The real cost of Amazon
“It’s like I’m risking my life for a dollar” — what the struggle Amazon workers face during the pandemic says about the future of work in America.
At 5:30 every morning, Rosie, an Amazon worker at a fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, checks her text messages to see if she’s received more bad news: yet another colleague infected with Covid-19, on top of the at least 50 people at her facility who she says have already gotten sick.
As an older employee, Rosie is at higher risk of developing serious complications from the disease than many of her younger coworkers. Her two children beg her to quit.
“It’s frightening, but you have to put on a smile and you go to work because you need the income,” Rosie, who is being identified by a pseudonym because she fears losing her job for speaking to the press, told Recode in late May.
While she’s grateful for the safety precautions Amazon has introduced at its fulfillment centers in the past two months, like providing masks and hand sanitizer stations, she’s alarmed by what she says she saw and heard around her: dirty air filters that aren’t replaced, a visibly ill colleague who vomited in the bathroom — even after passing the mandatory temperature checks the company instituted in early April — and workers standing close together in the morning when they’re waiting to get shift assignments, even though the rules specify workers must always stay 6 feet apart.
On a follow-up call in late June, Rosie said that since management canceled morning meetings, there is no longer crowding before shifts, and conditions have improved, but not entirely.
“It affects your nerves, your mental state, your way of thinking — because you have to be cautious in everything you do now,” Rosie said. “It’s like I’m risking my life for a dollar. It’s twisted.”
Last month, Rosie was shocked to hear that a colleague who she heard was in his 20s — practically “a kid,” she said — had died of Covid-19. Management never informed Rosie, and she suspects many others didn’t know either. Instead, she said, she learned the news from a coworker’s Facebook post.
Management’s attitude toward the death was “hush-hush, underneath the rug — along with how many people have the disease,” Rosie told Recode. “This is how this company runs this organization.”
An Amazon spokesperson disputed Rosie’s account, saying the company communicated the news about the colleague’s death in person to everyone working at the warehouse. The spokesperson also said Amazon has made it clear that all employees who feel ill must stay home and that they have several paid and unpaid leave options.
But Rosie’s story is just one of several similar accounts that have emerged from workers inside Amazon fulfillment centers since the pandemic started in March, prompting an unprecedented series of internal scandals, employee protests, and public petitions that have united some of Amazon’s corporate and warehouse employees against their employer for the first time. In turn, this unrest has attracted scrutiny from top politicians over the company’s labor practices, and threatens to harm Amazon’s reputation in the eyes of the hundreds of millions of people who shop on the platform every year. It also reveals inequalities in the economy that Amazon has flourished in, an economy that the e-commerce giant is also shaping as its size and influence expand.
Amazon, the second-largest private US employer after Walmart, pays its fulfillment center workers a $15 minimum hourly wage and offers superior benefits when compared to some major competitors. But many of the company’s workers still say they are struggling to stay afloat, and they have such limited work options that they keep showing up to sort, pack, and deliver shipments for Amazon even as they fear the company isn’t doing enough to keep them safe during a global health crisis.
In interviews with Recode, dozens of current and former Amazon employees, from the warehouse level to senior corporate managers, shared previously unreported details about the inner workings of the company, inconsistent enforcement of health and safety protocols, and the tactics they say the company has employed to tamp down tensions rising among its workforce.
Amazon seems to be well aware that its treatment of workers during the pandemic matters. Externally, the company has launched a public relations campaign that includes TV commercials and a documentary TV series to drive home a message to customers that keeping the “retail heroes” in its warehouses safe is its top priority.
But internally, employees told Recode that Amazon has responded to workers’ complaints by cracking down on dissenters. The company has fired at least six employees who were involved in recent worker protests or who spoke out about working conditions at Amazon, including several who were visible leaders within the company on worker issues. Sources told Recode the company has also reprimanded at least six other employees during the same period who were involved in recent protests.
Amazon has said that it terminated the employees in question for repeatedly violating internal policies on social distancing, internal communications, and conduct with colleagues. It denied retaliating against employees for their criticism of the company.
Top Amazon executive Dave Clark, who oversees Amazon’s global warehouse network, told Recode in May, “I’ve been here 21 years, and I have never seen anybody punished or terminated or anything for speaking out or having a contrary opinion or debating something. And that continues to be the case.”
Courtney Bowden, a former Amazon warehouse worker in Pennsylvania who was fired in March shortly after organizing her colleagues to demand paid time off for part-time employees, disagrees. Bowden says Amazon’s stated reason for firing her was for getting into a dispute with a coworker. “Amazon thinks that they can control all these workers speaking out by firing them,” Bowden told Recode in mid-March. “What they don’t understand is that the amount of people doing this is just going to grow, grow, grow.”
Clark also told Recode that the company led many of its competitors in rolling out Covid-19 safety measures such as mandatory masks, temperature checks, and enforced social distancing in warehouses. In interviews with Recode, even warehouse employees who were critical about Amazon’s Covid-19 safety practices said they have seen some signs of improvement since mid-March.
But workers told Recode that other, deeper issues that existed before the pandemic have only gotten worse — namely, that how Amazon responded to workers’ pandemic complaints exemplifies how workers have limited power or voice in how their employer treats them.
What’s at stake
The internal conflicts at Amazon, coupled with growing outside scrutiny, have put the company — and its customers — in a fraught position.
The e-commerce giant with a $1 trillion valuation has become a symbol of the longstanding economic and racial inequalities in the US that the pandemic has exaggerated. The virus disproportionately kills more Black Americans than other ethnic groups; 80 percent of Amazon’s US warehouses are located in zip codes that have a higher percentage of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people than the regional average, according to a recent analysis by the employee activist group AECJ.
Like many other white-collar tech workers in the US, most of Amazon’s corporate employees have been able to work from home. Meanwhile, Amazon’s warehouse employees, who have historically been more racially diverse than its corporate employees, have to show up in person. And as millions of other Americans have lost their jobs and are struggling to afford necessities, Amazon and companies like it are reaping record sales and hiring hundreds of thousands workers to staff their facilities, deliver products, and risk exposure to a virus that’s already killed more than 125,000 people in the US as of late June.
Before the pandemic, millions of Americans already relied on Amazon for the convenience of its one- or two-day shipping. Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders and the temporary shuttering of many physical retailers only increased dependence on the company: Amazon sales and Prime membership subscriptions shot up from January to March.
“The American psyche is so selfish that it doesn’t matter what goes on in there. It’s, ‘Just get my package to me.’”
But reports of the company’s labor issues have raised uncomfortable questions. Is it possible for Amazon to maintain what its CEO Jeff Bezos calls its “obsessive-compulsive focus on the customer” while also protecting its employees? Would customers pay more and accept slower delivery times if it meant Amazon would support and pay its workers more? Do we want to live, work, and shop in an economy where more and more businesses are emulating Amazon’s business model, and where more people depend on fast-paced warehouse and delivery work to make their livelihoods? Or will politicians, Amazon’s own employees, and, most importantly, consumers demand changes from the company — and the economy in which it thrives?
These questions aren’t entirely new. Well before the pandemic, Amazon was seemingly unstoppable despite reports of grueling and sometimes dangerous conditions at its warehouses. In the past 25 years, the company has grown from a scrappy online bookstore to one of the world’s most valuable companies, with its reach extending beyond e-commerce to streaming television, brick-and-mortar grocery, and cloud computing.
“When we talk about Amazon, we’re really talking about the future of work,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represents workers at major retailers such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and H&M, told Recode. “Other employers feel that if they want to survive, they have to find a way to change their working conditions to replicate Amazon. And that’s exactly what we don’t want — we don’t want Amazon to be the model for what working is going to be like, of what the future of work is going to look like.”
In light of the pandemic’s life-or-death consequences, assessing the future of work and Amazon’s role in it is more urgent than ever.
The company does not publicly share the total number of its workers infected with Covid-19, although it has directly messaged warehouse workers individually when there is a person with a new case at their facility. Former Indiana warehouse employee Jana Jumpp started a project to crowdsource these messages from workers. She says she’s confirmed nearly 1,600 cases of Amazon warehouse employees with Covid-19 since March, and at least nine workers who have died of the disease. That case total would represent well less than 1 percent of Amazon’s US warehouse workforce, but without Amazon’s confirmation, it’s still unclear how widely the virus has spread among its employee base.
Amazon declined to comment on Jumpp’s reporting to Recode, but Amazon spokesperson Kelly Cheeseman told Recode the company uses “a variety of data to closely monitor the safety of our buildings and there is strong evidence that our employees are not proliferating the virus at work.”
Jumpp says she’s getting a steady stream of reports of at least 10 to 20 new cases a day from Amazon workers across the US, which she compiles in a spreadsheet.
“If the public really knew what was going on in the facilities, they might think twice about shopping on Amazon,” Jumpp told Recode.
That’s because what happens inside Amazon’s warehouses doesn’t just affect its employees. It will impact the rest of us, too.
And the company’s customers will impact its practices.
External surveys show that Amazon’s customer reputation began slipping during the pandemic, though the causes of this shift are not yet clear. The share of people who said they have a positive impression of Amazon dropped from 74 percent in January before the pandemic hit the US to 58 percent in May in two similar, separate polls of more than 1,000 people conducted by Survey Monkey with Fortune and Recode, respectively.
Another recent poll by RBC Capital Markets showed a similar trend: Amazon customers are reporting record-low levels of customer satisfaction, despite making more frequent purchases.
For now, it’s hard to say if we’re seeing more negative customer feedback about Amazon because people encountered inventory shortages and delivery delays due to the coronavirus, or because they’re troubled by criticisms of Amazon’s labor practices, or some other reason. If it’s merely shopping inconveniences prompting the shift in customer perception, the company may be motivated to push its employees harder, and return to pre-Covid-19 levels of worker productivity as quickly as possible. But if the shift relates to Amazon’s ethics as an employer, the company has a deeper issue to solve for, and what it does next is likely to have significant implications for the rest of the US economy.
“If the public starts supporting the protests, if the customers start boycotting Amazon, then customers form a significant form of power,” Thomas Anton Kochan, a professor of industrial relations at MIT, told Recode. “The ultimate arbiters of this debate will be the public, not Amazon and not the workers themselves.”
Three months of unrest and counting
If it’s still uncertain how customers will ultimately respond to Amazon and how it handled the pandemic, what has become clear is that the past three months have shaken up Amazon’s internal culture, which one employee described as an “artificial internal class system” that has until now separated corporate employees from fulfillment center workers.
As reports emerged of the company firing and cracking down on workers agitating for better conditions at fulfillment centers, a growing number of the company’s engineers, product managers, and designers have become embarrassed, worried, and angry. For the first time, they’re joining forces with their colleagues at the warehouse level to publicly criticize their employer, and some say they lost their jobs because of it. Meanwhile, prominent politicians like Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren are pressing the company on its firings of workers across corporate offices and the warehouse floor alike.
“People want to be proud of the company, but they are feeling quite ashamed and deciding whether they can change [it] from within or need to leave,” one longtime corporate Amazon employee told Recode in late April.
“At the end of the day, I want to know what kind of company does Amazon want to be: a company that allows discourse and dialogue between employees, or a company that suppresses dissent?” another Amazon employee told Recode in late April.
Since March, workers have issued two petitions with more than 6,000 combined employee signatures demanding better pay and benefits, and they’ve held at least eight protests at over a dozen fulfillment centers, sortation centers, and delivery stations.
Amazon’s response to its warehouse and corporate employees’ concerns seems to have only agitated employees more. In public statements and internal meetings, the company seems to be treating the scrutiny of warehouse conditions like a PR problem rather than an opportunity to find and fix potential operational flaws.
“We have our critics, both here in the United States and around the world, who — some are completely inconvincible,” top Amazon spokesperson Jay Carney said during an internal video Q&A with corporate employees in early May, of which Recode obtained an audio recording.
“Look, you have situations where we have a protest at a fulfillment center and we have more organizers than actual Amazon employees out on the street.” Carney went on, “I think the total number of protesters in the city and states has been less than a fraction of a half of a fraction of a percent of our employee base, but some of the media coverage suggests that that’s not the case.”
Cheeseman reiterated what the company previously said in a statement in regard to worker protests: that the “overwhelming majority” of Amazon employees have not participated and that the walkouts had “no measurable impact on operations.”
“We encourage anyone interested in the facts to compare our overall pay and benefits, as well as our speed in managing this crisis, to other retailers and major employers across the country,” Cheeseman told Recode.
Amazon offers full-time warehouse employees the same health care insurance and 401(k) options as corporate employees. At the start of the pandemic, it also led other companies by being one of the first to grant workers a $2-per-hour wage hike, and it doubled overtime pay and provided unlimited unpaid time off. (All of these pandemic-related policies ended on June 1, prompting loud pushback from some employees.) In late June, the company announced it will pay a one-time bonus for the month of June to front-line employees and some contractors, amounting to around $500 per full-time Amazon employee and $250 for part-timers.
“Our focus remains on protecting associates in our operations network,” Cheeseman said.
Amazon has nearly 600,000 full-time and part-time employees in the US, the vast majority of whom work in its warehouse network, so the hundreds of workers protesting are indeed only a tiny percentage of its workforce. But one corporate employee who doesn’t consider himself an activist and hasn’t been involved in any recent protests told Recode, “Many workers do not feel comfortable walking off a job for a protest, especially in this climate. So the voice of organizers should be heard as representative of the workers they’re organizing for.”
Of course, Amazon’s many employees have a range of perspectives on how their employer treats them in general and how it’s handled their safety during the pandemic. Some value how Amazon pays all employees a $15-per-hour minimum wage, as well as how it offers health care and dental insurance, and highly subsidized tuition or vocational training to further employees’ careers.
“Amazon is a good job in many ways: great benefits, it pays good, there are opportunities for overtime, to go to school,” said Jumpp.
Others empathize with the company and the extraordinary challenges Covid-19 has created for it.
But a significant number of Amazon’s employees, in warehouses and in its headquarters, feel it has let them down, and that’s fueling their criticism of the company.
The growing dissent among Amazon’s corporate workforce followed a few key moves Amazon made in the early days of the pandemic: First, the company fired Christian Smalls, a warehouse worker in Staten Island, New York, who led an early protest against the company in March.
Then company executives, led by top lawyer David Zapolsky, strategized in an executive meeting attended by Bezos about how to downplay Smalls’s complaints by characterizing him as “not smart or articulate.” Then, when Zapolsky’s notes from this meeting leaked to the press and corporate employees began to protest and question Amazon’s actions on internal company listservs, the company fired three key corporate activists in mid-April and began restricting employees’ ability to communicate on large listservs. It paused enforcing these restrictions after Recode reported on them.
Amazon workers told Recode in April they were particularly concerned by what they saw as racist overtones in the notes from the executive meeting focused on Smalls, who is Black. Amazon told Recode in April that Zapolsky was unaware of Smalls’s race when he made the comments.
Since then, workers’ unease has grown because four of the six workers Amazon has fired since March are people of color.
Cheeseman, the Amazon spokesperson, told Recode that the company “works hard to foster a culture where inclusion is the norm for each and every one” of its employees.
“We do not tolerate any kind of discrimination in our workplace,” said Cheeseman.
John Hopkins is another worker who says Amazon targeted him in May for his activism at work. The company lifted his suspension in June after an internal health and safety investigation; since then, he has continued to be vocal about what he sees as retaliation and racial injustice at Amazon.
Hopkins told Recode it didn’t matter that Zapolsky said he wasn’t aware of Smalls’s race when he said Smalls wasn’t articulate.
“Ultimately, he [Zapolsky] didn’t have to be aware of his [Smalls’s] race — he should have been aware of the chances,” Hopkins told Recode. “Regardless of whether he knew specifically, he has to know the number of African American workers in warehouses is far larger than in AWS [Amazon Web Services]. The chances he was going to say that about a Black worker are higher.”
“Race permeates everything. These aren’t disconnected issues; what’s at the heart of them all is implicit bias,” Hopkins added.
Amazon said it fired Smalls because he violated social distancing policies while he was on paid quarantine leave, and that it terminated the corporate employees after they violated company policies around internal communications. “There are also plenty of [employees] who are regularly talking to reporters and publishing different things that, you know, I disagree entirely with,” Clark, the Amazon executive, told Recode. “But they come back to work every day, are paid well, and nothing negative happens to them.”
The six recently fired employees have all disputed Amazon’s explanations for their terminations.
“It’s not okay that Amazon did that and fired that employee [Smalls]; those things aren’t normal,” one former Amazon engineer who recently left the company told Recode in late April, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “I’m not okay with going to work every day and continuing my day job while things are happening in the background. I need to show support for other people in the company.”
Smalls’s case also caught the attention of politicians like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Attorney General Letitia James, who have launched investigations into the incident, as well as Sen. Booker, who has sent several letters pressing Bezos on the matter.
“What’s disturbing to me is that you have people who are, frankly, just speaking toward the crisis, and they’re seeing retaliation that is unacceptable,” Booker told Recode in early May. Since Booker wrote the letter about Smalls, the company has fired several more warehouse workers involved in activism. “These firings further marginalize employees who already feel really pressured.”
While Amazon’s termination of visible activist leaders both within company headquarters and at its fulfillment centers has scared some employees, they haven’t stopped organizing. The firings further angered and encouraged critical employees to move discussions off corporate platforms so they can discuss their ethical qualms about their employer more discreetly — and freely.
“I think temporarily people will be discouraged from speaking, but it’s not going to silence their inner concerns,” one employee told Recode in late April.
“People before were saying, ‘Oh, maybe Amazon’s not so bad,’ but when they see the silencing, and the censorship, and the firings, and the not listening — that is the last straw for a lot of people,” former longtime Amazon corporate employee Maren Costa told Recode. Costa and her colleague Emily Cunningham were fired on April 10, shortly after they both shared a petition started by Amazon warehouse workers about the risks warehouse workers face during the pandemic. Amazon told Recode that the pair were terminated for violating Amazon’s internal policies, including one that bars employees from using company resources to solicit their coworkers for signatures.
Both Costa and Cunningham were active leaders of an internal employee group that pushes the company to become more environmentally friendly, called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ). After they were fired, Costa and Cunningham helped host two virtual panel discussions between warehouse workers and corporate employees about safety standards at warehouses, environmental policies, and unionization. Around 400 employees attended each event, according to the organizers.
“We are definitely on the right side of history,” Cunningham told Recode in late April. “Even those of us that have more privilege doesn’t mean we’re immune to the real harm that is already coming our way. … There’s only so much insulation unless you’re an extremely rich billionaire.”
Dozens of warehouse workers Recode spoke with emphasized the importance of corporate employees like Cunningham and Costa speaking out on their behalf.
“While warehouse and tech workers are treated differently in many ways by Amazon, recent events have clearly shown how we’re still in the same struggle, like against retaliation from Amazon for exercising free speech,” Ted Miin, a warehouse worker at the DCH1 facility in Chicago and member of the worker group DCH1 Amazonians United, told Recode in early May.
This newfound unity between front-line and office workers reflects a growing gulf between the company and segments of its workforce, who say the company’s leaders — both in its headquarters and those managing its warehouses — are disconnected from the challenges workers lower in the company face.
“People before were saying, ‘Oh, maybe Amazon’s not so bad,’ but when they see the silencing, and the censorship, and the firings, and the not listening — that is the last straw for a lot of people”
When you consider the scale of Amazon’s vast network of warehouses — which includes 110 fulfillment centers in the US and hundreds of smaller sorting and delivery facilities — as well as the machine-like efficiency required to keep this operation running, that’s not surprising. The pandemic has just raised the stakes.
“Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential,” Tim Bray, a former VP-level engineer at the company, wrote in a now-viral public blog post he published in late April after quitting in protest of Amazon’s firings of Costa, Cunningham, Smalls, Bowden, and other whistleblowers. Bray called management’s decisions “chicken shit” and accused the company of fostering a “climate of fear” among its workers. (Bray later deleted the “chicken shit” language after he said people he respected told him it was “mean-spirited.”)
The day after Bray posted his note, Brad Porter, the company’s vice president of robotics, defended Amazon’s measures to protect its workers in a LinkedIn post. In it, he cited technological solutions his teams have been rolling out: using AI to make sure workers are social distancing, installing thermal cameras to check workers’ temperatures, and developing mobile ultraviolet sanitation to kill Covid-19 in warehouses.
But, as several employees wrote in internal emails that Recode obtained and in public comments on LinkedIn, Porter sidestepped one of the main focuses of Bray’s critique: that the company is allegedly retaliating against workers who question the company’s treatment of fulfillment center workers.
“This Linkedin post has honestly left me a little sick for several reasons, because it just shows how keenly and brazenly VPs do not get it,” wrote one Amazon employee in a May 6 post on an internal corporate listserv that Recode obtained. “The fact that Brad Porter does not once mention the fired employees — something Tim Bray clearly and plainly states to be the reason for his resignation — in his exculpatory post makes things very clear: they don’t see this as an issue.”
Others pointed out that Porter’s solutions were largely technical fixes to a very human problem.
“Even if we eventually have all the technology in place for a COVIDfree workplace, if people don’t feel safe to speak, that’s not a safe space,” wrote another employee on the same listserv.
Amazon was a tough place to work before. The pandemic has made it worse.
How Amazon is handling workers’ dissent is just one part of the problem, workers say. The scale and pace of its operations have always had downsides, but now the pressure of a pandemic is making them more visible.
Amazon has long been known for hiring bright, data-focused managers in its warehouse network to help increase efficiency while keeping costs down. The result has been a world-class logistics operation that offers affordable next-day delivery to millions of Americans. But there are drawbacks to that data-obsessed approach, too: quotas and metrics that don’t account for an employee having a bad day — or not feeling well — and some managers who are more comfortable evaluating numbers than human emotions.
“Algorithms can be very, very dangerous … and that’s where Amazon is right now,” a former senior HR manager at Amazon told Recode. “There is no other company on the planet that is more efficient. But the downside is … you take people who don’t have life experiences, or just don’t have empathy, and it becomes very easy to look at data as the end-all, be-all, as opposed to as a guide.”
Cheeseman refuted that characterization and referenced two emails that Clark sent to warehouse managers during the pandemic, which expressed the importance of keeping employees healthy and safe.
“To be abundantly clear, your most important job right now has nothing to do with a metric,” Clark wrote to managers in a March 14 email that Amazon showed Recode. “It’s walking your floors, talking to your teams, supporting them if they need help or have [any] questions, and ensuring all the safety measures we have rolled out are implemented and followed.”
Amazon seems aware that some of its warehouse managers focus too narrowly on meeting fulfillment goals, even if it won’t talk about it publicly. The company previously developed a computer system, Recode has learned, that periodically prompts some warehouse supervisors to get out from behind their computer and go interact with their front-line staff. Similar to how employees criticized Porter’s response to Bray’s resignation note, it’s an Amazonian solution to a very human problem.
“We do have mechanisms to remind our teams what’s important to us, and that does include recognizing and connecting with associates,” Cheeseman said.
“We have our critics, both here in the United States and around the world, who — some are completely inconvincible”
Amazon wasn’t always so intensely focused on performance metrics. A longtime former corporate employee, who was an HR manager focused on warehouses, told Recode they saw a major shift in that direction at Amazon around 2010.
“When I joined, it was very apparent to me that the leaders in the facility really cared about the people,” the former HR manager said. “The Amazon that I left in fulfillment was … not that way.”
Part of the change this former manager saw can be attributed to an increased reliance on performance data, as well as the implementation of so-called standard operating procedures. “We almost overindexed on processes,” said the former HR manager, while also acknowledging the business upsides to adding more structure to warehouse work.
But the other factor in the shift was the type of warehouse leaders the company recruited as Amazon expanded to meet exploding customer demand. “It was all about just drive, drive, drive, and there were not a lot of very kind leaders,” according to the former manager.
A former Amazon data science engineer focused on warehouse metrics told Recode, “I knew that every single time we developed a tool, we are just adding pressure.
“The pressure to be consistent and perform every single second there is tremendous,” the engineer added. “Not everyone is the same.”
Despite the note Clark sent warehouse managers in mid-March urging them to prioritize safety measures above delivery metrics, several employees told Recode as recently as late April that some of the company’s rigid middle managers in fulfillment centers were slow to empathize with the unique setbacks of working during a pandemic and were enforcing strict work quotas.
An Amazon worker at a fulfillment center in New Jersey, who spoke to Recode on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job, said in late April that the pace demanded in her warehouse made it, in her view, impossible to properly social distance: “When you’re picking an order, the bins and pallets … they’re all close together, and they’re used by multiple people at one time. And if you’re not picking up certain items within a certain time frame, you’re penalized.” The same worker told Recode that by early May, management at her site had improved on safety issues at the warehouse — making bin aisles one-way for foot traffic, and easing up enforcement of worker productivity rates.
Miin, the worker in Chicago, told Recode in early April that the company was inconsistently enforcing social distancing requirements in the fulfillment center where he worked. In a follow-up interview in late June, Miin said he thought the warehouse was still facing the same issues.
“When we’re protesting conditions, they bring up the 6-feet rule. But, of course, they don’t bring that up when people are trying to work hard and fast inside the warehouse — those rules are ignored,” Miin said.
Cheeseman said the company denies these accusations. “That’s not true,” she wrote to Recode. “We have a policy related to social distancing and we are enforcing it across all sites.” Cheeseman said the company has implemented several ways to monitor social distancing, including spending $85 million to move existing employees into new “social distancing ambassadors” roles.
Interviews with employees at other Amazon warehouses from late March through June indicate that at some facilities, management meticulously and successfully enforced social distancing. But according to Recode’s interviews with more than 30 employees across the company’s entire network, not every warehouse was operating at the same level.
At many Amazon warehouses, social distancing is rigidly upheld: “At my building, the safety committee is always on top of everybody about being safe and wearing your mask,” one Amazon associate at the ACY5 fulfillment center in Swedesboro, New Jersey, told Recode in late May, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job for speaking to the press. “Even if you’re 5 feet apart, they’re always yelling at you to be 6 feet apart.”
The associate said she has ample access to masks, wipes, and hand sanitizer, and that overall she feels safe at work. But she said that circumstances seem to vary from warehouse to warehouse. She said her facility had only had one confirmed employee case of Covid-19 so far in May, whereas she heard another site nearby in West Deptford, New Jersey, has dozens of cases. (Jumpp’s report shows over 20 recorded cases at the West Deptford site as of late June.)
“It’s like a chain restaurant, like a Chili’s or something — each franchise may be run differently,” the Amazon associate said.
In an interview with Recode in mid-May, Clark, the Amazon senior vice president, said he doesn’t agree that there were significant inconsistencies in the company’s response to the pandemic. “I’d love to say that we were perfect. But I don’t think anybody had a playbook for this thing,” Clark said. “We’ve learned as we’ve gone, and I think we’ve executed incredibly well.”
Patrick Penfield, a professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University, told Recode he thinks Amazon is working hard to protect its workers from the coronavirus.
“The problem is this coronavirus is something we’ve never ever encountered before — this is the dilemma,” Penfield said.
Clark told Recode the company faced challenges in parts of March “where in every part of the supply chain — even the medical community — getting enough sanitizer and some of those things were very challenging.
“But for weeks we’ve been in a place where we’ve procured enough supplies where at every piece of the operation, we now have overages to support what teams need,” he said in the second week of May.
Amazon has not been alone in struggling with the challenge of keeping the coronavirus out of its facilities.
Walmart was forced to temporarily close a Pennsylvania warehouse in early April after a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases over a short period. Amazon’s biggest retail rival also faced Covid-19 outbreaks in several of its supercenter stores, including a Massachusetts location that was temporarily shuttered after 23 employees there tested positive. The activist group United for Respect says that at least 22 Walmart associates have died of Covid-19. And a dozen US state attorneys general wrote to Walmart in early June with demands over what they say has been a subpar coronavirus response when it comes to the health and safety of Walmart employees and customers.
Costco, too, has come under fire from some of its employees for not standardizing health and safety protocols early enough in the US despite having stores in Asia, where the virus appears to have first spread.
Indeed, government lockdown measures in the US began on a city-by-city basis, creating confusion for companies with a presence in hundreds of municipalities across the country. Even so, Amazon says it began reworking its US warehouses ahead of national guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to allow for social distancing based on World Health Organization guidelines it was already following in its European facilities.
In Clark’s interview with Recode and in Amazon statements to other media outlets, the company has argued that it took protective measures earlier than many of its peers, and, though it would not specify which ones, it seemed to allude to Walmart. Amazon began issuing masks to US warehouse employees on April 2; while Walmart did so around the same time, the brick-and-mortar giant did not make them mandatory until April 17.
On April 30, Amazon vowed to spend $4 billion over three months to invest its profits on things like mass Covid-19 testing and expanding paid sick leave for its employees. As of May 13, Amazon announced that it had supplied 93 million sanitizing sprays and wipes, more than 100 million masks, and more than 2,000 new hand-washing stations across its fulfillment center network.
And though Amazon ended its pandemic pay increases and unlimited time off in June, Clark told Recode that employees still have several other leave options, including ones that apply to parents with school-age children or employees with preexisting conditions. As of mid-May, Clark said more than 10,000 employees have used those other time off options, though Bloomberg reported in June that some warehouse employees are having trouble accessing these options because of a highly automated, and overwhelmed, human resources operation.
But even with all the precautions that Amazon has implemented since mid-March, the coronavirus continues to spread in the US, and it’s still infecting Amazon’s workers. Workers told Recode that Amazon’s refusal to disclose exactly how many people are infected at each site makes showing up for work more stressful than it needs to be.
“People want to be proud of the company, but they are feeling quite ashamed and deciding whether they can change [it] from within or need to leave”
When there are confirmed Covid-19 cases in its facilities, Amazon said that it reviews video footage to identify every person an infected worker has been in close contact with and then notifies those individuals so they can go on paid leave. “We alert every person at the site anytime there is a confirmed diagnosis,” Amazon has said in a statement. “This alert includes when the person with the confirmed diagnosis was last in the building.”
Clark told Recode that he believes a better metric for determining whether Amazon warehouses are safe is the number of employees it quarantines after they come into close contact with a coworker who later tested positive. Internal data shows that as of the first week in May, Amazon has only needed to quarantine one additional employee for every four confirmed cases, Clark said.
“It means that the infections that we see … usually come from spread within a community, not inside the building.”
The company said it also interviews those who test positive to see whether they have had close contact with coworkers outside of work, too. But several employees told Recode they worked closely with someone they know was later confirmed to have Covid-19, and had not heard anything from the company, even several days after potential exposure.
Amazon’s Cheeseman said the company uses CDC guidance for what constitutes exposure — standing within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes — or local health guidance if it’s stricter. She added that employees have several ways to escalate concerns if they think they were exposed.
When Recode asked dozens of warehouse workers if they thought Amazon was any better or worse than competitors like Walmart in how they treat workers, many said that those companies could be just as bad. But they said they expected more from Amazon and its leadership because of the company’s success.
“What really makes me mad is that Jeff Bezos is one of the richest men on the planet,” said Billie Jo Ramey, a worker at the DTW1 fulfillment center in Romulus, Michigan, on a call with reporters in April. “He can afford to keep us safe.”
What happens next
More than three months after the pandemic transformed Amazon from being a convenient service to an essential one providing supplies to millions of homebound Americans, the company has found itself in a delicate situation. Amazon itself calls its workers “heroes.” But many of these warehouse heroes — and their corporate colleagues — are angry with their employer in ways they’ve never been before.
“It’s a new moment when hundreds of workers are taking action and when tens of thousands more are signing our petitions and expressing their solidarity online,” Dania Rajendra, director of Athena, a coalition of nonprofits and organizations scrutinizing Amazon’s business practices, told Recode. “People who are not the executives of extremely wealthy corporations are realizing they’re in this together.”
While unions have succeeded in organizing some of Amazon’s European workforce, no US facility has been unionized. The last attempt, in 2014, ended with a small group of Amazon technicians at a Delaware facility voting against unionization. In the past, Amazon has staved off attempts at warehouse organizing by monitoring and discouraging any preliminary signs of worker solidarity talk on the shop floor and by conceding on some of workers’ demands before they escalate further.
This time, quelling organizers’ efforts won’t be so easy — but Amazon has long been preparing for the potential of unionization, which a former Amazon executive told Recode in April “is likely the single biggest threat to [Amazon’s] business model.”
As early as the 2000s, Amazon began tracking the potential for unionization at each of its warehouses, building a heat map in Excel to identify “hot spots” in its fulfillment network, a former senior leader in Amazon’s human resources department told Recode. This calculation was based on at least dozens of metrics, including employee survey data, timing of the last pay raise, the safety record of the facility, and even the financial strength of local unions, the former HR manager said.
According to this employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Amazon tracked these details to determine “where do we swoop in to figure out if there’s a problem with leadership or maybe there’s one particularly toxic employee who is really causing chaos.” Whole Foods, which Amazon acquired in 2017, now employs a similar union tracking system, Business Insider reported in April.
Cheeseman said she couldn’t confirm or deny the existence of the Excel-based unionizing-tracking tool because employees who would have overseen it no longer work for Amazon. But she acknowledged that Amazon does “monitor closely sites where employees have issues and concerns to make sure we’re solving them.”
Several current and former Amazon warehouse employees told Recode there have been more recent talks of unionization among rank-and-file employees, but also widespread fear that doing so could cost workers their jobs or other repercussions.
“When I worked there, I joked that if I even said the word ‘union,’ I’d be kicked out. We called it [unions] the ‘u-word,’” Jumpp said. “There’s a lot of talk about unions, but I don’t know if they’ll work or not.”
While established unions like United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and RWDSU have been informally helping Amazon warehouse workers in pushing for better conditions, the first real step toward unionization — actively announcing a bargaining unit and calling for a vote — hasn’t happened yet.
Even if Amazon workers are still a long way from officially unionizing, their organizing and the public attention it’s drawn provide an opening to politicians ready to seize an opportunity to rein in the unparalleled power the company has consolidated in the past decade.
On May 12, a group of 13 US state attorneys general pressed the company for data on Covid-linked worker infections. New York City’s Commission on Human Rights and the New York state attorney general are investigating Christian Smalls’s firing. Some Republican lawmakers, like Sen. Josh Hawley, meanwhile, have used the pandemic as a time to push the company on antitrust issues, arguing that their business practices are destroying mom-and-pop businesses.
The House Judiciary Committee, which is investigating Amazon and the three other Big Tech giants (Facebook, Google, and Apple), recently asked Jeff Bezos to testify on issues including how Amazon competes with its own marketplace merchants. Bezos said he would show up, under certain conditions. And the Federal Trade Commission has been conducting an informal probe of Amazon since last year. These investigations, if they result in regulation or new antitrust laws, could present an existential threat to Amazon’s grip on the online retail market.
And Democrats like Sen. Booker are using Amazon as an opportunity to mount a full-throated defense of stronger labor rights in the US more broadly, drawing on the larger economic anxieties Americans face during the recession.
“I strongly believe that we must make sure that labor has a voice, has the right to organize, and has the power to bargain and strike,” Booker told Recode. “If not, we are going to see the country continue in this dull and perverse direction. … It really is a worrisome trend that you’re seeing in this country where people who are working hard every day are finding themselves economically compromised, economically fragile.”
Booker and the other politicians who scrutinize Amazon do so because they know the company affects far more people than the hundreds of thousands it directly employs. Amazon delivered nearly 3.5 billion packages globally last year — and that figure doesn’t even count Amazon orders delivered by partners like UPS or USPS. This has helped make Bezos the richest man in the world; meanwhile, most Americans haven’t received a meaningful raise in decades.
Until significant political action or regulation on Amazon comes — if it ever does — labor organizers are trying to shame the company into action, like when Sen. Bernie Sanders helped pressure Amazon to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour back in 2018, or how in 2019, local activists, labor groups, and politicians in New York City pushed Amazon to withdraw its plans to build a new headquarters in Long Island City.
“It’s very difficult to see this [employee activism] movement dying out when to a certain degree it’s successful,” said an Amazon corporate employee who is active on worker organizing around climate change and warehouse worker rights.
And then there’s the impact of all this on Amazon’s loyal and ever-growing base of customers. If they start to perceive Amazon as a company that, on the whole, is weakening rather than strengthening the working class, will their allegiance to two-day shipping and Prime subscriptions change? If customers demand changes from Amazon, could it raise the bar for labor not just at Amazon but at other retailers that imitate the company’s business practices in order to compete with it?
Amazon is “a technological leader, the first place where most Americans turn to shop online, and a hugely influential political power,” former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich told Recode. “So its employee practices are watched and likely to be emulated by every other big American company. When it treats its workers badly, those tawdry practices reverberate across the country.”
Some workers are skeptical that customers will care, no matter what happens in Amazon’s warehouses.
“The American psyche is so selfish that it doesn’t matter what goes on in there,” said one longtime Amazon warehouse worker in Lexington, Kentucky, who’s been internally vocal about what he feels is a lack of sanitation at his facility. “It’s, ‘Just get my package to me. Just get my package to me.’ The company is feeding off of that because on the walls and inside the facility it specifically states, ‘We are customer-obsessed.’”
For now, customers are by no means rushing to cancel their Prime subscriptions, even if polls indicate that their overall perception of the company is declining. But worker unrest presents a long-term reputational problem for Amazon. Major tech companies like Facebook, Uber, and Google have all made missteps in recent years, from failing to protect user data to allegedly covering up sexual harassment issues, that have stained their reputations and sometimes cost them revenue.
Worker unrest at Amazon has higher stakes, though: It has ramifications for the rest of the economy. Amazon has been ascending to dominance for years, and the pandemic has sped it up. What do its employees, who are a key part of this success, deserve? And what power should they have in shaping the direction of the company?
“I think the state of affairs in our economy is that people are used to it being broken and not working for them,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler. “That’s the way the economy has been for some time, and not just due to Covid. But workers should be able to have higher expectations, to have power and strength as working people. To go to the table [with management] and say, ‘We should be in this together.’”
Even after all their agitations for change during the pandemic, Amazon workers are still fighting to be heard.
During his interview with Recode in May, Amazon’s Clark twice brought up Smalls, the warehouse worker whose firing sparked other employees’ anger toward the company. Despite the internal and external criticism Amazon faced over how its top lawyer called Smalls “not smart or articulate” in a leaked memo, Clark used Smalls in the interview as an example of what dissenting workers have done wrong.
In a recent interview with Recode, Smalls reflected on the significance of the memo that propelled him into the media spotlight.
“When the leaked memo came out, it exposed who Jeff Bezos is as a person, who’s around him, who’s giving him counsel — the types of conversations that they have about their employees, and their focus on smearing me. That tells you right there they don’t care about us,” said Smalls. “It’s never going to be Amazon v. Chris Smalls. It’s Amazon v. the people.”