My experience as an Amazon warehouse worker was, at best, completely mediocre. I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. Sometimes I liked it. Sometimes I didn’t like it. I’ve had worse jobs — at Walmart, I was paid a lot less for a more difficult job as a booster team stocker. At Walmart, it was always a puzzle to find out where an item went on the shelves. At Amazon, a computer tells you where something goes. There’s no guessing. Most of the time, however, it was both boring and extremely isolating, since it’s just you at your station 90% of the time.
I was hired at Amazon very quickly and conveniently. I am a teacher, and when I didn’t get hired to work at summer school I was bummed — and I knew that I had to find some work, and very quickly.
At Amazon, my job was as a picker. There are also stowers, packers, tote runners, counters, people who organize totes at downstack (where totes are prepared for the station), people who repair malfunctioning Kiva robots, and people who take items off the floor. There are janitors, security guards, and social distance enforcers. The managers I’ve worked with had all treated me very kindly, save the couple of times I was caught using my phone while picking, but that was polite reprimanding that I deserved.
I don’t know if this is the kind of job I could have handled for the long term. I’m lucky I only worked there this summer, and my more experienced co-workers showed me the ropes whenever I was having trouble. I had to switch out my shoes after about two days of work — my feet were killing me. I was more tired and was not able to keep up running as much as I’m used to.
There is no one universal experience in the warehouse. It’s kind of like the military — there are a lot of different responsibilities you can have. The facility is absolutely huge and easy to get lost in. There are two metrics that Amazon uses to evaluate a warehouse picker: units per hour and takt time (the amount of time it takes you to process one item). Luckily, I had learning ambassadors, experienced employees who teach you the job, who taught me how to pick fast. But the only time I really interacted with managers was if my rate was too slow and they needed to tell me to speed up. The goal was to pick 350 units per hour and have a takt time of seven seconds.
At first, I really struggled with my rate. I was picking about 250 units per hour, and saw it as flat-out impossible to get a takt time of 11 seconds on a good shift. Someone came to talk to me about my rate and examined my picking to see why I was going so slow. She showed me a couple of tricks to pick faster and said that there were no repercussions because I was new, but that management was going to start writing up people who were working too slow.
I guess something just clicked one day during my third week of work, where I picked about 400 units per hour and had a takt time of around eight seconds. I still don’t totally understand how some people pick so fast, but like any job, you get better at it over time.
The fact that these pods malfunction so regularly makes me optimistic that these warehouse jobs aren’t going to be automated any time soon.
On many shifts, I would get messages on the computer at my station, some that ranked my performance amidst my co-worker pickers. At first, my performance was horrible. I was consistently in the 20th to 30th percentile of pickers. I would also get messages that my takt time was too slow. Fortunately, I got better and ended the job consistently in the 80th percentile of pickers on my floor. I know this might sound brutal to some, but for me it was easy to just not pay too much attention to it. I saw it as nothing more than a message on the computer. Experience made me better at the job, but I also couldn’t help but feel like ranking the productivity of your workers was a little problematic.
Despite the fact that I was considered “experienced” just four weeks into the job, a big item that was both heavy and the size of the entire bin would still kill my takt rate, as did any missing items. Sometimes, an object fell onto the floor and the Kiva pods (self-driving car robots that carry big bins) stop moving. We create tickets on the computer called “andons” which is just a fancy technical term for reporting technical difficulties. The fact that these pods malfunctioned so regularly made me optimistic that these warehouse jobs aren’t going to be automated any time soon. However, I did wish a malfunctioning pod or missing item didn’t reflect so poorly on your rate, which is the ultimate determination of your performance. And most of the time, there’s simply nothing you can do about either.
There’s a rumor I hear about Amazon warehouses that management doesn’t let you go to the bathroom. I got two 30-minute breaks, but that might differ from warehouse to warehouse. No manager was going to penalize me if I went to the bathroom when I wasn’t on one of my 30-minute breaks, as long as I was able to keep up my rate.
I’ve always tried to make sure I was doing well enough and working fast enough before I took a bathroom break, so there’s certainly a lot of productivity pressure imposed to not go to the bathroom unless you’re in a place where you can sacrifice part of the speed of your rate.
I’ve only worked at an Amazon warehouse during the coronavirus pandemic, so I don’t know what they’ve changed exactly from pre-Covid times. I think Amazon handled it as best as they could. There is no shortage whatsoever of cleaning supplies. You didn’t have to go far at all to find disinfecting spray and hand sanitizer, which were placed at every station, every break table, and at all the water dispensers.
On one day, we had to carry around social distance trackers that beeped when we were within six feet of another person. That was just one day, though, so it seems like they were just beta-testing the trackers. However, there were employees designated in hot spots like break rooms who strictly enforced social distancing. I don’t envy the job of trying to police human behavior, but they did a very good job and were firm in making sure everyone is six feet apart in those hot spots. Masks were required, but I didn’t see any enforcement and I can tell you that it’s not easy to keep a mask on for that many hours of physically demanding work. Plus, during breaks, you had to take off your mask to eat. If you didn’t have a mask coming in, they provided you with a disposable mask.
After you enter through the Amazon gates, there are monitors that checked your distance to someone else. If you were flashing red on the monitor, you were too close to someone else. If you were flashing green, you were good. After you enter, there are temperature checks. If there’s anything wrong or abnormal, there are employees at the entrance who will double-check your temperature. If your temperature is over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, you are sent home, and I can only hope that workers who have been sent home are paid normally, but according to Business Insider, some employees say that they aren’t being completely paid for time off.
The only thing I think Amazon can do better in terms of social distancing is the entrance. I have never seen as big of a crowd in the warehouse as at 6 p.m. every single day, at the end of my shifts, where hundreds of people were in a hurry to get home as soon as possible, while other hundreds of people were rushing through the doors from the other direction to clock in on time.
To be clear, I’m trying to get home as fast as possible too, and the parking lot at that time is a big logjam. I had been stuck in the Amazon parking lot for 30 minutes before I was able to begin my commute home. Other workers were running as fast as they could to make the bus.
The fact that one big wave of shifts was ending and another big wave of shifts was starting is probably the biggest reason why crowding happens at the entrance. A temporary solution would be to simply better stagger shift times.
I never hated the job as much as the time I was asked to be in charge of taking the totes off of the manual pick and stow stations. Sometimes, there are too many pickers and everyone doesn’t get assigned a station. Some pickers are left on “standby,” which means they have free time until they’re assigned to a station. I’m not going to lie, but I really didn’t mind being on standby.
There are automated pick stations at Amazon where pickers’ totes automatically go into the conveyor and to the packers, and then there are manual stations for pickers and stowers, where we were required to bring full, heavy totes to the conveyors.
I did this one day, and I was the only person on my floor loading and pushing full flatbed carts of extremely heavy totes to the conveyor. Every time I unloaded over 60 full totes on the conveyor, I would go back to the manual stations and see more full totes piled up — it was like a never-ending Sisyphean toil. Another person probably would have helped, but that’s the job I never wanted to work in the warehouse again.
It made me realize how privileged I was, to both have been a seasonal employee and to have had one of the easier jobs in the warehouse on most days.
I didn’t love this job, but my experience wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the horror stories I’ve read in the media. But what most people don’t know is the isolation of the job in the first place. I had whole days where I didn’t talk to anyone (unless there was a problem). I wish there was more social interaction as a picker, but considering the pandemic, maybe it’s good that there isn’t. Still, the isolating nature of the job is a benefit to Amazon since it’s part of what makes it so difficult for warehouse workers to organize.
All my interactions with other workers had been extremely cordial. My managers were very friendly, helpful, and understanding. I feel like most people genuinely wanted to support me and help me succeed. And while I’m sure that varies from fulfillment center to fulfillment center and manager to manager, I’ve really enjoyed interacting with all the people at my warehouse. They share similar concerns about making ends meet as well as similar complaints about malfunctioning robots or demanding performance rates.
Amazon has its issues with forcing its workers to be more productive, but an untold villain that people don’t want to hear about is the customer. The customer wants convenience, with free shipping and packages sent within a two-day time period.
What people don’t like to think about is that convenience has a human price. After working at Amazon, I realize the biggest difference I can make toward better treatment for workers is to stop shopping there.
Not shopping at Amazon seems like a doomsday proposal to me — which just goes to show how Amazon, as a company, has taken a larger-than-life presence in our digital marketplace. Covid-19 has certainly exacerbated that and raised the demand for e-commerce.
Putting pressure on the company to give better pay, provide better benefits, accept unionization, and establish less demanding working conditions comes by hurting Amazon fiscally. If enough people stop shopping at Amazon, the company might react by laying off employees in response to lower demands. But if Amazon is hurt fiscally, it might have no other choice but to give in to public demand, like any big international corporation.
We have decried working conditions for Amazon workers, and those complaints are valid — however, what we often fail to realize is that part of the reason Amazon has succeeded is because customers are addicted to convenience. But that convenience comes at a price for warehouse workers. I wish that I would have been more patient when an Amazon package didn’t arrive on a given day, now that I know what goes into getting that package to me.
Amazon wants to please the customer by whatever means necessary. That philosophy is what helped make it the biggest company in the world. It’s on us, as consumers, to change that.