in fear of being disciplined over ‘idle time’ and losing their jobs just because they needed the loo,” he told The Sun.
For Amazon, it all comes down to productivity.
Winckelman learned this lesson first hand when she came down with the flu in February 2016. She only had 16 hours of leave left, but her doctor insisted she stay home for a week. Armed with her doctor’s note and prescription papers, Winckelman headed to Human Resources to appeal her case. But they wouldn’t budge, claiming that they cannot verify the validity of “everything one of our 6,000 employees brings us.”
Winckelman was just one small gear in the massive 6,000-person machine, and she was now abruptly facing unemployment.
“I was really upset because I was going to keep trying to move up in the company. I was working really hard and staying late, and then I got sick and they didn't care,” she said. “It was just like, well, you're replaceable.”
A representative from Amazon responded to a request for comment and said the company was unable to “offer anyone for an interview” at this time.
Philip Pellegrino was not the typical Amazon associate. A Harvard and Columbia graduate, Pellegrino spent 40 years working in the electric power industry. During that time, he served as a senior executive at three leading energy companies, including the New York Power Authority.
The sharp-witted, athletic retiree wanted to gain a first-hand look at the inner workings of Amazon, which he was heavily invested in at the time. In September 2017, he began working at the Cranbury fulfillment center, which had just opened the month before.
Pellegrino offered to provide greater value to the company as a member of the management team, but his offer was ignored. Consequently, he joined the ranks of the fulfillment associates.
He spent most of his time in Inventory Control Quality Assurance (ICQA) counting the number of items in each bin to monitor inventory levels. One day, Pellegrino was asked to work in the 300 aisles. This is where Amazon stores its largest products, which are often 6-12 feet in length and weigh over 50 pounds. To access heavy or hard-to-reach items, associates operate a type of powered industrial truck (PIT) called order pickers (OP), which work like personal elevators.
Pellegrino immediately noticed a number of safety violations in the 300 aisles including workers regularly lifting heavy items labeled “Team Lift” by themselves, even though OSHA recommends that men lift no more than 50 pounds per person. Workers were also walking into the Powered Industrial Truck (PIT) lane while handling large products, which poses major safety risks as PIT lanes contain swarms of associates operating 10,000-pound vehicles.
“An order picker could easily go through a foot-thick brick wall,” Pellegrino said. “Given the killing force of the PIT equipment and the weight and size of the products, the potential for serious injury is enormous.”
OP operators were routinely failing to leave 20 feet between vehicles, and some were even passing PIT vehicles in the elevated position — both serious safety violations. Bins were also overstuffed, which could lead to products or entire pallets falling from heights of up to 40 feet.
“When I was in the aisle, items stored at about the 20-foot level were hanging off of a pallet and fell on top of my OP as I passed.” Pellegrino said.
The canopy of his OP prevented personal injury, but he said other associates might not be so lucky. Pellegrino once noticed an OP in the warehouse’s repair area with a collapsed canopy. A pallet was sitting on top.
Amazon employs a safety team that is supposed to surveil the building and ensure safety regulations are followed. But Pellegrino says they are nowhere to be found in the 300 aisles.
“I suspect this is because operational efficiency would be severely impaired,” he said. “Hence, Amazon just looks the other way.”
When safety conflicts with productivity, it appears that productivity wins out — and worker accounts show this does not just apply to the 300 aisles.
Another associate described similar practices at the Avenel sortation center, where he worked unloading boxes from trailers. There, workers also have to carry items marked “Team Lift” by themselves. But he said the biggest safety concern involves pallet building. Associates work so quickly stacking boxes to build pallets that they are not always built properly. The uneven pallets often topple over, sometimes onto associates.
The focus on productivity begins at the start of each shift when management announces the day’s goal. During prime week, workers were tasked with putting out 200,000 packages in five hours.
Pellegrino, on the other hand, had nothing to lose — and so he decided to act. He penned a memorandum to management detailing his observations, along with recommendations to reduce the safety risks. And then he waited. As the weeks went on, he repeatedly reminded the managers about his note. It received no response. Undeterred, Pellegrino contacted OSHA, Senator Cory Booker’s office and the media.
“Amazon’s corporate demeanor is characterized by arrogance, ignorance and the acceptance of enormous liability exposure due to the potential for serious injury to employees up to and including death,” he said.
Even if workers don’t face the worst possible outcome of working at Amazon — losing their lives — many endure the consequences of the company’s workplace conditions.
“Back pain, feet hurting, headaches, dehydration, cut hands, cut fingers, and ankles twisting were very common,” Winckelman said. “Everyone was more focused on hitting rate than making sure that they were not hurting themselves.”
Another former Robbinsville employee said at least six of the ten coworkers he trained with had to visit a doctor during their time at Amazon for knee and back pains.
“You are a machine, doing the same repetitive motion for 13 hours straight,” he said. “That’s taxing.”
He said risk hinges on demand — namely whether or not the company is in the midst of peak season.
“During peak, two people left in stretchers if that puts things in perspective.”
In December 2015, OSHA fined the Robbinsville facility $7,000 for failing to report at least 26 work-related injuries. The Rutgers I-team asked Dixon-Roderick, the director of OSHA’s Marlton office, how OSHA discovers unreported injuries.
“Almost entirely through employee interviews,” she said.
This means the 26 unreported injuries named by OSHA are likely just the tip of the iceberg, with dozens or perhaps hundreds of injuries going entirely unnoticed.
When a serious accident does occur, warehouse workers are instructed not to call 9-11, according to a document obtained by The Huffington Post. Instead, they are told to contact Amazon’s security, which enables Amazon’s internal medical team, AMCARE, to handle the situation.
Employees told The Seattle Times that Amazon takes specific measures to avoid reporting injuries to OSHA, such as attributing wounds to pre-existing conditions or treating injuries in ways that do not trigger federal reports.
It appears, however, that AMCARE personnel cross their legal treatment boundaries. According to a letter sent to Jeff Bezos in 2015, Robbinsville AMCARE workers were not merely providing first aid.
“AMCARE personnel were providing medical care beyond what is allowed by their licensing and certification without the supervision of a board certified qualified medical professional licensed to practice independently,” OSHA’s Marleton area director Paula Dixon-Roderick wrote.
One fulfillment associate recalled a six-month pregnant worker falling on a pallet. She was sent to AMCARE, who returned her to work five minutes later. According to the co-worker, the woman went into preterm labor and has not been seen since.
Pellegrino is not just an outspoken advocate against Amazon’s safety environment — he was also injured on the job while counting products at the Cranbury fulfillment center. On Jan. 31, he tore the tendon in his left arm while lifting a heavy package in the 300 aisles.
He said he was barred from going to a private physician because New Jersey law dictates that Amazon’s outside insurance company, Sedgwick, has to set up care. Sedgwick took ten days to reply, only to notify him that his claim had been denied.
The company never scheduled a medical examination and never provided a reason why his claim was rejected. It was only after they had denied his request that he was able to go to a personal physician, but he had to pay for the expenses on his own.
Again, Pellegrino was lucky. He could afford to pay for his doctor’s visits and physical therapy appointments. Even if his injury prevented him from going back to work, he would still be on solid financial footing. However, most workers are not so fortunate.
According to a 2015 OSHA report, the costs of workplace injuries primarily fall on injured workers, their families and taxpayers. When employers like Amazon refuse to take full responsibility for on-the-job injuries, it can have detrimental financial consequences for working-class families.
“The failure of many employers to prevent millions of work injuries and illnesses each year, and the failure of the broken workers’ compensation system to ensure that workers do not bear the costs of their injuries and illnesses, are truly adding inequality to injury,” the report states.
One Robbinsville worker who injured her knee on site just got evicted from her home after Amazon stopped sending disability payments when her doctor cleared her for “light duty.” The problem? There is no light duty at Amazon. The single mother, who is recovering from a full knee replacement after an initial botched surgery, has no choice but to return to her grueling 12-hour night shifts as a packer.
“My only option is to go back to work,” she said. “I have to make money.”
Workers who attempt to push back against denied workers’ compensation claims or injury-related terminations are rarely successful in court. In a recent case, entitled Henson v. Amazon fulfillment, an New Jersey employee sued the company for firing her after she was injured on the job.
According to the claim, the plaintiff began experiencing numbness and tingling in both of her hands seven months after she was hired, which became exacerbated throughout the workday. She was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and asked her managers to provide “minor accommodations.”
Amazon declined the request, and a company representative called her a few days later to inform her that they did not believe the carpal tunnel was a “work-related injury.” During the phone call, she said she was also accused of “not working hard enough.”
Henson was terminated the next day. Her case against Amazon settled out of court.
“Amazon probably has one of the highest workers compensation rates in the country,” Pellegrino said. “They should be ashamed of themselves.”
Amazon’s Army of Temporary Workers
Amazon hires hundreds of thousands of temporary workers each peak season to meet the demands of holiday shopping. According to an Institute for Local Self-Reliance report, the company calls these workers “seasonal” to imply that they only work during the holidays. In fact, Amazon relies on temporary workers year round, outsourcing much of its staffing needs to firms such as Integrity Staffing Solutions.
Though they perform the same tasks as full-time workers, temps do not receive the same benefits as their full-time counterparts. On average, they make at least one dollar less per hour and are not provided with the same color uniforms as full-time workers.
A study by ProPublica that accounted for millions of workers compensation claims, found temporary workers face a “significantly greater risk” of being hurt on the job than full time workers due to a lack of training and oversight. The data analysis found that, depending on the state, temporary workers are anywhere from 50 to 72 percent more likely to sustain injuries on the job.
The workers compensation forms showed that the most common injuries among temporary workers are caused by being either “caught in” or “struck by” machinery — the same situations that led to the deaths of Devan Shoemaker, Ronald Smith and Philip Terry in Amazon warehouses.
Over the past decade, many temporary workers have brought complaints of mistreatment, safety violations and discrimination in Amazon warehouses to court. But it is rare for Amazon to be named as a defendant since the corporation is able to shield itself behind its third-party staffing agencies.
For example, when a group of temporary workers brought wage theft complaints to the Supreme Court in 2014, the high-profile case did not have Amazon’s name anywhere near its title. Its outcome would affect Amazon indirectly, but there was never a chance of the company itself incurring direct penalties or damages.
In cases where warehouse workers have died on the job, temporary staffing agencies have provided similar insulation against both fines and bad press.
Jeff Lockhart Jr., who died in a Virginia fulfillment center five years ago, was a temporary worker employed by Integrity Staffing Solutions, Amazon’s largest temporary staffing agency. According to a confidential internal document, he was working as a picker at the time of his death.
The document describes Lockhart as a “consistently hard worker” whose history showed no abnormalities or outliers. The cause of his death, while still not fully confirmed, appeared to be a pulmonary embolism — a type of artery blockage that typically begins as a blood clot. But despite the intense symptoms associated with this condition, Lockhart continued to work up until the minute he collapsed.
“Amazon Associate (name redacted) discovered Lockhart at approximately 2:30 p.m., which is within one minute of his last recorded pick,” the internal report reads. “EMS transported Lockhart via ambulance to John Randolph Hospital and at approximately 4:00 p.m. Mr. Lockhart was pronounced deceased.”
The same year, the brutal death of Ronald Smith prompted an investigation by OSHA, in which $6,000 fines were doled out to four temporary staffing agencies and one third party logistics provider. Once again, Amazon itself did not receive a single penalty from the Department of Labor and, according to court documents, the family’s lawsuit eventually led to a settlement.
In an official statement, Patricia Jones, the director of OSHA’s Avenel Office, noted that temporary staffing agencies and host employers should be seen as “jointly responsible for the health and safety of temporary employees.”
But with the way the system currently work out, agencies like Integrity Staffing Solutions and Abacus take the majority of the heat and insurance premiums, while Amazon takes the majority of the profit. Meanwhile, temporary workers sit at the very bottom of the supply chain, absorbing the brunt of the problems that exist above them.
On a day-to-day basis, Amazon’s temporary workforce is also held to more stringent rules than full time workers, which brings added stress and job insecurity. When it comes to attendance, Integrity Staffing Solutions uses a strict point-based system that calls for the immediate termination of any worker who misses two days of work without calling in.
When a temporary worker does call out of work, they still incur 1.5 points and, if they come in late or leave early, they earn half a point. It only takes six points for the employee's position at the company to “fall into jeopardy.”
In some warehouses, temporary workers aren’t even given the courtesy of being notified of their own termination. A former employee said the company simply deactivated his key card so he could no longer enter the building.
There are various organizations around New Jersey that work to improve working conditions in warehouses. In New Brunswick, the most active is New Labor, which focuses on promoting safety and teaching low-wage immigrant workers to advocate for themselves.
New Labor’s slogan is “organization through education,” according to Lou Kimmel, the executive director and co-founder.
Kimmel said some of the disparities between full-time and seasonal workers can seem minor — full time workers are invited to Christmas parties, offered free pizza, given uniforms that are blue instead of white — but they invite a culture of hierarchy wherein temporary workers are ultimately made to feel subordinate.
He said the strict attendance policy enforced by agencies like Integrity Staffing Solutions contributes heavily to this culture by enforcing the idea that temporary workers are expendable.
“If there’s pressure and you need to make money, you can’t take time off,” Kimmel said. “And you're going to risk yourself working more dangerously or working faster if they build incentives around production.”
On April 22, workers and activists joined together at the Workers’ Memorial Day March and Rally in downtown New Brunswick to remember people who have died on the job and to fight for those still working in dangerous conditions.
“Not one more death!” they passionately chanted in both English and Spanish. “¡Ni una muerte más!
Every day in this country, 12 people go to work and don’t come home, Kimmel said during an interview in New Labor’s office. And each year, millions more are injured.
“It’s not just one person or one name. This has ripple effects in the community because the workers contribute to the economy, they have families that go to school and there is psychological trauma for the kids when they can’t see their mom or dad anymore,” he said.
Kimmel pointed above his desk at the phrase, “Pray for the dead, fight like hell for the living.” The quote was first spoken by Mother Jones, a labor activist born in the mid-1800s.
Under the text, a laminated poster depicts a temp agency employer and a warehouse employer pointing a finger at one another while a worker lies on the ground under a 500-pound box.
“Going back to the case with Ronald Smith, we have to remember that his death was not in vain and there is no price you can put on a life,” Kimmel said. “You go to work to making a living — not to risk your life. We need responsibility in the supply chain.”
Looking to the Future
Despite its expanding collection of workplace fatalities, lawsuits and federal fines, Amazon shows no sign of slowing down. The tech giant is fueled by a customer-centric approach — and the customer always wants more.
“People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’,” Bezos wrote in his latest shareholder letter. “I see that cycle of improvement happening at a faster rate than ever before.”
To satisfy the customer’s every-growing desire for more, Amazon continues to find ways to boost productivity.
In January of this year, Amazon won a pair of patents for a wearable technology that can track inventory and productivity levels, as well as the movements of its warehouse employees.
"This idea, if implemented in the future, would improve the process for our fulfillment associates,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “By moving equipment to associates' wrists, we could free up their hands from scanners and their eyes from computer screens."
But the patents show that the proposed wristbands will do a lot more than free up workers’ hands. They also provide “high accuracy” location detection, tracking what the wearers are doing and how well they are doing it. When workers make a mistake, the device lets out a “repetitive buzz.”
The technology will allow for more intensive monitoring of associates, which has led experts to fear for the future of Amazon’s workplace environment.
With a second headquarters on its way and stock prices at record highs, it appears Amazon will continue its historic ascent. But does the company’s staggering success justify the trail of deaths, injuries and settlements that may continue to fall in its wake?